Now we have a golden opportunity to align the EU's next disability strategy with the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities
On 21 October, the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) held a public hearing to gather input from grassroots organisations for its opinion on the EU's next ten-year strategy for disability rights and to draw the lessons from the agenda due to expire in 2020.
We are at a critical point: this is about meeting the needs and aspirations and protecting the rights of a hundred million people with disabilities in the EU, said the rapporteur for the EESC opinion, Ioannis Vardakastanis, opening the hearing.
He stressed that the disability rights agenda 2020-2030 should be built upon the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD), the first international, legally binding instrument that sets minimum standards for the rights of people with disabilities in relation to their integration into society, employment and education.
Mr Vardakastanis added that the EESC would urge the Commission to take its recommendations into account in this important strategy that was bound to have a huge impact on the lives of people with disabilities over the next decade.
The new disability rights agenda should be the driving force which pushes Member States to come up with national strategies for disability rights, taking into account their national situations, but also their obligations under the UNCRPD and their commitment to implement it, Mr Vardakastanis said.
The main goal of the new agenda should be to mainstream disability in all EU policies and laws, and to push for acceptance of people with disabilities as part of human diversity and humanity by fighting all forms of discrimination and stigmatisation. The EESC recommendations would include setting up focal points for disability issues in all DGs of the European Commission and in all the EU institutions, with the central focal point in the Secretariat-General of the European Commission, and ensuring that there is a disability focal point in DG JUST to support the work of the Commissioner for Equality.
The Committee would also recommend that the disability focal points form a disability rights committee to oversee implementation of the agenda, and that a working group on disability be set up in the Council, Mr Vardakastanis told the hearing.
Moderated by EESC member Madi Sharma, the hearing brought together MEPs and representatives from the European Commission, the Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA), the European Ombudsman's Office and the European Disability Forum (EDF). The keynote speaker was Mark Priestley, professor of disability policy at Leeds University.
Panellists suggestions during the debate included linking disability rights with fundamental and human rights, allocation of sufficient funds, setting clear targets, responsibilities and timeframes for the agenda implementation, ensuring its monitoring and follow-up and involving organisations of persons with disabilities in decisions that affect them .
Mr Priestley felt that the climate for advocating equality of people with disabilities in Europe was now particularly favourable, with the election of the new Parliament and appointment of a new European Commission which for the first time would have a Commissioner for Equality.
The fact that a new multiannual budget programming period was soon to start and that disability rights were enshrined in the European Pillar of Social Rights were also opportunities that should be seized.
We have a golden opportunity to make sure the EU disability strategy is aligned with the UN Convention, Mr Priestley said.
The policy timeline is urgent!
He argued that a good strategy should be underpinned by sound indicators and databases on disability, where despite recent progress some relevant figures were still missing. "I find it really astonishing that most Member States still cannot give you the figure about the employment of persons with disabilities".
Inmaculada Placencia-Porrero from the Commission pointed out that the current disability strategy did introduce a major change in the form of systematic collection of data on disability, which some ten years ago simply did not exist.
Figures available indicate that persons with disabilities still face great inequalities. The gap between non-disabled and disabled employment rate is huge, totalling 24 percentage points, rising with more severe levels of impairment. The rate of early school leaving for people with disabilities is double that of the general population, and these people are much more likely to live in poor households.
Panellists argued that the new strategy should ensure that the EU itself complies with the UNCRPD by serving as a role model for other organisations. The EU institutions should strive for the highest possible standards of accessibility in their own workplaces and should increase the proportion of persons with disabilities among their staff. The EU should also launch communication campaigns to fight the stigma surrounding disability.
MEP Mónica Silvana González favoured a specific focus on women with disabilities and other vulnerable groups among the disabled. She also mentioned the possibility of enforcing compliance with the UNCRPD by imposing sanctions, through the regional funds, on those who fail to respect it or who violate fundamental rights.
With the UNCRPD having been signed and ratified by all Member States, the EU has a clear mandate which justifies stronger action, said EDF's Pierre Gyselinck.
As the current strategy draws to a close, it is the perfect time for a new ambitious disability rights agenda that can really make a difference. The building blocks for it are in place already, Mr Gyselinck said.
We should be demanding something stronger than what we have right now. We can dare to demand more.