Disability World
A bimonthly web-zine of international disability news and views, Issue no. 7 March-April 2001

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First Norwegian MP to Use a Wheelchair

By Kay Schriner (kays@uark.edu)

Lars Oedegaard, the Secretary General of the Norwegian Association of the Disabled (NAD), is the first member of the Norwegian Parliament to use a wheelchair - which may explain why the Parliament's chamber was inaccessible. Attending his first session, Oedegaard was forced to sit on the lowest level of the chamber, separated from his colleagues.

That situation is being remedied, thanks to pressure from media coverage of the event. Oedegaard and NAD are advising the government about the actions necessary to make the Parliament accessible.

A member of the Social Democrat Party, Oedegaard was elected to the Parliament 4 years ago as an alternate. His stint as member of the national Parliament caps a long political career. First elected to municipal office in Oslo 20 years ago, Oedegaard has served in a number of legislative posts. Because of his political skills, the Social Democrat Party first asked him to stand for election to the national Parliament 7 years ago, but Oedegaard refused to be included on the ballot until the most recent election.

Why was he chosen by the party to assume national office? Oedegaard has been an "outspoken person" on issues affecting disabled people and the elderly. He thinks he may be the "most known person with a disability in Norway," having appeared on television many times. Also, the party probably thought it a good idea to have a wheelchair-user in the Parliament, Oedegaard says, though his selection was certainly not due entirely to his having a disability. His long political engagement was more important than his prominence in the Norwegian disability community.

Oedegaard has spoken in Parliament about the needs of persons who are labeled mentally ill and about his own experiences as a person with a disability. He has to help people ask hard questions, he says. For example, what is more important - the historical character of the Parliament building, or his right to take his seat with the other Members?

His assignments have not been limited to disability issues. He has also served on a national consumer board and an advisory board on biotechnology.

Political engagement is important for people with disabilities, says Oedegaard. He is encouraging other disabled Norwegians to seek public office. He says it's difficult to get people to run, though it's sometimes easier to get good candidates for local office than for national offices.

Oedegaard also urges his party to speak out more on disability issues. Norwegian politicians do pay more attention now to the concerns of people with disabilities, primarily due to the U.N. Decade of Disabled Persons, but there is still a need to speak out. "Don't shut your mouth when you don't agree," says Oedegaard. "I am eager to get good decisions made and you have to push. You can be a pain to people."

Oedegaard says it is important for disabled people to "be angry" because "then, there's something we can do." Disabled people must continue to raise consciousness. "Speak out to make a comprehensible picture of what the problem is. Help people visualize it, understand what it's all about. We must explain our problems to others."

Oedegaard's public life has come at a personal cost. It cuts into family time, he says. And Oedegaard has refused to accept publicly-funded services during his time in public office, so that he could not be accused of acting on his selfish interests. "As an elected official, I don't take public services so that I can't be criticized as self-serving," he says. But he doesn't recommend that others do the same thing. "You should have all your rights and still be able to speak freely."

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