European Disability Card – one step closer to achieving free movement of persons with disabilities in the EU

The EESC is calling for the scope of the Commission proposal for a European Disability Card to be expanded to cover longer stays for work and study, with the goal of fully achieving freedom of movement of persons with disabilities in the EU

The European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) has hailed the Commission proposal for a European Disability Card and a European Parking Card as the first step in the right direction towards enabling people with disabilities to move freely around the EU.

The proposal on the two Cards is legislation of tremendous importance that will affect more than 80 million Europeans with disabilities, said Ioannis Vardakastanis, rapporteur-general for the EESC opinion on The European Disability and Parking Cards, presented at the EESC plenary session on 14 December.

This is a very important step towards removing serious obstacles and ensuring that citizens with disabilities, both Europeans and third country nationals who have legal residence in Member States, can enjoy the very fundamental principle on which the Union is founded – freedom of movement. Based on this, other policies will be built in the future, Mr Vardakastanis said.

However, the EESC has warned that the proposal falls short of removing some of the most significant barriers to the free movement of European citizens with disabilities, namely the lack of portability of disability-related benefits where citizens relocate to another EU country for work or study.

In Mr Vardakastanis's own-initiative opinion, the EESC calls for the scope of the proposal to be expanded so that a person with a disability who has made such a move can use the cards, on a temporary basis, to continue receiving benefits linked to public social policies or national social security systems.

This is currently not the case: when a person moves from one Member State to another, they lose their rights to any disability-related benefits when they cross the border, while waiting for their disability to be reassessed in the new Member State. This assessment process can take over a year, and in the transition period the person is left without any recognition or support.

We are asking for the scope to be expanded to ensure that there will be no legal vacuum and no gap during this period in the new country, so that a person with a disability is able to live with dignity right from the very start, Mr Vardakastanis said.

While the EESC opinion acknowledges that the portability of disability-related benefits was explicitly excluded from the Commission proposal, it recommends at least being slightly more flexible in the specific cases of moving for work or studies, adding that in the long run, this issue will have to be tackled more concretely.

The EESC nevertheless very much praises the proposal and the fact that it is based on the principle of mutual recognition of disability status between Member States. This principle ensures that during short stays in another country, persons with disabilities will have access to the same advantages as national card holders when it comes to services, facilities and activities.

They will benefit from the special conditions when using public transport, attending cultural events and visiting museums, leisure and sports centres, amusement parks and other amenities, anywhere in Europe. The EU Parking Card will replace national parking cards and guarantee access to parking spaces reserved for people with disabilities throughout the EU.

The principle will also ensure that persons with invisible disabilities will be able to travel and move more freely around the EU without having to explain the specifics of their disabilities or being questioned about their claim for special conditions or preferential treatment.

In the opinion, the EESC makes several suggestions to improve the proposal. They include the following:

  • the law should state clearly that the Disability Card should be free of charge and that those entitled to it should be able to choose whether they want to use it;
  • an EU-wide, fully accessible website should be set up. It should have an easy-to-read version, be available in all EU languages including sign languages, and provide practical information for every country;
  • the EU should coordinate EU-wide and national awareness-raising campaigns in all EU languages to reach out to the general public, potential European Disability Card users and service providers;
  • it should never be mandatory to show the Disability Card as proof of disability for services that are granted under other EU legislation. This could be stigmatising, and, moreover, it could also exclude people who are not Disability Card holders from assistance they may need;
  • the European Parking Card should be accompanied by a separate database available in all EU languages to provide information about existing applicable parking rules, conditions and spaces as established at local, regional, or national level. The European Parking Card must have the words "European Parking Card" displayed in braille using the Marburg code dimensions;
  • the Member States should receive appropriate funding to cover the cost of the administrative procedures involved and the physical issuing of the card, as well as other related costs.

Estimates of the number of EU citizens affected by a disability vary. According to the European Commission, there are 30 million Europeans with a recognised disability, and Eurostat data show that around 27% of the EU population aged over 16 have some form of disability. That is 101 million people, or one in four adults in the EU.

Figures also show that people with disabilities are subject to various forms of inequality that do not affect their peers who do not have a disability. For example, 28.8% of persons with disabilities are at risk of poverty and social exclusion, compared with 18.3% of the general population, with a large proportion of people with disabilities – 40.5% – unable to afford to go on holiday for a week each year.

Mr Vardakastanis said that the EESC hoped that the proposal on the cards would be adopted by the Council before the end of this term of office.