Non-discrimination, Accessibility, Participation

by Rodolfo Cattani

The new European Union Structural Funds open up to persons with disabilities.

With the adoption of the new Structural Funds 2007-2013, the European Union proposes to carry on the strategic policies designed to tackle regional disparities across the EU and contribute to growth, competitiveness and employment. The new Funds cover a seven-year cycle from 2007 to 2013. EU regions were subdivided into three areas, based on their GDP (gross domestic product) of the European average according to three specific objectives:
- Convergence: Regions with a per capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP) less than 75% of the EU-25 average will qualify under the convergence objective; to this will be assigned at least 78% of the total amount of the funds; Foto - Bandiere dell'EuropaFoto - Pulsante per aprire
- Competitiveness: This area will concern regional competitiveness and employment; to the regions involved in this objective will be assigned at least 18% of the total amount of the funds;
- Cooperation: The objective is to strenghten cross-border territorial cooperation in the EU; it foresees the allocation of funds to States through the Cohesion Fund.
For all these objectives, resources of Structural Funds will be used for infrastructures such as highways, schools, hospitals, communications development, transportation, new technologies, etc.; other initiatives will be funded in order to promote employment and social inclusion.
Foto - Tennista disabileThe Structural Funds are:
- the European Social Fund is the main instrument for the development of employment and social inclusion within the European Union.
Its actions revolve around the development of strategies for education, professional training, the promotion of employment and social inclusion. This fund is traditionally used for initiatives concerning persons with disabilities, and numerous references to them and their families are made in the articles of the Regulation, particularly in regards to social exclusion and access to employment;
- the European Fund for Regional Development funds the development of infrastructures of state members of the EU. The goals of this fund depend on the objective of the concerned region. "Convergence" (research, technological development; information society; environment; tourism; culture; transportation; energy; education; health and social infrastructures).
"Competitiveness" (innovation and knowledge economy; environment and risk prevention; access to transportation and telecommunication services). "Cooperation" (cross-border activities with an economic, environmental and social character; cross-border cooperation; strenghtening of regional policies).
- the Cohesion Fund concerns mostly projects in relation to transportation and environment for countries with a GDP below 90% of the European average. The fund can co-finance up to 85% of the amount of  projects.
The Structural Funds are the most important financial instrument of the EU intended to stimulate social and economic development and they represent nearly 35% of the annual budget of the Union, that is 43 billions of Euro. Contrary to the previous cycle (2000-2006), the new one foresees precise standards to insure that co-financed projects by the Union in the state members, for the development and implementation of new infrastructures and services, take into consideration the needs of persons with disabilities. The state members have to include representatives of the civil society, therefore organizations representing persons with disabilities (ORPD) in the planning and monitoring of the use of the funds, like in reports submitted to the European Commission.
Structural Funds co-finance numerous projects at the national and regional levels in the most varied sectors, from city planning, to infrastructures, to transportation, to education and to professional training, to culture and, of course, to employment. Persons with disabilities are one of the main groups targeted by the actions in the training and employment sector. The new Regulation of funds establishes that projects for which co-financing is required by the EU have to respect the basic principles of non-discrimination on the basis of disability and the full accessibility on the part of persons with disabilities, a nullifying criteria for co-financing. The fight against discrimination of persons with disabilities must reach across every co-financed action. Accessibility by persons with disabilities has to be guaranteed in all public participation projects.
The new Regulation represents an incredible step forward for organizations representing persons with disabilities because, unlike before, these now have the right to participate in the management of funds. However, this historical achievement will be made real only if organizations representing persons with disabilities act opportunely with a well-planned strategy, possibly coordinated at the European level in order to strenghten its efficiency in those countries where there could be unjustified resistance.Logo - Indicazione della posta per i non-vedenti
The involvement of ORPDs will have relevent repercussions on national and regional policies in single countries, given the importance of the fundings involved, especially in the less developed regions. Participation is therefore a key element in reaching concrete results.
The European Commission has adopted the Community Strategic Guidelines for Cohesion which contain the objectives of the Structural Funds. Formulation must take into account the national guidelines in various states. The guidelines recall on many occasions the principles of non-discrimination and accessibility for each transversal objective, particularly in relation to the Operative Programs that state members must adopt for the allocation of funds at the national and regional levels.
In order to get things going with the Structural Funds, state members have to elaborate the National Strategic Reference Framework that will underpin allocation and distribution of Structural Funds in respect to the guidelines set by the European Commission. Finally, the European Commission and state members have to sign formal agreements. These are the Operative Programs, legally bounding, that indicate the context of the program, the goals, the objectives, the priorities, the measures to annotate, the monitoring and the funding conditions. Programs can be sectorial or thematic, regional or local. The procedures of adoption of the Strategic Framework and the Operative Programs are in the stages of development and ORPDs have to be involved in their predisposition in order to ensure that funding will be allocated for specific actions concerning persons with disabilities, according to the priorities they will have set themselves in the various countries, and to also ensure that the main projects that interest directly or indirectly persons with disabilities (such as the development of infrastructures, services, transportation, education) will involve persons with disabilities and be fully accessible.
ORPDs have to make sure that they are not only involved in projects regarding employment and social security, but also in projects relating to other areas such as the European Fund for Regional Development and the Cohesion Fund. In order to do this, they have to be part of management and monitoring committees to examine results and the specific impact of Operative Programs.
Every operative program will have its management and monitoring committee.
From what is written here, it appears clearly that the new Regulation of the Structural Funds offers persons with disabilities exceptional opportunities to be heard and to participate actively and in real terms in the programming of social policies that are most likely to lead to important results for their integration into the workforce and their social inclusion. On the other hand, this is an incredible challenge with complex, vast and new commitments to respect. It will not be easy for ORPDs to address this challenge, but it is not possible to give it up and quite worth it to try.