Sascha Lang: people with disabilities must be involved in defining inclusion

Sascha Lang is a communications officer in Luxembourg’s Ministry of Family Affairs. He is passionate about communication and the media and is in charge of improving the diffusion of information about people with disabilities. His approach aims to empower people with disabilities and he is passionate about this mission as he has been blind since he was three years old. 

What does your work as communications officer involve? Can you tell us more about what you did before starting to work for the Ministry of Family Affairs?

My role as communications officer involves a number of tasks, one of them is to coordinate different parts of the action plan [editor’s note: The National Action Plan for the Implementation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities  (CRDPH), document in French], that is to say, to improve the communication of information about the work that we are carrying out in the Ministry. However, I do not work on media communication, my role mainly involves improving the flow of information between the people and the institutions who are concerned by this action plan and passing this information on to the general public.

In 1979, I joined the Institute for the Visually Impaired (Blanneschoul). But, in 1982, I started going to a normal school as it was thought that the Institute was not encouraging me enough. I passed the High School admission’s test in 1987. In 1997, I first got involved with the events sector and since then I have worked in this area doing things such as organising concerts, interviewing people and working on the radio. In 2000, I decided to pass Luxembourg’s public sector exam and since then, up until 31 March 2023, I worked for the post office in the collection department. But I only worked part time as I was still self-employed working in the events sector and organising concerts. On the 1 April, 2023, I changed jobs and started working for the Ministry of Family Affairs, but in parallel I have continued to work for myself on radio productions, programmes, Podcasts, round tables and conferences, all on the theme of inclusion.

You have been blind since you were three years old, something which is considered to be a disability. How would you define the word disability and what does the word inclusion mean to you? Do you think that inclusion has been achieved or, if not, when do you think it will be?

I do not define myself as a person with a disability. It is true that I have a disability, but this disability is influenced by external factors. For me, the notion of disability involves a lot more than just my body, as it does not influence my personality. I am who I am. It is the environment that I live in that affects me. It is not possible for the society to remove all barriers and this, in fact, means that people become disabled. This means that we are all disabled, in one way or another, even people who do not think that they have a disability.

Let me explain this with an example. Imagine that there are three people in front of a shop – a person in a wheelchair, a blind person and a person who does not have any money. None of these three people are able to go into the shop. If there is no wheelchair ramp, the first person is not able to go into it. The blind person could enter the shop, but they will not be able to see what they are buying and the poor person could also enter the shop but they will not have enough money to be able to buy anything in it. So, all three of these people have a very different type of disability.

In order to create inclusive societies, we – the people who are directly concerned by this – must be a lot more active ourselves. What I mean is, it is not possible to achieve inclusion just by thinking that society will include us, we must also be present and come into contact with people who do not have disabilities. We must interact with them and, through this, teach other people what inclusion is. If we clearly state what we need, people can adapt to us and we can also adapt to them, whether they have a disability or not.

Inclusion is not something that will ever be completely achieved as there is no such thing as 100% inclusion or even 100% accessibility. Today, the problem is that we are not where we should be concerning accessibilit. There are so many things that we need to change. That is not something that we can do quickly. Also, removing something that is a barrier to inclusion for me could create a barrier to inclusion for someone else. So, for me, inclusion is a continuous process, as our society is constantly evolving. It is a process that will never finish.

For me, the notion of disability involves a lot more than just my body, as it does not influence my personality. I am who I am. It is the environment that I live in that affects me. 

Luxembourg has already introduced a lot of actions and projects to improve the inclusion of employees with disabilities in the workplace. Which one of these projects is the most important for you and why?

For the moment I do not think that I am aware of any project that has allowed us to achieve greater inclusion. Although there are things such as employee with a disability status and we receive a lot of assistance, for me these actions do not go far enough, we are clearly lacking workplace personal assistants. But in general, there are two problems: the first is that there are not enough employers who dare to hire people with disabilities. This is why we need to raise more awareness around this subject. The other problem is that there are people with disabilities who are looking for jobs for which they do not have received enough training. This is why I am requesting the introduction of workplace personal assistants. For me, this is essential. We need workplace personal assistants because there are many people with disabilities who have a lot of skills. For example, I am thinking about the case of a judge in Trier who would not be able to carry out her job if she did not have assistance at work, as she is not able to turn the pages of her judgement documents by herself due to a disability that affects her use of her arms. This is just one example, but there are many others like it.

The State can intervene in different areas to allow employees with disabilities to be integrated in an adapted way. In particular, state sponsored benefits can cover wages, training, work station adaptation, professional equipment and even special training equipment. They can also cover transport costs. What is the impact of these benefits on the recruitment of people with disabilities/the whole of the job market?

