Rights at the Time of the Crisis

The European Union does not meet the expectations of persons with disabilities.
Rodolfo Cattani

When in January 2012 entered into force the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in the European Union, the economic crisis that threatens today the very existence of the Union had already exploded four years before. The ratification of the Convention by the Union was an act of courage and of great ethical and legal significance, from which we anticipated substantial improvement in the living conditions of people with disabilities. In reality this improvement did not take place, in part because of the worsening economic conditions of Member States and also because of the inertia of the Union's institutions, unable to respond effectively to the crisis. The European Disability Forum has fought tirelessly for the ratification of the Convention, the adoption of which by the United Nations it had contributed to a decisive extent. The Forum, as is known, is the umbrella organization representing eighty million people with disabilities in Europe through the National Councils of the individual Member States and the European organizations that are part of it. The Forum aims primarily to defend the rights of persons with disabilities at the level of the EU institutions, the Council of Europe and the UN, as well as to support the efforts of member organizations at the European and national levels. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities provides that after two years of the ratification, States Parties, and also the Regional Integration Organizations that ratify it, must submit a report on the implementation of the Convention to a committee of the United Nations in charge of measuring the extent to which the Convention has been implemented and the results that were achieved. Organizations of persons with disabilities, as well as those that offer their support and services can submit to the Committee alternative reports, in order to point out shortcomings and failures in implementing the Convention. In 2014, the EU presented its report and, on the 2nd of April, the European Disability Forum presented its own, highlighting the critical aspects of the management by the EU. In reality, the picture drawn in the alternative report is altogether positive, but a number of concerns regarding the implementation of the Convention were also highlighted.

Manifesto of the European Disability Forum (EDF)

In particular, the Forum pointed out five problem areas: 1) The EU has not developed a specific strategy for the implementation of the Convention by all community institutions and Member States. The relevant legislation to this end is the National Disability Strategy 2010-2020, which was launched before the ratification of the Convention. It has a limited scope, has no funding and has not given any results regarding employment, social inclusion and poverty reduction of persons with disabilities, as was foreseen in the European Disability Strategy 2010-2020. Even within the EU institutions the Convention has had very modest results: the EU's external communications is not inclusive nor accessible, the selection process and the procedures of employment of persons with disabilities are still very discriminatory. 2) Knowledge of the Convention is still insufficient at EU level; public awareness campaigns targeting the general public or the staff of the Union were not organized. The EU does not have a coherent legislation on the equal treatment of people at risk of discrimination, although this is a sector of its full competence. To date, protection is available only at the work level and the proposal to extend protection to other areas of life, such as education, social security, health and access to goods and services is still being debated in the Council. Moreover, having been presented by the European Commission before the ratification of the Convention, the scope of the proposal does not adequately address it. 3) The more progressive EU policy relates to accessibility. But even here the concerns are strong, as the proposal for a directive on the accessibility of the websites of public and private sector organizations that provide services of public interest, presented in 2012, has not yet been approved by the Council because of the opposition of some Member States and the long-awaited EU legislation on the accessibility of goods and services has not yet even been presented by the European Commission. 4) Unfortunately, we must also underline backward steps which are of concern, especially in the areas of transportation and public procurement, where regulations are not always properly applied. In the air transport sector, for example, we indeed find an alarming situation because people with disabilities could be required in the future, for security reasons, to always travel with a companion, undermining the current regulation for persons with mobility. Even in regards to universal access standards, some slowdown has been observed as well as poor operational efficiency. 5) Then there is the lack of objective data that would enable the development of a more accurate picture of the situation of persons with disabilities in Europe. There are some general commitments to that effect, but there is a lack of tools and the operational data collection is still based on medical criteria, which are incompatible with the social model of disability adopted by the Convention.

Stamps commemorating the Convention on the rights of persons with disabilities - 2008

In conclusion, the Forum believes that the EU should work more effectively towards the implementation of the Convention, back to playing the leadership role it had shown at the time of the ratification. In fact, if the EU institutions are halting this, it is very likely that the Member States do the same and that the implementation of the Convention suffer an arrest or a setback that would be difficult to recover. In August and in September, the EU will have to undergo examination by the UN Committee on the Convention and implement the recommendations that will be suggested by the Committee. We hope that it may help to revive the enthusiasm subsided and that policies in favour of persons with disabilities regain their strength. As a matter of fact, at the present time, the EU maintains a rather passive approach which absolutely must be overcome.