Although Switzerland signed the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) ten years ago, access to culture for people with disabilities has not yet become a matter of course. Several associations are working to address the shortcomings of the system.
Attending concerts, theaters, movies and opera is a basic human right. For many people in Switzerland these activities are taken for granted, but for others they remain a utopia. Apart from architectural barriers and the cost of participation, which prevent a part of the population from taking part in cultural events, specific accessibility measures for people with sensory impairments are still too little publicized.
In contrast to France, where cultural institutions have been obliged by law since 2005 to take accessibility into account for all their audiences, in Switzerland this issue is not yet part of a national strategy. The Culture Bill 2025-2028, which sets the Federal Council's cultural policy direction for the next four years, does not place sufficient emphasis on attracting audiences with disabilities, according to the organization Pro Infirmis, which published a position paper when the bill was put up for discussion in June 2023.
When asked about this, the Federal Office for Culture (FOC) responded, "The cultural message is a very broad policy guideline that must be approved by parliament, i.e. all political parties, and that provides the financial basis for cultural policy. Only after the adoption of this message will concrete measures be taken," explains Miriam Schleiss, Head of Cultural Participation at the FOC.
The introduction of a legal obligation, like the issue of women's quotas for equality, does not meet with unanimous approval among people. France is certainly a model, but not an ideal one. Yann Griset, president of SurdiFrance - the French national federation of the hearing impaired and deaf - believes there is still much to be done. "If I had to give a grade, it would be five out of ten. This is not extraordinary. It means we are making progress, but we can do better."
In September 2023, Pro Infirmis, an umbrella organization advocating for the self-determination and inclusion of people with disabilities, published the results of its first survey of 22% of the Swiss population it represents. Two out of five people feel limited when it comes to participating in cultural activities.
Participation in cultural activities is also included in the CRPD, which Switzerland signed in 2014. According to Nicole Grieve, head of inclusive culture at Pro Infirmis in French-speaking Switzerland, a UN committee report to take stock of the convention. "We are still at an impasse when it comes to public funding for diversity and inclusion in culture. Cantons turn to cities, cities turn to the Confederation, everyone turns to foundations," she lamented.
The Inclusive Culture Service, which has a national scope, was launched in 2016 by Pro Infirmis to inform and support institutions in the transition to accessible and inclusive programs and infrastructures. Today, more than 80 institutions and events have received a sign recognizing their efforts in this direction. The continuation of the project was discussed at the end of the funding period: from now on, the service will continue with a reduced team and a refocused offer.
The funding issue is a common thread running through the various testimonies working on the inclusion of people with disabilities in cultural settings. "For eight years Pro Infirmis has provided partners with free specialist advice. In fact, all specialist consultations should eventually be chargeable," says Stephanie Zufferey, Pro Infirmis board member.
Secondly, making society more inclusive is first and foremost a task for authorities and communities, and our association has provided the impetus for this. Therefore, the public authorities, and therefore the Confederation, should be more financially involved."
While waiting for their rights to be guaranteed, people with disabilities can count on a number of local, regional and supra-regional associations to invite them to cultural events. Film screenings with audio description, tactile and descriptive tours of museums, and surtitles in the theater are just some of the activities organized throughout the country.
In Lausanne, the Sinfonietta has taken steps to enable deaf and hard-of-hearing audiences to attend concerts during the season by equipping them with vibrating vests.
In addition to the need for inclusion, Stephanie Zufferey emphasizes the importance of changing people's attitudes toward disability in a broader social context. She points to the way society looks at disability, which challenges the legitimacy of disabled people's participation in cultural events. "You can organize any kind of cultural mediation. If the person themselves don't feel entitled to participate, they won't come."