In August, I undertook a scary life change by moving to Denmark to study for a year. It was something that I had researched, spent a lot of money in buying adequate thermal underwear for and, of course, had gotten very excited about! However, in the time that I was there, many things became apparent, in the ‘Land of Equality’: I had no equal rights there.
On the first day of my Erasmus exchange to Denmark, a brash American woman shouted the word ‘ligeberettigelse’ at us. Was she quite alright? This rather complex word is the Danish word for equality. The brash American continued. Apparently, this word was the most important word for us to know whilst studying in Denmark. Forget ‘hygge’, ignore ‘lykke’, ‘ligeberettigelse’ was the only one to remember.
According to the Danish tourism website, equality is an ‘ingrained value’[i]to the Danes. The site states how the poverty rates, gender equality levels and LGBT rights are some of the best in Europe. From what I experienced in my time there, I cannot argue with this. Women and men appear to both take responsibility for home affairs, bread winning and child care. No one really cared if you were part of the LGBT community or heterosexual, and from the prices of items in even the cheapest shops (I’m talking minimum £4 for a roll-on deodorant) the poverty situation didn’t appear to be all that pressing.
The one bugbear though, the one thing that seemed to let all of this wonderful equality down was the lack of acknowledgement for disabled people. As a wheelchair user, this concerns me.
Before I left the UK, believe me, I did my research. For example, on the Copenhagen tourist site, we find the phrase, ‘it is easy to get around, also for people who have limp impairments or need the service of a wheelchair.’[ii]Equally, the Lonely Planet site writes that ‘Denmark is improving access to buildings, transport and even forestry areas and beaches all the time.’[iii]This all sounded very promising.
Upon arrival to my university campus and collection of the keys to my new flat, my partner and I were told to make our own way there. Fair enough. We had 4 suitcases, 2 backpacks, two accommodation ring binders and a welcome bag. Would it be possible to get a taxi? The short answer, no. The long answer, still no, with an uncertainty as to why. We shrugged it off and began what should have been a 20-minute walk to our new accommodation. Thus, started the hurdles (both metaphorical and literal).
After two hours, our walk was complete. This walk had not been so straight forward as Google Maps had made out. The major issue was the fact that practically every single kerb involved a ‘ramp’ that was at the very least a 45-degree angle, which my powerchair, mighty as she is, could not handle. This meant that our 4 suitcases, two backpacks, folders, bag and also me ended up stranded in the middles of roads and tram lines as my partner struggled to push and pull me out of danger. It can be noted here that not only did no one stop to see if we required assistance, but passers-by did stop to stare, laugh or say something in Danish. I’m sure they were quite quick-witted and rather hilarious comments, but unfortunately, we were lacking in both the language competencies and the patience to understand. It was particularly interesting to watch cars drive at full speed towards me, swerving at the last second. If I’m to die young, I don’t wish it to be whilst straddling a curb in Denmark.
Nevertheless, she persisted. As we reached the flat, we nodded to each other, sure in the knowledge that it would be better from here on.
The next few days went by with us being tourists and filling up our new home with the necessities, like plants and a hobo kettle. The one thing that struck me though was that every time I left the house with my wheelchair or crutches, adult Danes would stop, stare and point. This reaction is normal from children. They find the powerchair fun. I had assumed that adults were able to moderate their responses. In IKEA, we borrowed a wheelchair which both shocked and astonished every other shopper (Nia even had to leave her license as collateral in case we decided to speed away with their chair – there are probably better ones to steal; it didn’t have any foot pads.). In grocery shops, I was gawped at and glared at. The kerb issue, which I had assumed I would find a way around, continued to present a difficulty every time I attempted to go outside.
Therefore, on the ‘Welcome Week’ to my university, when the opportunity for a question and answer session was presented, my partner asked the question ‘If there is such a high level of equality in Denmark, why is it so difficult for disabled people?’
Had we missed something obvious? Were we struggling for no reason? The lecturer began a tirade which essentially boiled down to a few points. Danish equality is perfect, with no room for questions. Disabled people have no issues. If you have an issue (he works with ‘one of them’ – meaning a wheelchair user) then you should hire a 24/7 helper. It is your fault that you struggle, not Denmark’s. Although these can be brushed off as ‘just one person’s opinion’, he summarised (albeit in a rather vile and aggressive manner) the whole country’s attitude towards disability.
If a wheelchair user wants to get the bus, they have to take someone with them. There is no automatic ramp and the driver will not pull down the manual ramp for you, which is impossible to do from a chair. So, take a taxi. From all the phone calls that I have made, there seems to be exactly one taxi that can take a wheelchair in the city of Aarhus. Note that it ‘can’ take a taxi. When you call to request it, you will be told that perhaps the driver ‘doesn’t want to’ (something I have actually been told) or that it is unavailable until tomorrow or the day after. What about the train? Train stations tend to have one ‘easy’ entrance which involves a few flights of stairs. The alternative I found (getting to Viby station) involved having to attempt to get up to pull my own chair up and down kerbs, and, the piece de resistance, down a dual carriageway. Upon getting to the station, there is no ramp or drive on situation to the train carriage. Ultimately, I found myself being lifted on by three Danish men and an old lady.
If you want to get groceries, you have to have someone with you, because you will get stuck on kerbs and roads. Essentially, if you have a disability, be prepared to lose all sense of independence and adulthood. If you question it, be prepared to be told that you are wrong.
So, why the difficulty?
In 2019, a European Union Commission found that:
Danish Institute for Human Rights’ Disability Index shows that in nine out of ten indicators persons with disabilities are in a disadvantageous position when compared to the rest of the population.1 The nine indicators are: (1) equality and non-discrimination, (2) violence, (3) accessibility and mobility, (4) freedom and personal integrity, (5) living independently and being included in the community, (6) education, (7) health, (8) employment, and (9) social protection.[iv]
In addition, the new Danish discrimination act that was introduced in July 2018 ‘does not include an obligation to provide reasonable accommodation and accessibility.’[v]This essentially legalises discrimination by omission. By there being no responsibility to make adaptions, disabled people have no hope of independence.
However, the idea of making changes does not fit with the Danish ideal of ‘equality’. Adjustments count as special treatments, and, as the Laws of Jante, a Scandinavian social code, dictate, one does not deserve special treatment – ‘do not to think anyone cares about you.’[vi]
However, conventional equality would suggest that an adaption means you are not being cared about, but you are being placed on a level playing field. Unreasonable is expecting a man to carry your bag because you are a woman, not needing someone to open a ramp because you can’t stand up.
Danish ‘equality’ rests on the principle that everyone can do with the same. It does not recognise that some people have social barriers put up through conscious or unconscious bias or literal physical barriers put up through people who assume the needs of others (it is incredible how many able-bodied people have told me that there is no problem for wheelchair use in Denmark). If someone is drowning, someone falls out of a plane and someone else is hit by a bus, a parachute will only help one person. One size fits all does notwork for a civilisation where everyone’s needs are vastly different and ignoring those needs does notmake you an equal society.
In Music and Silence, Rose Tremain writes that ‘…together we shall see what is in this great kingdom of Denmark, and on this journey, you will put from you all the sufferings of recent years and regain your joy in the world.’[vii]Personally, I only regained my ‘joy in the world’ when I crossed the border out of Denmark and regained my human rights.