Britta Ballhause, Elke Vetter, Thomas Billik, and Burkhard Noack work as liaisons for people with disabilities at Siemens AG and at Siemens Mobility. They’ll support the transformation process at Siemensstadt2 over the next few years. It’s important to them to make the new Siemensstadt into a place that embodies inclusion as a matter of course – with accessible buildings, accessible software, and disability-friendly workplaces.
Ms. Ballhause, Mr. Noack, and Mr. Billik, you’re representatives for people with disabilities and you also live with disabilities. What motivated you to run for election?
Well, what happened to me is what’s happened to many people with disabilities in the company. Many people get sick during their professional lives, and that also happened to me. And suddenly you’re no longer the person you once were. When you have a disease that limits you a lot, it changes you. And then I realized, “Yeah, wow, living with a disability and our world of work, that’s a complex relationship….” And then I got interested in the Representation for Employees with Severe Disabilities and wanted to make things better. I decided to run for office and I got elected.
I did my apprenticeship as a machinist here at Siemens and then I retrained in surface finishing. I had an accident and became severely disabled, and Siemens really paved the way for me in the practical sense; they really helped me. I was retrained, and now I’m in quality assurance. And that's when I first came into contact with the Works Council, including the Representation for Employees with Severe Disabilities.
I got sick and then got involved in the Representation for Employees with Severe Disabilities in the 2014 elections. Because I had experienced for myself how things go when you get sick, when you’re helpless and sometimes need support, and you have to wrangle with various agencies trying to get some official recognition and assistance. I had to develop a lot of specialized knowledge. I was forced to. That's what I'm bringing to the table now in my role.
Ms. Vetter, you don’t live with disabilities, but you work as a non exempt member of the Works Council and liaison for employees with severe disabilities. What are your duties?
The representative body for employees with severe disabilities represents the interests of severely disabled persons in the company and provides them with advice and assistance.
The important thing for our work as representatives is to maintain contact with people, and above all to be a sounding board. Sometimes people call in the evening or at night. Many employees spend a lot of time out and about, and they work shifts, which means that I also have to be prepared when an employee’s on night shift and wants to talk. You have to take that into account.
Are your duties and the processes set down in black and white?
Yes, Siemens has a separate inclusion agreement. Siemens AG even got a business award for this in 2018. It clearly states what happens if a person with disabilities no longer performs well or if there are implementation measures or whatever else is relevant. It clearly specifies what’s supposed to happen and how people with disabilities are included in this process.
What has to be regulated for people with disabilities? Can you provide some examples?
One example is the working space. There are ergonomic workstations, meaning height-adjustable desks – the tool has to be adapted to the disability. The same goes for chairs if someone has back pain. And the floor, so that employees aren’t just standing on concrete: There are special mats that take the strain off people’s backs and similar things.
Digital accessibility is also important. To me, it’s a prerequisite for participation of people with disabilities. It’s part of everyday life – not just in the company, but also outside in society. Take vaccines, for example: The vaccine software wasn’t accessible. And yes, to me digital accessibility is an absolute must for the future, and I hope that we’ll be able to implement it soon here at Siemensstadt².
Obviously, inclusion doesn’t work without accessibility. As long as buildings, offices, elevators, restrooms, or our subways aren’t accessible, it’s difficult for people with severe disabilities to participate, to work. That’s the issue: automatic door-openers, restrooms must be accessible; in other words, they need the right dimensions. Elevators must also have the right dimensions, and ramps have to be installed – it’s a very wide-ranging issue.
It takes an enormous effort for a person with severe disabilities to manage this kind of day-to-day work. That’s why it’s also my task to make work life inclusive. It’s important, and we work on it, but it doesn’t always go smoothly, to be honest. That’s how it is. It’s a tough row to hoe. But I know how Siemens does things, and the company meets us halfway and also finances a lot of our work. For example, they spend a lot of money to optimize workstations, including for employees with severe disabilities.
How do you see the future and the process that’s taking place here? What do you want for Siemensstadt²?
Well, since I work in the Dynamowerk, what I really want is for the Dynamowerk to not be forgotten and for the reconstruction work to get done. It’s very important because there are shortcomings everywhere. We currently have no deaf or blind people at the Dynamowerk, so that’s something we need to address. If someone is deaf, an appropriate workstation would have to be created. The most important thing is that we don’t just talk about inclusion but that we also exemplify inclusion – and that the old buildings are remodeled accordingly.
Inclusion should become a fundamental attitude here so that people hardly even have to talk about it anymore. You just come in and it’s automatically there. And people also actively live it, and any reservations they have are no longer perceptible. That would be fantastic! At Siemensstadt2 there shouldn’t just be new buildings and technical progress; there should also be human progress. If that succeeds, it’d be a superb innovation!
It’s important to me for Siemensstadt to remain a working location and not just get some high-tech cubicles; instead, we should also have traditional workspaces for all kinds of people.
As someone said, we can only shape our future by working together. That’s my concern: We have to tackle this together. And now we have an opportunity to change things.