Digital inclusion should become a priority of the new EU Disability Strategy


Technological developments are full of opportunities, but also risks, disability organisations warn at an EESC public hearing

The EU Disability strategy for 2020-2030 should ensure that people with disabilities have equal access to a fully digitalised world, a conference on “The future of the EU Disability strategy after 2020” heard this month at the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC).

 To achieve this and other priorities, the new strategy must have “concrete objectives and deadlines” and include the participation of disabled people, said Irena Petraitiené, Member of the EESC's Permanent Study Group on Disability Rights, which organised the hearing.

Participants in the hearing included representatives of various disability organisations, as well as of the European Commission and the European Parliament. They stressed that the new disability policy framework must emphasise the huge potential of digitalisation for people with a disability.

"It is extremely important that persons with disabilities are not left behind when society becomes fully digital”, said Helga Stevens, Member of the European Parliament and co-chair of the Disability Intergroup. She estimated that by 2020, 120 million of EU citizens will be living with some kind of disability.

"Technological developments mean a whole set of opportunities for disabled people, but also bring a greater risk of exclusion if not managed rightly," warned Luk Zederloo, from the European Association of Service Providers for Persons with Disabilities (EASPD).

Mark Weathely, from the European Union of the Deaf (EUD) in particular pointed to the problem of online information accessibility for the disabled. "Member States should increase accessibility to media services", he said, stressing the need for “fully accessible” sites that meet “the highest standards of excellence”.

The new strategy should keep in mind key areas such as accessibility, education, mobility, employment or independent living, speakers agreed.

The fact that the EU has signed the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) represents an achievement that makes it a global leader in this matter, Catherine Naughton, member of the European Disability Forum (EDF), highlighted.

In 2015, the UN CPRD Committee published its Concluding Observations (COs) to the EU, requiring the EU institutions to meet their obligations with regard to the implementation of the UN CRPD on the ground.

In autumn 2016, the EESC published an opinion about COs and a new strategy for persons with disabilities in the EU, concluding that the EU has not really undertaken a real adaptation of its policy making to meet the demands prescribed by the UN CRPD and asked the EU institutions to mainstream the COs into EU law and policy making.

Assessing the progress made in the two years since the UNCRPD published its COs to the EU, participants in the hearing concluded that a lot of work still needs to be done.

"The new strategy should cover all rights in the CRPD, have a budget allocated to its implementation, and have a well-resourced monitoring mechanism," Ms Naughton said.

According to Frank Sioen, representative of the European Network of Independent Living, meeting  the goals laid down by the Convention requires appropriate funding: “We need to make sure that our investments are aimed to the EU we want,” he said.

It is also important not to forget that persons with disabilities are still in a more disadvantaged position than other citizens.

Martha Sticking, from the Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA), said the strategy should give much more prominence to children and women with disabilities who are more prone to suffer violence. "34% of women with disabilities have experienced physical or sexual violence from their partners, an important difference comparing to the 19% of women in general," she indicated.

Another group that should not be forgotten are migrants, asylum-seekers and refugees. According to available data, 20% of migrants have some kind of disability.

Shanta Rau Barriga, from Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported the poor situation in the refuges shelters in Greece, where disabled persons have no access to water or sanitation. “There is no reliable data on the number of people with such necessities, so it is impossible to act”, she said.