Editor’s Blog: Produced in collaboration with the EU Buzz team
The Committee on Petitions (PETI) in the European Parliament is currently considering “The protection of persons with disabilities through petitions: lessons learnt”.
Under the Treaty on European Union (TEU), the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU), the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union and the European Pillar of Social Rights, persons with disabilities in Europe should have equal rights on an equal basis with others in all fields of life and are entitled to inalienable dignity, equal treatment, independent living, autonomy and full participation in society, and to expect that their input to the social, political and economic progress of the EU is respected and valued. However, this is far from the reality for millions of Europeans living with a disability.
The European Union, since 2011, ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) ensuring that persons with disability should face no discrimination in any aspects of the lives. Despite all existing legislation, persons with disabilities in the European Union are not treated equally. This means that they do not enjoy fundamental freedoms and rights such as access to public transport, accessibility of the built environment, use of sign languages, financing and equal access to health, education and vocational training.
Up to one quarter of the European electorate declare some degree of impairment or disability. Approximately 1% of all petitions received each year by the EU Parliament Committee on Petitions relate to various disability issues revealing the difficulties encountered by persons with disabilities and the fact that they face discrimination and obstacles in everyday life. This serves as a source of information concerning gaps in the implementation of the CRPD at both national and EU level, as well as highlighting failings within EU legislation, and must be used to advocate for better implementation of regulation and the mainstreaming of disability legislation in all policy areas.
Whilst the Parliament stresses the need to raise awareness at all levels regarding the rights enshrined in the CRPD for persons with disabilities in order to protect their rights and dignity, and to promote fruitful cooperation and the exchange of good practices between Member States, it is the Member States ((Bulgaria, Ireland, the Netherlands, Poland, and Portugal), and the EU itself that have not yet ratified the Optional Protocol to the CRPD. The Optional Protocol is an indivisible part of the CRPD providing citizens with a forum to communicate alleged violations of the provisions of the Convention by the State Party, and allows the CRPD Committee to initiate confidential inquiries where they receive information indicating a grave or systematic violation by a State Party.
Access to the built environment and physical accessibility were not included within the scope of the European Accessibility Act and the 2016 Directive on the accessibility of public sector bodies’ websites and mobile applications remains to be implemented in several member states. This means that whilst generous gestures including the European Disability Card, to be recognised in all Member States by end of 2023, and the adoption of stronger rail passenger rights for people with disabilities have been secured, accessibility to infrastructure and information still remains a challenge.
A further concern which worsened significantly as a result of the pandemic, relating mainly to women and girls, including those with disabilities, is the need for urgent measures to prevent and combat all forms of gender-based violence, via the use of the Istanbul Convention. This was highlighted by the Parliament’s FEMM Committee who also raised the requirement of the intersection of gender and disability to be mainstreamed in all EU policies, programmes, initiatives and in Member States’ national action plans and to use funding instruments in favour of accessibility and non-discrimination. FEMM also included disability-specific healthcare, access to sexual and reproductive health and rights, inclusive education measures and full access to the labour market as points which need addressing.
Whilst the EU Commission has proposed the establishment of a Disability Platform in order to strengthen governance of the cooperation at EU level and of the implementation of the European Disability Strategy 2021-2030 and national disability strategies, it is Parliament who have repeatedly urged the Member States to implement the appropriate policies to ensure that persons with disabilities can fully enjoy their social, political and economic rights. The Commission has additionally called for all EU institutions, bodies, agencies and delegations to designate ‘disability coordinators’ but it is again the Member States who have the responsibility to ensure that all citizens have the right to an effective remedy before an independent and impartial tribunal previously established by law, and that everyone has the opportunity to be advised, defended and represented. The Anti-Discrimination Directive, which would provide greater protection against discrimination of all kinds through a horizontal approach, still remains blocked in the Council for over a decade.
The EU Parliament, Commission and even Council must accept the importance of consulting and involving persons with disabilities and their representative organisations when adopting policies of all kinds and especially when introducing measures related to the COVID-19 pandemic, such as recovery and vaccination plans. For these reasons, persons with disabilities and their organisations must be well represented in the Conference on the Future of Europe. As the Petition’s Committee points out “harmonisation of rules leads to an elimination of barriers in the internal market and an increase of accessible products and services, thus leading to a more inclusive society and facilitating independent living for persons with disabilities.”