Breaking down barriers: my journey to the European Parliament presidential election


Picture of Helga Stevens
Helga Stevens

Helga Stevens is an MEP for Belgium’s New Flemish Alliance and was a candidate for the EP Presidency

As the first female deaf Member of the European Parliament I am naturally a supporter of rebalancing under-representation in political and economic debates. While I do not solely focus on gender or disability in my Parliamentary work (I also work on migration, security and privacy), these issues do play a large role in my day-to-day life as a politician and advocate for people with disabilities. Equality and non-discrimination are the fundamental values that underpin all my efforts at the European Parliament, matched with a passion forged by the challenges I have dealt with throughout my life.

I was the first deaf lawyer in Belgium, finishing my law studies in 1993 at the Catholic University of Leuven. I have previously studied in the United States (as a Rotary exchange student in Kirkwood, a suburb of St Louis, Missouri), and also studied in the United Kingdom (as an Erasmus exchange student in Leeds) and at the University of California, Berkeley, where I completed my Master’s in Law. These experiences gave me valuable international experience as well as fluency in American and British Sign Language and English written and spoken language skills from which I still benefit today.

There were challenges: much of my education was spent in mainstream schools where I did not have a sign language interpreter to support me in the classroom. It was only through my time in Kirkwood that I learned that accessibility and the provision of sign language interpreters are (or should be) ‘normal’ parts of equal treatment in education and in the workplace.

This experience led me to spend time working for the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund in the United States, and the California Center for Law and the Deaf and, after having joined the Brussels bar, in the non-profit sector for a number of disability-related NGOs. Here I saw first-hand the issues faced by people with disabilities at a regional, national and European level.

Equality and non-discrimination are the fundamental values that underpin all my efforts at the European Parliament

As a lawyer my impact was limited to one client at a time. In politics I had the opportunity to have a more significant and longer-lasting influence on a greater number of people. Being aware of the very real and practical barriers that people with disabilities encounter on a daily basis, I believe I can take a much more realistic and holistic view of legislation and policies and assess them based on their practical effect in daily life.

I was a Member of the Flemish parliament from 2004 to 2014. For seven of those ten years I was also a city councillor in Ghent and a Belgian senator. In 2014 I was elected to the European Parliament and became a Vice-President of the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) Group. From the beginning I have also been a Co-Chair of the Disability Intergroup, an informal cross-party group that meets regularly to bring disability and accessibility issues to the forefront of Parliament’s political debate.

Having spent time in NGOs I understand how difficult it can be for civil society organisations to reach out to politicians, especially ministers and other high-ranking officials. So when I am abroad on official parliamentary business I always try to ensure that I meet with local disability and deaf organisations. I listen to their concerns and pass these on to the relevant government representatives or put them in touch with each other. I feel it is one of my responsibilities and something that is relatively easy for me to achieve, while it might take a local or national organisation years to have the same network and contacts.

When it comes to accessibility, for me the most important factor is making sure that change is sustainable. There had only ever been one other deaf MEP, and the system in place for that MEP was not fully suited to my situation and needs. Ever since I arrived at the Parliament, I have been working to change the system and rules of procedure, not only for fellow MEPs with a disability, but for staff and interns too.

I work with two sign language interpreters on a daily basis, matched to my linguistic profile: one works with both spoken English and American Sign Language, while the other uses Flemish Sign Language and spoken Dutch. This enables me to have meetings in both Dutch and English, which is essential in a multilingual European environment. To protect the status of sign language and improve the status of sign language interpreters in Europe I also initiated a resolution that was almost unanimously adopted in plenary in November 2016.

When it comes to accessibility, the most important factor is making sure that change is sustainable

I also regularly ensure that public meetings at the European Parliament, such as committee sessions and hearings, are accessible to all. This has led to my office becoming a contact point for accessibility. While in the short term this is positive for my personal visibility in the Parliament, I am working to change the situation so that the Parliament itself takes over this responsibility and becomes a more inclusive workplace and institution – a key theme of my campaign to become the Parliament’s president.

Three of the seven candidates in the January 2017 presidential election were women (the figure has never been higher). But since 1979, when the European Parliament was first directly elected, there have only been two female presidents: Simone Veil and Nicole Fontaine. Italian centre-right MEP Antonio Tajani won the election, continuing a 15-year run of male presidents.

Some people claimed my candidacy was merely a political stunt or a statement, and not a real campaign. But that is not true. My candidacy was the first to be announced. It was supported by a structured campaign with a manifesto, a website and a whole campaign team working tirelessly for weeks. I would almost go so far as to say that it was my candidacy that sparked a real presidential race with candidates from all political parties – something not seen for many years.

But of course a very important side effect was an increase in visibility of sign language, and indeed disability and gender issues. My campaign was not at all built on the fact that I am deaf or disabled; instead we focused on the role of the president, as well as the gender factor. My team and I felt that being disabled was irrelevant to the job of the European Parliament president, and so the issue did not constitute part of my election manifesto. But it was mainly through my previous collaborative work on disability and equality that I was able to gather cross-party support throughout the whole European Parliament.

Being both deaf and a woman can be challenging and sometimes frustrating on a daily basis. However, I have learnt to stay positive and to embrace my role as a ‘change-maker’ for a large group of people, which includes women, persons with disabilities, ethnic minorities, and all others who might be in a disadvantaged situation that they are unable to change by themselves.

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