In a plenary session debate with the Commissioner for Equality, the EESC welcomed the new EU Disability Rights Strategy for the next decade, describing it as a key moment for the rights of persons with disabilities. Its implementation is even more important in light of the COVID-19 pandemic which is taking its heaviest toll on Europe's most vulnerable, including persons with disabilities.
On 24 March, the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) hosted a debate with EU Commissioner for Equality, Helena Dalli on the new Strategy for the rights of persons with disabilities, launched earlier this month by the European Commission.
The strategy, which should be in place from 2021 to 2030, seeks to ensure the full implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) in the EU. The UNCRPD is a breakthrough treaty which has changed the perception of disability by embracing a human rights approach to it and giving society responsibility for removing the barriers preventing these people being fully included in society.
We welcome the new EU Disability Strategy. Some 87 million people in the EU have some form of disability, and more than half of them feel discriminated against. In this context, disability rights are extremely important to the EESC, said EESC president, Christa Schweng in her opening remarks.
She said that the EESC was the first institution to adopt an own-initiative opinion in 2019 calling for a new Disability Rights Agenda fully aligned with the UNCRPD:
I am very pleased to see that many of the recommendations we put forward at the time are reflected in the EU Disability Strategy proposed a few weeks ago.
As well as insisting on the full implementation of the UNCRPD, both in its opinions and through the work of its Thematic study group on disability rights set up to monitor how the UNCRPD is put into effect in the Member States, the EESC contributed to the new Strategy with a number of recommendations, delivered in its opinions and reports.
The opinion on Shaping the EU agenda for disability rights 2020-2030 was not the EESC's only text on this issue: it has adopted several others as well, such as the information report and the opinion on the right of persons with disabilities to vote in the European Parliament elections. There it called for a change in EU electoral law, with a view to guaranteeing that the 2024 EU elections, and all elections thereafter, would be accessible to all Europeans with disabilities, which is not currently the case in any Member State.
The EESC will analyse the new strategy in a new opinion, to be presented at its plenary session in July.
In her speech before the EESC plenary assembly, Ms Dalli said the new strategy brings a number of new initiatives and legislative proposals aimed to significantly improve the lives of Europeans with disabilities in many areas, such as employment, accessibility, social inclusion, education, housing and labour rights.
The figures are disheartening, showing that the employment gap between persons with a disability and those without looms large at 25%, making them more exposed to poverty. Compared to their peers without a disability, young people from this group are twice as likely to leave education early.
Ten years after the EU ratified the UNCRPD, it is now high time to scale up European action in the field of disability policies. Our goal is to bring positive changes to the lives of persons with disabilities in the EU and beyond so they can participate on an equal basis with others with no exception, said Commissioner Dalli.
She identified several areas on which the strategy would focus and which incorporated the EESC's recommendations:
- reinforcing accessibility as a key enabler of rights, autonomy and equality of persons with disabilities. The European resource centre AccessibleEU will be set up to increase consistency between accessibility policies across the EU;
- increasing employment of persons with disabilities, which currently stands at only 50%. The package should foster inclusive and egalitarian employment policies;
- the European Disability Card will be created in order to expand the scope of the mutual recognition of disability status in areas such as labour mobility and benefits;
- support for deinstitutionalisation, independent living and inclusion in the community, to enable everyone to choose where and with whom they will live and to ease the financial burden of housing costs, which account for 40% of the income of persons with disabilities:
- inclusive education with inclusive classrooms as building blocks for an inclusive society and as a way of preventing early school leaving of persons with disabilities;
- securing political participation and accessibility of elections;
- promotion of the rights of persons with disabilities globally and leading by example, by promoting diversity in the European institutions;
- creation of the Disability Platform which will bring together national UNCRPD focal points, disability organisations and the Commission to support the implementation of both the EU and national strategies; appointment of disability coordinators in the institutions.
CIVIL SOCIETY AND DISABILITY ORGANISATIONS AS VITAL ALLIES FOR SUCCESSFUL IMPLEMENTATION
Implementation is ahead of us. It is clear that the objectives of this strategy can only be reached through action both at national and EU level, with a strong commitment from Member States to deliver on the actions proposed. We intend to work closely with the EU institutions, Member States and especially with civil society and representative organisations of persons with disabilities whose opinions and assistance are key for successful implementation, Commissioner Dalli said.
In the debate, EESC members spoke favourably of the new strategy, but warned that, when implementing the strategy, the EU and Member States must take into account the devastating effects of the pandemic on persons with disabilities, especially in the field of employment and education, as existing inequality was getting worse.
Ioannis Vardakastanis, vice-president of the Diversity Europe Group and rapporteur for the EESC opinion on the new Disability Rights Agenda, said: "The pandemic has exacerbated pre-existing inequalities, exclusion, poverty and discrimination. The new European disability rights strategy should create an EU of equality, inclusion and non-discrimination for persons with disabilities. The EESC and the Diversity Europe Group are committed to its full implementation."
Pietro Barbieri, president of the EESC Thematic study group on disability rights, said: "The strategy represents a key moment for PWDs, in promoting the fundamental rights of people with disabilities, but I call for the revision of two aspects. The strategy must recognise and address the impact of the pandemic on the integration of people with disabilities in our labour markets. Inclusion is the key. Consequently, the so-called focal points in all EU administrations must be guaranteed in a binding manner so that disability rights become a cross-cutting issue in all EU policies."
The president of the EESC's Employers Group, Stefano Mallia emphasised the need to include persons with disabilities in the labour market: "People with disabilities are an asset for our economy and the EU should remain at the forefront of the promotion of diversity in labour markets. Including these people in the workforce and unlocking their potential and talents will not only benefit these individuals and Europe’s competitiveness and economic growth, but also society as a whole."
Member of the EESC's Workers Group, Fernando Mauricio de Carvalho put the emphasis on accessibility: "Accessibility is a cross-cutting issue, requiring continuous and integrated planning. Now that we are already entering the digital era, it is paramount and urgent to adapt physical spaces, buildings, streets and transport, but also the virtual tools at our disposal."
Krzysztof Pater, who prepared the information report on the rights of people with disabilities to vote in the EU elections, stressed that the strategy failed to address the problem of voting rights of citizens with disabilities and warned that such a fundamental issue must not be ignored.