Rooted in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD), which was the first international treaty to take a human rights approach to disability, the EU Disability Strategy for the next decade is a promising document with many commendable proposals and only a few flaws. But for the strategy to be able to live up to its promise of ending discrimination against 87 million European with disabilities, its implementation will require a strong political will and resources.
The lack of specific reference to women with disabilities and of specific measures to fight their discrimination is one of the few flaws in the otherwise laudable EU Disability Strategy 2021-2030. Unveiled by the European Commission in March, the strategy took on board many important recommendations and proposals made by disability and civil society organisations, a hearing held by the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) on 1 June found.
The hearing brought together representatives of civil society organisations and European institutions. Its conclusions will feed into the opinion the EESC is preparing on the strategy after the Commission requested its take on the matter.
The EESC welcomes the new strategy, said the rapporteur for the opinion, Ioannis Vardakastanis.
Now it is important that commitments are kept and words translated into actions that change and improve the lives of citizens with disabilities.
Aligned with the UNCRPD, the strategy aims to ensure dignity, equal treatment and full participation of persons with disabilities (PWDs) in society by removing physical barriers, stigmatisation and prejudice affecting all aspects of their lives.
The new strategy builds on the progress achieved so far through its predecessor that was in place over the past ten years. It scales up to address the remaining hurdles, setting out key initiatives around three main themes: rights, independent living and autonomy, equal opportunities and non-discrimination.
One of its flagship initiatives is AccessibleEU, which should make transport, buildings and information more accessible to Europeans with disabilities. The other one, the European Disability Card, will make it easier for them to move freely within the EU.
Unlike its predecessor, the new strategy will also have a framework for monitoring the progress of its implementation, with a set of new indicators.
Annelisa Cotone, member of the cabinet of the European Commissioner for Equality, Helena Dalli, said the strategy was part of the vision for building a union of equality, complementing other Commission initiatives in this field.
The launch is a starting-point, not the end. We focus on the areas where EU action can bring added value. But the objectives cannot be reached by the Commission alone, and we call upon Member States to take action too, Ms Cotone said, adding that the Commission's goal was to step up the implementation of the UNCRPD and support Member States in doing the same.
We need to deliver, because a strategy is only as good as its implementation. The strategy alone will not bring change to the lives of people with disabilities – but political will, resources and monitoring of action might, Ms Cotone said.
The strategy is already receiving political support. Speaking at the hearing, Bruno Ribeiro Barata, representing the Portuguese EU presidency, said his government was in the process of negotiating the Council Conclusions on the strategy, which should be adopted in mid-June.
These Council conclusions underline the commitment and ambition of the Portuguese presidency in achieving a more inclusive, more just Europe, a better Europe based on solidarity where nobody is left behind, he stressed.
FORGOTTEN IN THE STRATEGY: WOMEN WITH DISABILITIES
Although the Commission's proposal received high marks for its strong commitment to creating a disability-inclusive Europe, it was not perfect. Among the most serious objections raised was the absence of specific reference to, and action for, women and girls with disabilities.
For the EESC, this represents a very big gap, said Mr Vardakastanis.
The European Disability Forum, represented at the hearing by its vice-president Ana Peláez, shared the EESC's view.
This must be remedied as soon as possible by ensuring that the gender perspective is integrated into each action considered in the strategy, such as in employment, political participation and so on, Ms Peláez said, adding that action against violence, although contained in the strategy, also failed to specifically mention violence against women and girls with disabilities.
Figures showed that 34% of women and girls from this group had experienced violence and sexual violence, to which those with intellectual disabilities were particularly exposed.
Katrin Langensiepen of the European Parliament's CRPD network pointed out that women with disabilities were more often victims of sexual abuse and often failed to obtain adequate legal protection, with lawyers showing too little sensitivity to their plight.
This is very dangerous for us. Sometimes, we are not visible. If you are not visible, you cannot raise your voice and things happen that should not happen, Ms Langensiepen said, pointing to the need to raise awareness about the rights of women with disabilities and empower them.
They suffered discrimination in all walks of life and were at a higher risk of poverty and social exclusion than their male peers. They were also among those hardest hit by COVID-19 crisis.
The sad reality is that we have actually stopped advancing on equality for women in the last decade. And now COVID-19 has also devastated the public services on which women in general and those with disabilities were counting, said Pirkko Mahlamäki of the European Women's Lobby (EWL).
Strengthening support for mothers looking after children with disabilities was also mentioned, together with the need for new financial instruments for this.
Other objections were also raised. The EESC noted the absence of clear commitments to invest in measures that would lead to the inclusion of PWDs in all spheres of life, and also very few commitments to binding legislation. Although it was very supportive of the proposal for a European disability card, the EESC thought this should be put in place through an EU regulation so that it could become immediately enforceable in all the Member States.
Other flaws included the lack of guidelines for implementing the UNCRPD, as well as insufficient clarity regarding the meaningful participation of disability organisations in the proposed Disability Platform and AccessibleEU, as well as in all matters that concern PWDs.
Participation should be at the heart of the disability strategy, said Carlotta Besozzi of Civil Society Europe, adding that it was important that all information relevant to PWDs be readily available and accessible.
SEIZING LABOUR MARKET OPPORTUNITIES
Another area of particular concern was the low employment rate of PWDs. With an ageing population, their inclusion in the world of work would not only favour their successful integration into society but would also benefit society itself, now and in the future.
Although the current crisis had further aggravated the already precarious employment situation of many PWDs, it should be used as an opportunity to foster their employment prospects in the future by devising inclusive recovery policies, said Eurofound's Massimiliano Mascherini.
According to Eurofound figures, 13% of PWDs had lost their job due to the COVID19 crisis, compared to 8% of the general population, and a higher share of PWDs were on temporary contracts. This had resulted in 57% of them reporting difficulties in making ends meet compared to 39% of those without a disability. 71% were at risk of depression.
PWDs' employment prospects could be improved by providing support to employers to ensure they make workplaces more inclusive. It was also very important to highlight the benefits of employing PWDs and reducing stereotypes, which were among the main reasons for employers' reluctance to offer PWDs a job. Both employers and PWDs were often unaware of measures to support their employment, which warranted better policy coordination on the labour market.
Another opportunity to be seized was digital transformation. Digital technologies could remove many barriers for these workers and have a positive impact on their employment rate. This was why it was crucial to develop their digital and other job-related skills, said Miriam Pinto Lomeña of BusinessEurope.
In its opinion on the disability strategy, the Committee of the Regions pointed to the importance of strengthening self-employment and self-entrepreneurship opportunities for PWDs, said CoR rapporteur Daniela Ballico.
From a social point of view, we should not be hand holding, but we should support people to be independent, Ms Ballico said. In this context, education and training were crucial, both for adults and children with disabilities and for teachers, who had to be equipped with the right skills to work with them.
The issue of disability benefits was also raised: speakers stressed that PWDs should not have to be afraid of losing benefits if they entered the labour market, but that benefits should be flexible and complement part-time work.
Ms Peláez was adamant that the strategy must reverse the recently aggravated situation of PWDs and the pandemic-caused setback in human rights and implementation of the UNCRPD.
We have a chance for a change and we must not let it pass us by, she concluded.