Nothing About Us Without Us: Disability Rights in the European Union

Nothing About Us Without Us: Disability Rights in the European Union


A disability rights protest in IrelandSource: Flickr (Sinn Fein)

If someone cannot get upstairs, that may be the result of a ‘disabling’ condition. A more modern approach suggests that disability is not an individual issue, but a social one. The inability to get upstairs is a result of society’s failure to provide another way of accessing higher floors.

The International Day of Persons with Disabilities takes place every year on the 3rd of December. In 2019, it was themed around disabled people’s leadership in sustainable development action. That is relevant everywhere, regardless of the national level of economic development. The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals highlight disability. All countries have to include disabled people in their development plans.


The EU is no exception. The European Disability Strategy is one of the many policies which needs renewing. First, a brief note on terminology. The EU and UN refer to ‘persons/people with disabilities’. Many activists refer to themselves as ‘disabled people’. Different people prefer different terminologies. The author of this piece has dyspraxia, a condition which affects movement and coordination. In line with the author’s personal preference for the term ‘disabled person,’ this piece will also use that term when discussing public policy.


Secondly, a brief theoretical introduction. There are two prevailing ‘models’ of disability: the medical model, and the social model. The former sees the cause of disability as an individual’s impairment. The latter sees the cause of disability as society’s failure to include people. To take an example, under the social model, a wheelchair user is not disabled because of their inability to climb stairs. They are disabled because nobody has provided a ramp or a lift. In short: under the medical model, the impairment is the problem. Under the social model, society’s barriers are the problem.


Some inclusive reforms have taken place in the EU. The European Disability Strategy (EDS) 2010-2020 focused on eight main action areas. These are accessibility, participation, equality, employment, education and training. Many of these achievements are in the EDS 2017 Progress Report. Only some will be highlighted here. The European Accessibility Act was designed to harmonise accessibility requirements for particular products and services. It also defined how pre-existing accessibility obligations should be met.) New EU funding rules about accessibility and inclusion ensure respect for disability rights in EU aid projects.


Disability has also been mainstreamed in Erasmus+. Specific funding is available to help disabled students and staff take part. Calls for proposals now include accessibility criteria. Disabled young people are a target group for the Youth Guarantee education and training scheme. One of the main barriers to mobility is the lack of mutual recognition of disability status between the Member States. The EU disability card, piloted in 8 Member States, is a potential step towards EU-wide recognition.


However, there is still much work to do. The United Nations’ assessment of the EU’s compliance with the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) revealed some important shortcomings. The EU has not ratified the Optional Protocol to the CRPD. Doing so would create a powerful tool for disability rights activism. Individuals or groups under EU jurisdiction could complain of CRPD violations to the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. It could then launch an investigation and request the EU act to avoid harming the victim(s). The Committee could also launch a full inquiry if the EU chose to accept its competence to do so. It may seem unlikely that the EU would mistreat disabled people. In reality, the first-ever country to be investigated in this way was the United Kingdom.


Indeed, institutionalisation persists in many Member States. The UN highlighted the issue of children living in institutions within the EU territory. They often lack access to quality, inclusive education within the mainstream state system. It was also concerned that the European Structural and Investment Funds were being used to support institutions rather than to support disabled people in the local community. Even worse, some Member States still engage in forced sterilisation and abortion: a human rights violation under the CRPD.


Some disabled people were also denied the right to vote in the 2019 European Parliamentary elections. This is due to inaccessible voting procedures or reduced legal capacity/guardianship. The European Economic and Social Committee estimates that the latter deprived around 800,000 EU citizens of their right to vote. It also highlights that blind voters in 18 Member States cannot cast a secret ballot. They are expected to receive help from another person. 8 Member States have no form of distance voting, disenfranchising anyone who cannot attend a polling station in person.


Looking to the next 10 years, the European Disability Forum passed a Resolution at the 2017 European Parliament of Persons with Disabilities. They call on the EU to ratify the Optional Protocol as mentioned above. The Structured Dialogue is an ongoing cycle of communication between young people and the EU institutions, and the EDF seeks to duplicate this process for disabled people. Adequate funding for disability-related projects is an overarching concern throughout the Resolution. The EU must be aware of this in planning its next budget.


The EDF also raised concerns about discrimination against disabled people who also belong to other marginalised groups. An integral part of the strategy for the next 10 years must be inclusion, respect for decision-making power, and de-institutionalisation. The UN asked the EU to act on the detention of disabled refugees and migrants. It did not do so, and this must now be a priority for upcoming migration reforms.


It would be all too easy to focus on things like the budget and migration at the expense of issues like the EDS. For the EU to drag its heels over the production of a 2030 European Disability Strategy would be an unacceptable dereliction of duty. Disabled over 16s form 24.1% of the European population. Disability issues are not only those linked to disability rights. All EU decisions affect us, and nothing should be done about us without us.