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Society

A blind disabilities commissioner

Paralympic biathlete Verena Bentele is Germany's new disabilities commissioner. Despite her lacking political experience, supporters from politics and disabilities associations are confident she was the right choice.

"You're always faced with the most exciting challenges when you least expect them," was Verena Bentele's response when minister for social affairs Andrea Nahles recently asked her whether she could imagine being Federal Government Commissioner for Matters Relating to Disabled Persons. Bentele said she had to sleep on it.

The athlete, who turns 32 in February, has already achieved a lot. Blind from birth, she has become the most successful German Paralympian of all time. At the Paralympics, she has won twelve gold medals in biathlon and in cross-country skiing and has taken gold four times at the world championship.

But the new post she took on Thursday (16.01.2014) is no less important. "That is why I think it is completely normal that people need to think such decisions over," she said before deciding. Meanwhile she is grateful for the trust that Nahles placed in her.

Vice-President of the Bundestag Ulla Schmidt
(Photo: imago/Sven Simon)

Vice-President of the Bundestag Ulla Schmidt is convinced Bentele is a good choice

Aside from her activity as a competitive athlete, Bentele has coached executives and has also written her first book, which will be released in February. It is a guide to achieving your personal goals.

As disabilities commissioner she is supposed to stand for the rights of the disabled and ensure that new laws take their needs into consideration.

She is hardly a politician with years of experience. She joined Germany's Social Democratic party, the SPD, in 2012. Her predecessor Hubert Hüppe, on the other hand, has been a member of the Bundestag for 20 years.

So is her new position too much for Bentele to handle? Current Vice-President of the Bundestag Ulla Schmidt doesn't think so at all. Schmidt, who is also the federal representative for the disabilities self-help organization Lebenshilfe, thinks Bentele's athletic success proves that she is right for the job.

"Such a successful athlete must have had to muster a healthy amount of energy, discipline and determination, otherwise she wouldn't have achieved what she did," said Schmidt. She thinks that those athletic virtues will help Bentele in her new task.

Inclusion's the word

Schmidt also told DW she knows Bentele personally from discussions about how the inclusion of disabled people starting from kindergarten and school age could be advanced. "She has been very involved in politics in the past few years and always insisted that it's not about care, but about conditions," meaning that people with disabilities don't necessarily need care but could be more integrated in society under the right conditions, explained Schmidt.

"That is what Verena Bentele learnt in competitive athletics and that is what she will also include in her politics," says Schmidt.

A young boy and a young boy with down syndrome play soccer together

Sports can promote the social integration of disabled people

The concept of 'inclusion' as it is embedded in the coalition agreement of the German government is one of the new disabilities commissioners' most important tasks. But not everyone sees the term without skepsis.

Carmen Kohr is in charge of the so-called "Alex-Club" within the Stuttgart disabilities association (Körperbehinderten-Verein Stuttgart), a club which offers recreational activities for the disabled. "We almost see 'inclusion' as a dirty word," she complains. "At the moment, it seems like people are trying to 'include' everything left, right and center."

She adds that the government often doesn't think about where inclusion even makes sense. For example, Kohr believes that it doesn't make sense to pressure all disabled children into going to regular schools, because they might end up falling behind. "Instead both options should be offered: Schools for special education and inclusion in regular schools."

Bentele knows how people with disabilities feel

Regardless of the wider debate, the members of the Stuttgart disabilities association welcome the appointment of the new disabilities commissioner. "Someone who has a disability herself can relate better to people with disabilities," said Kohr, adding that "Ms. Bentele knows the everyday problems that occur in society and in working life."

Politician Ulla Schmidt also hopes that Verena Bentele will help break down social barriers more quickly. She can certainly be sure of the support of federal associations, as the chairman of the German disabilities association, the Allgemeiner Behindertenverband in Deutschland, Ilja Seifert says: "We are ready and able to assist her with concepts or other expertise."

He too believes that Bentele has enough political experience and will feed off her athletic experience. "At large public events, she has proved herself to be a knowledgeable, charming, empathetic and competent popular figure," said Seifert. He hopes that Bentele will use her skills to get her views heard in the government – and "not just from time to time."

DW.DE