French government is too indolent with regard to integration persons with a disability’

After three previous interviews with people with a visual impairment I expected my interlocutor in Paris to arrive with an eye-seeing dog too at the location where we would meet. However, in advance I had noticed no other blind persons with such a dog in Paris. Bernard arrived without a dog too. ‘Dogs can get ill, you have to take care of them.’ Okay, with some directions about how to walk safely from my side we crossed the zebra to a café near the Bastille where Bernard told his story. 
 
Bernard was born in Rijsel (Lille) in 1946, near the border between France and Belgium. He speaks Dutch at a satisfying level. At the age of 11 he got glaucoma which caused complete blindness. It didn’t prevent him to live a full and adventourous life. ‘I was too young to make problems of my disability. My mother had more problems with it. I followed seven years of special education and started a study physiotherapy at the Association Valentin Haüy in Paris afterwards.
 
‘The sixties were a good time for people with a disability. Society was far more flexible than nowadays. Many people with a visual disability studied physiotherapy. At the age of 25, I emigrated to Sweden. I lived and worked there 30 years. After having lived on Iceland two more years, I returned to France ten years ago. Love made me decide this. I have two grown-up daughters living in Sweden. One lives in Uppsala, the other in Helsingborg. My wife was born out of German-French parents. I speak French with her and Swedish with my daughters. I have three daughters in total.’
 
Wasn't it difficult to work as a physiotherapist in Sweden? 
 
‘No, I was an example for others. I was the first blind one in Sweden. In the beginning, my clients were a little bit surprised, but that surprise passed away quickly.’
 
Good and bad things of living in Paris
 
Paris is a chaotic city with crowded traffic at many spots. Traffic that doesn’t always follow the traffic rules. I’m always very careful when I have to walk crowded crosspoints there. Bernard has to be even more careful of course. Which other obstacles does he meet while walking around in Paris? ‘Most complicated for me are cars that are parked on the pavement. The Paris inner subway of the RATP is very well accessible. Which is far less the case with the long distance trains of the RER. Travelling by bus is difficult. How does one know which bus is arriving at the bus stop? I always have to ask for it. In the future there must be an apparatus installed that mentions the number of the bus arriving.
 
‘It’s not difficult to find the right shops in Paris. It’s more difficult in other French cities, because shops are for the greater part located in commercial centers there. Paris disposes of all amenities and authorities one needs. A great disadvantage is the rent is extremely high in Paris. Most buildings are not adjusted to people with a disability. I can’t afford the sum of a studio or apartment. I live in a studio of the hospital for the blind.’
 
Too less stimulus to get to work
 
Just like in all other European countries it’s not easy for French people with a disability to find a job. Bernard believes there’s also a financial cause. ‘A blind person who doesn’t work, gets 1,400 euro a month. That’s not a big stimulus to get to work. It looks like the government doesn’t wish to do too much to let the target group integrate, because of the current economic circumstances. Adjustments on the working spot are compensated, but it’s much harder to get compensation for adjustments in your private life. A friend of mine in Brussels has far more adjustments at home than I have.   
 
‘Compared to less developed countries, the situation in France isn’t bad of course. As far as I know there are no blind professors or physiotherapists working in Belgium. There are in France.’
 
Playing chess for the visual impaired
 
Bernard sported a lot during his whole life. During his study he practiced fencing. Driving on a tandem has been another favourite activity. Nowadays, he plays chess a lot. The visual impaired play chess differently than people who see normally.  ‘We play chess with two chess-boards. For instance: when I say E2-E4, you make that move on your board and the other way around. The chess-board itself has been adjusted too. The black areas are higher than the white. In the middle of the areas there’s a hole to drop the chess pieces into. We play chess as blinds together and with people who see normally. Just like common chess players we use a clock. Each player has got two hours to make his moves.
 
‘Officially there are 100 blind chess players in France. It’s very likely this number is higher. We play through Skype and sometimes play tournaments. Last February, I was in The Netherlands at the Dutch tournament for the visual impaired. Normally, there’s also a tournament in Ostend each year. This year, it has been skipped because of the economic crisis. So far, I haven’t won big prizes, I did win medals.’
 
Not able to sit still
 
Bernard led an active life and doesn’t sit still now either. ‘Most blind youngsters don’t do that much as I used to do in the past. For instance, they stay at home and follow education there. They get isolated by that which is not good. I often go on holiday with my wife. We have been to Croatia. There are many stairs in Croatia, which is difficult for people with a physical disability I think. I don’t have problems walking the stairs myself. In the near future, my wife and I wish to make a boat trip to Cape North. I’ve studied history in my free time. I dispose of a scanner at home with which I can read books. I’ve also studied Dutch language at the Dutch Institute in Paris during two years.’
 
To end, Bernard is also a musical person. ‘At the school for the blind we all had to learn to play a musical instrument. I chose to play the piano. That’s why I like to hear Fantasy f-Moll by Chopin.’  
 
Copyright text: Johan Peters, June 16th - ...