Viviana Hermann.

Interview with Viviana Hermann

"I want people to treat me with respect and on equal terms."

Roughly 115,000 people work at Mercedes-Benz in Germany, 7,000 of whom have a disability. Viviana Hermann is one of them. She works in Sales, where she is responsible for reporting in the European region.

Ever since a diving accident nine years ago, Viviana has been incompletely quadriplegic from the second cervical vertebra down. Her arms, torso and legs are affected by the paralysis. Even though Viviana Hermann is largely dependent on her wheelchair in everyday life, she can still perform movements and walk short distances to some extent. In the interview, she explains why her disability is not only limiting, but also enriching.

Ms. Hermann, due to your incomplete quadriplegia, your disability is visible at times, and less obvious at other times. Do you have the impression that you are treated differently when you are in a wheelchair?

Yes, I do. When I'm out in my wheelchair, for example, people often offer to help. I think that's great in principle. But sometimes I don't need help. If I politely decline, some people can't accept it or don't believe me – for example that I can reach products on a higher shelf at the supermarket by myself. I briefly get up and take the things myself. I get the impression that people in Germany automatically assume that people who are in a wheelchair can no longer stand or walk. But there are thousands of other reasons why you can or need to use a wheelchair.

You worked for Mercedes-Benz in Dubai for a while. Did you get the impression that people there react differently to a person in a wheelchair compared to people here in Germany?

My impression was that people in a wheelchair are seen as more normal in Dubai. For example, people in Germany often stare at me when I get up out of my wheelchair. That wasn't the case in Dubai. I get the feeling that you see people in wheelchairs more often in other countries. A wheelchair is just taken for what it is there: a means of transport.

What would you say is the proper way to treat people with a disability?

That's highly individual and every person with a disability feels differently. In general, you should ask yourself if you would treat a person without a disability in the same way. I think it would be great if people didn't distinguish between people with and without a disability in face-to-face interaction. I want people to treat me with respect and on equal terms – I think everyone should be treated that way. And people shouldn't immediately draw conclusions about what a person with a disability can or cannot do. That a person in a wheelchair can't walk, for example. Disabilities are usually far more complex and dynamic than what you see at first glance – that's if the disability is visible at all.

What do you consider to be a no-go?

What I personally find intrusive is when strangers touch my wheelchair. To me, it's like a part of my body. I don't just touch strangers, do I? I have also experienced people just pushing me aside like a shopping trolley that's in the way. Unfortunately, people also sometimes don't take me seriously or treat me like a child. That can happen when I'm out with a carer, for example. People then address my carer and talk about me rather than to me. I also don't like it when people start a conversation with me by asking about my disability first of all. After all, you wouldn't normally go up to a stranger and immediately ask about their medical history, would you? I would also appreciate it if people did not assume that people with physical limitations are also limited in terms of their cognitive abilities. Just because a person cannot walk, see, speak or hear properly doesn't mean that their intellectual capacity is limited.

Where does discrimination start in your opinion?

There's a fine line between insensitive behaviour and discrimination. To me, discrimination starts as soon as I notice that someone is not taking me seriously. Perhaps some people do it unconsciously. That's when I ask myself whether a person without a disability would be spoken to and treated in the same way. If the answer to that question is no, that's where discrimination starts. Language and lack of spatial accessibility can also be discriminatory.

Can you give an example?

Unfortunately, many words have made their way into some people's vocabulary and they don't think about it. For example, the word "retarded" is sometimes used as a term of abuse or swearword. These types of statements, especially in the presence of people with a disability, are an absolute no-go. Disabilities are also often associated with negative attributes or descriptions. Phrases such as "is tied to a wheelchair" or "suffers from a disability" associate a disability exclusively with suffering and limitations. Disabilities are also used as a form of threat, for example on some motorways. You see posters asking motorists not to drive too fast with a picture of a person in a wheelchair next to it.

Is a disability only associated with limitations, or do you think it can also be enriching?

My disability has changed the way I think. I often think, "there has to be some way of doing this", and then I start to get creative. For example, I have converted my wheelchair so that I can transport more and also heavy items when I go shopping. It may sound like a cliché, but I know now what is really important in life. That makes me more relaxed in a certain way. Since becoming disabled, I change perspectives more often. And my disability has also taught me to be more patient, including with myself.


Diversity & Inclusion at Mercedes-Benz.

For a Culture of Appreciation and Respect.

Actively shaping equal opportunities.

We want equal opportunities and fair treatment based on mutual respect.