From Useless-Eaters to Useless Characters

Participation, I believe, is the most important aspect of democracy. In other words, participation and democracy are inseparable terms. Participation, again, has many facets. It can be economic participation, social participation or political participation. Also, various groups in society have different approach towards participation based on their origin, sex, nationality and physical characters. For instance, women have less possibilities of participation compared to men or local people can participate in different activities more easily than foreigners or ethnic minorities in different countries. Among all these diverse groups of people, people with disabilities have less possibilities to participate on social, economic and political levels. Among all these facets, political participation is the most important fundamental human right but has historically not been realized even in developed democracies due to social conventions. Political participation in this article is aimed to highlight political participation of people with disabilities in Germany.

Germany, like many other countries, also provided a tough ground for people with disabilities throughout history. Starting from Nazi’s belief of “useless eaters” about people with disabilities to Jan W. Van Deth concept of “useless character”- people who are inactive in politics, Germany still has to travel a long road towards inclusion, especially participation in decision-making. For instance, it was in 2019, that Germany allowed people with disabilities who need guardians so that they can participate in elections and decision-making.

Now the question is why it took such a long time for Germany to allow people with disabilities to participate in decision-making. Reasons abound. For instance, If we go back into the pages of German history, we come to know that Germany did not only legalized but also justified the killings of its citizens, especially people with disabilities. The first law that passed in Germany allowing forced sterilization against those regarded as “unfit” was “Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring” in 1933. It is estimated that between 1933 and 1939, 360,000 people were subjected to forced sterilization. In order to speed up the process of killing, Nazi started another program with the name “Euthanasia”. Under this program, many children with disabilities were killed through different means and the bodies were burned in ovens called crematoria. Under this program, 200,000 people with disabilities were murdered between 1940 and 1945. These killings were committed because Nazi’s considered people with disabilities to be “useless-eaters”.

Propaganda slide featuring two doctors working at an unidentified asylum for the mentally ill. The caption reads, “Life only as a burden.” Germany, 1934

These horrible experiences left people with disabilities far behind in almost all segments of societies. It was, however, after some struggle by parents of people with disabilities, that some kind of activism started for people with disabilities. Similarly, the political movements and activism in the 1960's also activated people with disabilities. In 1968, “Club 68” was founded which became the model for the so-called “Clubs of disabled people and their friends”. This was the first time that people with disabilities took the leading role of representing themselves. The movement, however, was in its infancy and was not strong enough. Franz Christoph highlighted this point in 1993 in these words “our movement is in a sorry state”.

The first bigger achievement of the disability movement was including an equality amendment for people with disabilities in the constitution in 1994. People with disabilities, however, were still facing discrimination even on institutional level. For instance, an infamous court decision in Oct 1997 decided that “people with disabilities do not have the right to an integrated education”.

Furthermore, participation in decision-making was still far away from people with disabilities. Another gigantic task towards inclusion was the establishment of a Professorship devoted to disability studies in 2004 IN Cologne. DS provided an intellectual ground to highlight the historically existing issues of people with disabilities in Germany like education, health, employment and politics. There is, however, less work done in the English language regarding political participation of people with disabilities in Germany.

It was after constant struggle of people with disabilities for many years that people with disabilities who were dependent on guardians were allowed to participate in elections after change in electoral laws in 2019. This new law included 85000 people with disabilities in politics and decision-making. These people were, in Pericles words, “not harmless but useless characters” because they were not involved in politics because of legal barriers.

Still, it is a big achievement for people with disabilities. Germany, however, has an aging society and statistics say that the number of people aged 67 and more will increase by 22´% between 2020 and 2035 which means that they will need special support in political participation. In order to enable these people, various topics need proper attention. These topics include barrier-free and accessible polling stations, collecting data on people with disabilities who are participating in elections, the extra-costs associated with disabilities during political campaigns, party funding distributions and lastly special training of returning officers to make electoral participation more inclusive and accessible.