Both the German and the Austrian Constitution stipulate the legal right to freedom of choice of medical providers. Yet this is still not an implicit option for people with disabilities. That’s why the "Information Center for People with Disabilities BIZEPS; Center for a Self-Determined Life" (Behinderteninformationszentrum BIZEPS Zentrum für selbstbestimmtes Leben) in Vienna is dedicated to facilitating accessibility of medical practices.
After all, accessibility should not end once you have made it past the front door. The project titled "Persons with disabilities in Viennese health care facilities" has been around since 2001. Now the BIZEPS team has decided to put medical group practices under a (accessibility) microscope.
"To analyze the as-is state, we conducted extensive research in 2001. We soon came to realize that Vienna has very few accessible medical practices. Within the scope of the project, we established a task force that met on a regular basis and included people with different types of disabilities. The task force also included non-disabled representatives from a variety of organizations. We shared our experiences, defined requests, and expectations and developed a list of demands. However, the most important experience for all of us was learning from and with each other," BIZEPS project manager Annemarie Srb-Rössler sums up the mission.
"The task force decided to survey the medical practices, so people with disabilities are able to glean information at home prior to their office visits." Over the past few years, the www.praxisplan.at web page was created in close collaboration with the Vienna Medical Association. It lets patients locate physicians, who fit their specific needs. Currently, information about nearly 800 medical practices from all over Vienna can be accessed online, in parts including the complete dimensions of doors, bathrooms or exam tables. This list is continuously updated and scheduled to also include information about medical group practices in the near future.
"At the moment, Vienna has 101 medical group practices; 67 of them are accessible with no steps or via a ramp, though the ramps don’t always comply with the ÖNORM standard (editor’s note: this Austrian norm is comparable to German DIN standards). We are currently in the process of researching how many of these medical practices also include bathrooms with disability access in accordance with the respective standards or feature additional important accommodations," the project manager adds.
Those, who have been to Vienna quickly realize that in spite of the picturesque setting and cultural assets of this former capital of the Holy Roman Empire, there is a lack of accessibility. Most notably, the protection of the many monuments that were influenced by the Art Nouveau and Baroque periods often gets in the way of renovation intentions, while remodeling costs are frequently also a major factor.
"Monument protection or major expenses are not sufficient grounds for apathy in this area," Srb-Rössler, who uses a wheelchair and personal assistance services, accepts no excuses when it comes to this subject matter. That being said, it’s also undeniable that historic building structures occasionally pose a problem. "We often face uncertainties when it comes to monument protection because every now and then the necessary structural measures are not permitted."
At least when it comes to new medical buildings, accessibility is a main emphasis. Fortunately, medical practices at new locations are always accessible for people with disabilities without requiring assistance. Srb-Rössler adds this is also due to the Federal Disability Equality Act, which went into effect in 2006 and is aimed at equal participation in society by persons with disabilities and promotes self-determination. "Since then, accessibility of doctors‘ offices has notably increased over recent years."
Anyone currently searching for general practitioners at Praxisplan.at will find 277 medical facilities that were surveyed by BIZEPS. And although it might still take a few years until people with disabilities will truly be able to fully exercise their right to freely choose a practitioner, "Vienna is on the right track," Srb-Rössler says with optimism.