Diversity is the buzzword of the 21st century. But when it comes down to the brass tacks of how the rights of persons with disabilities are actually implemented, the enthusiasm very quickly runs out.
Last year in particular, with the Covid-19 pandemic, it became clear just how forgotten and discriminated against people with disabilities are in the European Union and how quickly their fundamental rights come under threat in an emergency situation. Under the heading of triage, for instance, decisions were made in the course of emergency hospital admissions as to which lives should be saved in a context of extremely limited medical resources and which should not. For many people with disabilities and their families, there were very real fears that they would fall through the net in a triage situation in which their lives could be considered less worthy of saving. We people with disabilities felt abandoned with our concerns.
However, there were already issues, such as underfunded local care and assistance services, living isolated lives locked away in institutions, a lack of support for families and the scarcity of barrier-free health and information services, which have dramatic consequences for persons with disabilities.
The new EU Strategy for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities 2021-2030, proposed by the European Commission in March 2021, would appear to be all the more urgently needed. It aims to ensure that the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities is at long last implemented in all EU member states. It is more than 10 years since they signed up to the obligations set out in the Convention – incidentally, the first human rights convention that was ratified by the EU as an institution.
Nevertheless, we are still a long way away from true participation in all areas of life in the European Union – even though one in every five people is living with some form of disability. Less than 50% of persons with a disability are in work, 29% are living in poverty and experience social isolation. Women with disabilities are five times more likely to experience violence than their able-bodied sisters. Persons with disabilities are often invisible, shut off in worlds apart – the opposite of lived inclusion.
The new EU Strategy should strengthen the focus areas of independent life, mobility, freedom from barriers and inclusive work and education. As a Member of the European Parliament, I drafted a report on “Equal Treatment in Employment and Occupation” in parallel to the European Commission’s work. It was approved by the European Parliament in March 2021 by a sizeable majority. To me, the report’s demands for equal access to the employment market are of particular importance. The European Union must ensure that Member States move away from a system of isolation to a situation of inclusive, common working, as set out in the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Many persons with disabilities currently work in special workshops, cut off from the rest of society. Only a tiny percentage of them are in the first employment market. EU Member States must reverse this trend and support any alternative in which persons with and without disabilities work side by side. With 300,000 persons with disabilities employed in these workshops, Germany is the front-runner in the workshop system, in which they work for pocket money. This is an area in which our economic system and our employment system must become more inclusive, to give persons with disabilities a proper employee status and access to a minimum salary.
The EU disability card, announced by the European Commission and to be formally proposed at the end of 2023, is an infinitely important project. The situation today is that each EU Member State has its own definition of disability. If, therefore, as a person with a disability, you were to move to a different EU country, you would have to undergo a new battery of assessments from scratch before you could claim any support: this is a clear case of discrimination affecting the freedom of movement. An EU disability card that just gets you a bit of money off at museums is of no use to persons with disabilities. In the long term, it must be possible for EU Member States to recognise each other’s national disability status, so that the corresponding social support and assistance is guaranteed. This would be one more step towards a true social union.
Persons living with disabilities must be taken into account across the board in all EU political fields. This can only happen if they are represented in the institutions. From the EU institutions to the UN and various NGOs – special points of contact or committees for the rights of persons with disabilities must be set up. Because whenever persons with disabilities are politically underrepresented, they are forgotten about. That became apparent during the pandemic crisis management. Looking at the European Parliament alone, I am the only woman with a visible disability among 705 MEPs. This is a clear indication that things need to change – urgently. In short: nothing about us without us.
This article was first published in German on boell.de.