Disability strategy for the next decade: EU should lead the way in promoting progressive policies

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On 26 February, the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) held a high-level conference at which it brought together leading actors in disability policy to discuss the EU's new strategy in the field, which is in the making and is expected to have a profound effect on millions of EU citizens with disabilities in all spheres of life over the next decade.

The aim of the conference on Shaping the EU agenda for disability rights 2020-2030 was to present the EESC's recommendations and proposals for the new strategy, but also to offer a platform for exchange and input that will form part of the extensive consultations contributing to its preparation and finalisation by the European Commission in the early months of 2021.

The EESC's recommendations and proposals had already been put forward in its own-initiative opinion adopted in December.

With the new Commission and Parliament and the new budget programming period, this is an ideal moment for shaping a new strategy for people with disabilities. With the delivery of its opinion, the EESC was the first institution to contribute to the debate the Commission has opened on this topic, said the EESC's vice-president for Communication, Isabel Caño Aguilar, opening the conference.

Presenting the EESC's proposals, the rapporteur for the EESC opinion, Yannis Vardakastanis, who is also the president of the European Disability Forum, said the new agenda should be much more comprehensive and ambitious than the one currently in place.

The EESC called for the new strategy to be fully aligned with the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD), the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda and the European Pillar of Social Rights. Full implementation should be ensured by putting pressure on Member States, through the European Semester, to develop disability strategies of their own.

The implementation of the UNCRPD must also be monitored at EU level by establishing disability focal points in all directorates-general of the Commission, in the agencies and in other institutions, with the focal point in the Directorate-General for Justice and Consumers taking the lead. Intensive interinstitutional cooperation should be encouraged, with particular emphasis on setting up a working group on disability in the European Council.

Disability equality issues should be mainstreamed in all EU policies and the EU agenda should foster the perception of disability as part of human diversity, ditching the medical or charitable approach to persons with disabilities.

Mr Vardakastanis stressed the importance of giving a voice to disability organisations when it came to designing and implementing policies under the disability agenda.

'Nothing about us without us' is not a slogan, but a way of life and a form of emancipation. The strong message of our opinion is that we need to make disability discrimination a thing of the past! he said,  adding that the opinion was based on a very firm belief that the EU has to be a leading region in the world in promoting progressive disability equality policies, both internally and globally.

The conference brought together experts and representatives of European and international institutions who are leading the debate on the new strategy.

Commissioner for Equality Helena Dalli said the Commission would base the new agenda on the results of the ongoing evaluation of the current strategy, bringing greater fairness to the daily lives of citizens with disabilities.

This Commission is about a Union of Equality. In her political guidelines, President Ursula von der Leyen put unprecedented emphasis on social fairness and equality. For the very first time, equality is a portfolio in its own right, she maintained.

The conference focused in particular on areas where discrimination of people with disabilities is the most prevalent, such as employment, accessibility, social inclusion, education, and mobility. The importance of developing assistive technologies that are affordable and accessible for all was also singled out as a priority.

Speakers drew attention to the gaps identified in the current EU strategy, such as a lack of consistent and comparable data on disability and the absence of a cross-sectoral approach in the EU, something that is perhaps best illustrated by the failure to mainstream the rights of women and girls with disabilities into EU gender policy.

The disability strategy that is now in place entirely 'forgot about' women with disabilities. This needs to be rectified. We need to recognise issues such as health, forced sterilisation and coerced abortion as new forms of discrimination. We need to mention how difficult for them is to work, how hard for them is to access justice, said MEP Rosa Estaràs Ferragut.

The risk of poverty and social exclusion is exponentially increasing for individuals with disabilities, making social protection and access to care and support immensely important.

Poverty, for people with disabilities, is an inevitable consequence of political choices and an explicit denial of fundamental human rights, brought about by political systems, systems which we can make fairer, more compassionate and more representative of our European values, said Leo Williams of the European Anti-Poverty Network.

Lucie Susova of the European Trade Union Confederation mentioned the importance of including representatives of persons with disabilities in collective bargaining in the workplace.

With buildings, public spaces and transport remaining inaccessible to Europeans with disabilities in many places, the EESC proposed setting up an EU Access Board that would make sure EU laws on accessibility are fully respected.

David Capozzi of the US Access Board spoke about the situation in the United States, where due to stringent laws such as the ADA (the Americans with Disabilities Act), and huge fines for non-compliance, disability advocates are not waiting for better access.

For example, before the ADA was passed, only 40% of fixed route buses were accessible, compared to 100% today. The ADA now requires all new rail stations and bus stops to be accessible as well, Mr Capozzi said via videoconference. The city of Chicago was recently sued for having only 11 intersections with pedestrian signals accessible to the visually impaired out of 2 672 intersections with pedestrian signals for people who can see.

The Commission expects to complete the evaluation of the current strategy by July 2020 and, on the basis of the draft agenda, to then hold formal consultations on the new strategy, to be conducted by the Commission in cooperation with other institutions and partners. Once all the feedback has been collected, it will issue the Communication on the new disability strategy within the first three months of 2021.