New strategy to empower people with disabilities
How can Europe make goods and services more accessible to people with disabilities? How can people with disabilities exercise their full rights as citizens when so many remain excluded from society? These are two of the questions addressed by the EU’s new European Disability Strategy. In surveys, one in six people in the EU consider themselves to have a disability or a long-term health problem – that is about 80 million citizens. The EU believes that these individuals are entitled to live with dignity, enjoy equal treatment with the rest of the population, live independently, and take a full and active role in society.
EU legislation is already in place to ensure that people with disabilities are not discriminated against at work. Proposals are also in the pipeline to extend protection against discrimination beyond the workplace.
Despite the fact that their rights are enshrined in both EU and national legislation, many people with disabilities still face difficulties in their everyday lives.
They are on average poorer and more socially excluded than most other Europeans. They are also more likely to be jobless and have to cope with limited access to goods and services such as education, health care, transport, housing and technology.
Catalyst for change
In a bid to change this situation, the Commission has adopted a new European Disability Strategy covering the years 2010 to 2020.
The Commission wants the strategy to act as a catalyst that can empower people with disabilities so that they can enjoy their full rights as citizens. It therefore sets out a range of actions across eight key areas, which are: accessibility; participation; equality; employment; education and training; social protection; health; and external action.
To move forward in these areas, the strategy has established a number of activities for its first five years.
The Commission will consider drafting a European Disability Act in 2012. The aim here will be to improve the accessibility of goods, services and public infrastructure through the development of accessibility standards, and by enhancing the use of public procurement to buy accessible goods and services.
Efforts to improve accessibility in this way should be good for the economy as well as society. The market for assistive devices in the EU is worth about €30 billion a year. Greater standardisation and access to an EU-wide market allows for economies of scale and will help businesses sell their goods and services more easily across national borders.
In addition, public procurement calls that include accessibility requirements could make public infrastructure, such as railway stations and council buildings, more accessible.
The strategy seeks to improve the participation of people with disabilities in the political process. Actions include making election facilities and campaign material more accessible through, for example, an increase in the use of sign language and Braille.
Many EU member states issue disability cards that allow holders access to a range of goods and services. The strategy promises action will be taken to study and promote the possibility of mutual recognition of such cards and related entitlements.
The strategy will also address the need to ensure that EU programmes are used to help people with disabilities.
The European Social Fund and other financing instruments will be expected to continue to support projects for people with disabilities. And the Commission will develop education and training policies to meet the needs of youngsters with disabilities through its new ‘Youth on the Move’ initiative.
Making sure that the European Platform Against Poverty is harnessed to help poor people with disabilities is also high on the agenda.
In a bid to improve employment opportunities for people with disabilities, the strategy lays down a timetable to improve data collection and monitoring and to suggest new courses of action.
The rights of people with disabilities must also be a guiding light in the EU’s external relations activities, particularly through the enlargement process and via the development programmes.
A city recognised for setting an example
The Commission has also established the Access City Award to honour European cities that make changes to their urban environments in order to provide greater opportunities for people with disabilities.
The Spanish city of Ávila became the first winner of this award. The judges were impressed by the way that a medieval city like Ávila has improved access to public buildings, developed accessible tourism facilities and improved job opportunities for people with disabilities.
The award was announced at the “European Day of People with Disabilities Conference”, which took place in Brussels on 2 December 2010.
Delegates explored the experiences of people with disabilities in relation to EU citizenship, studying and working abroad, social security and mobility, and access to leisure and culture.