These benefits have a significant impact but, again, the problem is that a lot of people do not know that they exist. The information about them is not clear enough in the private sector. Employers often do not know where to start, they do not know what information they can ask for or what benefits they can obtain. There are still too many contact points that are missing. We should create a coherent system that would make it possible for people to find all this information in one place. What is more, we need to raise awareness and further involve employers so that we can reduce their fears about hiring people with disabilities.

What personal experience have you had with these benefits during your professional career?

I have worked in the public sector, so things were easier for me, but I have to say that technical support is something that is very important. I have only ever had positive experiences.

The Ministry for Family Affairs, Integration and the Greater Region has started an initiative concerning inclusion assistance. Can you give us some more details about this initiative?

The idea is that, once they have found a job, a person with a disability will be accompanied by an inclusion assistant. This will allow connections to be made between the employer, their employees and the person with a disability to improve accessibility as well as so that the people who work for this employer can remove a certain number of obstacles. This also means that they will have a point of contact, because maybe a person with a disability will do things in a slightly different way, and that the different parties will be able to understand each other. That is the basic idea. In theory this is a great initiative, but the problem is that the inclusion assistant only becomes involved once a contract has been signed, which is far too late on. It would be better if they were involved a lot earlier, as they might be able to convince more employers to hire people with disabilities if they were accompanied from the beginning or even during a development step or phase. The inclusion assistant is a good idea, but they become involved too late on in the process. 

© Gordon Meyrath

Sascha Lang was born in 1975. He lost his sight when he was three years old, however, this did not stop him from continuing his studies and passing his bachelor's degree. Passionate about the media since he was a child, Sascha Lang went on to present musical programmes on the radio and share his passion with his listeners. After this he then moved into producing and managing artists before, in 2009, returning to work on radio programmes about the topic of inclusion. In parallel, Sascha Lang set up his own internet radio station, SLANG – the radio station for a life without barriers – which was active until 2014. Sascha Lang is an inclusion ambassador and activist who is present at all levels in both Germany and Luxembourg where he works on improving the inclusion of people with disabilities. In 2020, he started his own IGEL podcast on RTL Luxembourg which is available in both Luxembourgish and German.

You have employee with a disability/reduced work capacity status. What is the difference between the employee with a disability and employee with reduced work capacity status?

I have employee with a disability status, this means that I have six additional days of holiday and my employer receives benefits. An employee with reduced work capacity is not able to work full time. But I do not work part time because I have a disability, I do this because I like doing other things as well. However, I suppose that, as I understand it, it could be that a person with reduced work capacity status can no longer work full time due to their disability and so their working hours are limited.

You have been self-employed and now you work for the State in the public sector. What have been the biggest changes in how employees with a disability are perceived compared to 10 years ago? Have the employee with a disability and employee with reduced work capacity statuses helped this change?

I have always worked in both the public and private sector at the same time. I have worked for the government on one hand and since 2006/2007 I have been self-employed in the events sector and later also in the media sector. In Germany, I have a workplace personal assistant, but I do not have one in Luxembourg. But here, I do not really need one, although from time to time someone will accompany me to meetings. I can manage a lot of things myself.

I do not think that there is any difference in how people with disabilities are perceived because I do not define myself according to this status. Yes, I have the status of employee with a disability, that I obtained in 1997, but it is not important to me. I have this status, but I do not feel as though I am an employee with a disability. I feel as though I am a normal worker in a company.

It is very difficult to separate inclusion from accessibility. A new law about the accessibility of all places that are open to the public, public ways and municipality-owned residential buildings will come into force on the 1 July 2023. What is meant by accessibility and what role does it play in terms of inclusion?

Accessibility means that everyone should be able to access all public spaces, that is to say everywhere must be accessible, from hairdressers’ salons to banks. But accessibility does not just mean that places must be adapted for wheelchair users, they must also be accessible for people who are blind and all other people. When I build a ramp, I am not only building it for wheelchair users but also for pushchairs and walking frames. We need accessibility for inclusion, as we can only participate in society if we can go everywhere. So, it is important that we make society more accessible, as accessibility will allow us to create new means for inclusion. Accessibility does not mean 100% inclusion, but accessibility can facilitate inclusion.

In summary, what (overall) message would you like to share?

People with disabilities must be involved in defining inclusion. We must be present, we must fight for a place in society. We should not wait for someone to come and fetch us at the door, we must dare to go out. We need to have an open, inclusive, society which allows us to participate in it. But we also need people with disabilities to be empowered, to be supported so that they are able to participate, we must give them the courage, desire and opportunity to be active. This can be done by teaching people with disabilities that they have rights, that is to say by motivating them to come out of their shells and fight to claim their rights. We must make ourselves visible as people with disabilities and defend our cause.

But if we are not able to change people’s mindsets, then inclusion will not work either. This is not something that can be done by using physical force or implementing laws, as this change needs to take place in people’s minds. But we have already made a lot of progress compared to a few years ago.

Thank you Sascha Lang for granting us this interview.