Is the new European Strategy for Disabled People going to help Disabled Europeans?

, by Leo Capella

Is the new European Strategy for Disabled People going to help Disabled Europeans?
The European Commission, Brussels. Wikimedia Commons.

As a disabled (autistic) professional and federalist in the UK, it always pays to check what your European counterparts are doing or could be affected by, even if you’re outside of the European Union and single market rules (unless you’re in the steaming kettle of fish that’s Northern Ireland). After all, 87 million people in the EU are disabled. While disabled people in the UK are waiting with - to use a very British understatement – wary, irritated anticipation for our own strategy to come out in the shadow of the pandemic, it’s interesting to see one that is “live”, so to speak. It is important because in the EU "28.4% of persons with disabilities are at risk of poverty or social exclusion compared to 17.8% of persons without disabilities”. That’s a glaring difference of over 10% which needs to be addressed.

The new European Disability Strategy came out in March. Or to give it its full title: Union of Equality: Strategy for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities 2021-2030 (What a mouthful, but terminology is an absolute headache in disability circles!) This strategy replaces that of the previous decade, which the UK was part of as a member state. So, what are roughly 14 million disabled people in the UK missing out on (or not, as the case may be) with the new strategy?

So, let’s look at the positives first.

The strategy is far more expansive than the previous strategy, with more priority actions and increased length. It weighs in at thirty-six pages as opposed to the previous version’s twelve. Like the previous strategy, it also places emphasis on applying the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities (UNCRPD), to which all the EU member states and the EU itself are signed up.

Its main initiatives are the potential creation of a new European Disability Card that would allow disabled people to transfer support between member states far more easily. If the Disability Card covers soft support (personal assistants, etc) as much as the hard access requirements (equipment) then it will work well, leaving British disabled people in Europe grumbling (unless they’re dual citizens) just like everyone else.

Another key initiative is the creation of a pan-European accessibility information centre called ‘Accessible EU’, where information and best practice can be shared across member states. The idea is that it should give disabled people more access to buildings, transport and audio-visual media. There are other important initiatives including on employment (my own metaphorical stomping ground for work): in 2022, the commission is planning to unleash a package of measures which should increase employment rates amongst disabled people. A good idea, given that employment was marked as something to focus on during the evaluation of the last strategy, and currently: “50.8% of [disabled people] are in employment compared to 75% without disabilities”. In comparison, the UK’s employment rate for disabled people is slightly higher at 52.3% although the difference is also higher as it is roughly 29% (28.8%) lower than the employment rate for non-disabled people. Whichever way you look at it, there is much room for improvement, and laws might just be made if a report on the EU Employment Directive scheduled for this year provides ammunition for the Commission to “follow up with a legal proposal in particular to strengthen the role of equality bodies”. Whether that proposal will be taken up remains to be seen, if the Commission does decide to follow up in the first place.

All member states will also be: “encouraged to reinforce actions for persons with disabilities, including those launched through this strategy, to make best use of EU funds in a disability inclusive manner, and progress on the implementation of the UN Convention”.

So, positive language, positive proposals, and positive drive too. However, there are missed opportunities in the European Disability Strategy and problems with it.

For example, although disabled people are described as being “part of the dialogue and part of the process” they are not mentioned as those who, where possible to do so, make the final decisions on their lives. Effectively it means that disabled people have a seat the table with the strategy, but not always an equal one. This is something picked up by the European Network on Independent Living (ENIL) who point out that: “Section 9 [of the strategy] stipulates that disabled people will only be consulted, and only then in the ‘relevant’ areas. However, since all areas of policy concern disabled people, and as everything has an interconnected impact, it is unclear who decides what is and is not a relevant area, or how meaningful these consultations with disabled people will be”. This shows an uncertainty over who decides. Will any consultation put disabled people on a level standing with their non-disabled counterparts instead of being at the mercy of professionals, etc? The Social Model of Disability says that disabled people are disabled by society. This is opposed to the traditional medical model of disability which says that disabled people are purely disabled by their own disability, meaning that high handed professionals etc have the final say.

So, there will be more information, and useful initiatives. But how is the strategy going to be enforced at member state level and how is it going to be co-ordinated? ENIL picks up on this, asking how EU funds will be monitored and pointing to Austria where a regional government used EU rural development funding to build segregated institutions for disabled people, against all current good practice. It’s also against what a lot of user organisations and disabled people have been pushing for to avoid disabled people being isolated, instead calling for them to be assisted to live and be included on their own terms in their own communities, something that’s covered in Article 19 of the UNCRPD.

Marking the publication of his network’s response to the European Disability Strategy, the President of the European Disability Forum Yannis Vardakastanis stated that: “This is the beginning” and that his organisation “would not be limited” by it. The European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) also acknowledged in its welcome to the strategy that while the current strategy is a “clear step forward” on the older one, it was, amongst other points: “concerned about the lack of binding measures and hard legislation implementing the Strategy”. In fact, echoing ENILs concerns around disabled people not being in the driving seat, the EESC called for the “full involvement and participation of organisations of persons with disabilities in the proposed Disability Platform”.

Currently, there is no official news on when the UK Disability Strategy is coming out and it’s safe to say it’s had not the best of processes in being developed. At least there is a strategy to be worked with in the European Union, and now it is a matter of applying and adjusting the strategy to make sure that disabled people go from being one of the hardest-hit minority groups during this pestilential Coronavirus pandemic to people with an equal place in society, in member states and beyond. We just have to hope that the UK strategy will go at least as far.

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