Bengt Olof Lennart Lindqvist (1936-2016)

Bengt Lindqvist was a Swedish politician and an active member of Swedish and international disability organizations. He became deputy minister for social security in 1985, the first Swedish minister with a visual impairment, and served as the first United Nations Special Rapporteur on Disability from 1994 to 2002. In both the national and the international arena, he was committed to promoting the recognition of disabled people’s equal rights, as well as strengthening exchange and cooperation between disability representatives, the state and the public.

Black and white portrait photograph of youngish man smiling.
A young Bengt Lindqvist. Photo: Synskadades Riksförbund.

After becoming visually impaired as a teenager, Bengt Lindqvist attended Tomteboda School for the Blind in Stockholm, where he learned to read and write braille. He continued to work for the school as a traveling teacher while obtaining a Bachelor’s degree in English from Lund University in 1960, followed by a Master’s degree in German, Nordic languages and literature history from Stockholm University in 1965. Following his studies, he became employed on a research project on visual impairment and public education by the Swedish Association of the Visually Impaired (Synskadades Riksförbund, SRF), which he chaired from 1975 to 1985. He also served as chair of the Swedish Disability Association (De Handikappades Riksförbund, DHR) from 1977 to 1985.

Lindqvist's organizational work was marked by a particular commitment to the promotion of social and governmental recognition of disabled people’s equal rights, as well as strengthening exchange and cooperation between disability representatives, the government and state authorities, and the broader public. Important steps in this direction were the Swedish disability movement’s first political program, ‘A Society for All’ (Ett samhälle för alla) from 1972, and the first national disability inquiry (handikapputredningen), which published its final report ‘Culture for All’ (Kultur åt alla) in 1976. Lindqvist contributed to these projects by focusing on issues of special education as well as access to literature, newspapers and public information for persons with visual impairments. To put further pressure on political decision-makers, he coordinated a disability rights demonstration in Stockholm in August 1976 together with SRF and the Swedish Deaf Association, the first of its kind in Sweden.

black and white photograph of a 1970s demonstration with banners

Bengt Lindqvist at a demonstration in 1976 in Kungsträdgården. Photo: Synskadades Riksförbund.    

First international work with disability organizations

Having been active in the rehabilitation committee of the World Council for the Welfare of the Blind (WCWB) and the International Federation of the Blind (IFB) during the 1970s, Lindqvist represented the Swedish disability organizations in the Swedish committee for the International Year of Disabled Persons in 1981, and was instrumental in drafting both the Swedish action plan and the United Nations World Program of Action for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. By focusing on the self-advocacy of persons with disabilities and the inclusion of disability in all areas of policy-making and social planning, Lindqvist in the 1980s emerged as a leading disability rights activist, both nationally and internationally. Together with Henry Enns from Canada and Ron Chandran-Dudley from Singapore, among others, he co-founded the cross-disability, non-governmental Disabled People’s International (DPI) in 1981 and served as the organization’s secretary. He was particularly interested in the situation of persons with disabilities in developing countries, following the idea that the experiences of the Swedish disability movement could be used as a model to support similar efforts in countries of the Global South. An example is the Training Seminar for Blind Women in Asia, which Lindqvist co-organized together with the Malayan Association for the Blind in 1981.

Swedish politics

Already from the 1970s Lindqvist had been a member of the Swedish Social Democratic Party and was elected Member of Parliament from 1983 to 1995. Following his national and international engagement in the promotion of disability rights, and despite his repeated criticism of governmental policies, he became deputy minister for social security in 1985, the first Swedish minister with a visual impairment. His responsibilities included elderly care, family and disability policies. He held the position until 1991, after which he continued to work as special advisor to the Ministry for Social Affairs in the domain of international disability matters. Between 1988 and 1991 he participated in the second national disability inquiry (handikapputredningen), which analyzed the living situations of persons with disabilities in Swedish society and paved the way for the Swedish Disability Act (Lag om stöd och service till vissa funktionshindrade,LSS) in 1994. He also chaired the Swedish Disability History Association (HandikappHistoriska Föreningen, HHF) from 1992 to 2012 and the Swedish Handicap Institute (Hjälpmedelsinstitutet,until 1999Handikappinstitutet) in Stockholm from 1996 to 2007.

Grand hall with individual voting desksPICTURE: Bengt Lindqvist also worked for the rights of people with disabilities in international organisations. Between 1994 and 2003 he served as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Disability. Photo: United Nations Chamber. Chris Erbach, Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).

The United Nations and later international work

At the international level, Lindqvist was responsible for drafting the United Nations Standard Rules on the Equalization of Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities in 1993. His career reached an apex when he served for three mandates, from 1994 to 2002, as the first United Nations Special Rapporteur on Disability tasked with observing the worldwide implementation of the Standard Rules. This position included travels and visits with disability rights organizations, politicians and public officials to analyze and further develop the situation of persons with disabilities in different regional contexts. It also involved the organization of workshops and policy meetings, and advising on the further inclusion of disability rights into international law. While this earned him the reputation as an active and dedicated advocate for the social and human rights of persons with disabilities, he was also criticized by some for adopting an all-too moderate negotiation style, and for neglecting intersectional dimensions of disability, such as gender or ethnicity. In 2003 he co-founded Disability Rights Promotion International (DRPI), a non-governmental initiative for the international monitoring of participatory disability rights. Lindqvist died in Nynäshamn in 2016.

Further reading:

  • Bengt Lindqvist, Blindstyre [Blind Governance]. (Stockholm: Hjalmarson & Högberg, 2012).
  • Diane Driedger, The Last Civil Rights Movement: Disabled Peoples' International. (London: Hurst & Co, 1989).