The Conference on the Future of Europe failed to address persons with disabilities.
In March 2021, the European Parliament, the European Council and the European Commission agreed a joint declaration on the Conference on the Future of Europe. This launched an ambitious public discussion on the needs and expectations of Europe’s citizens and the future objectives of the European Union, initiating the largest ever consultation across the continent as citizens shared their ideas. There were good grounds for such a process, given the vital task of reshaping the EU and adjusting it to the challenges ahead.
The inclusion of persons with disabilities should have been deemed essential to framing the agenda of the union—every EU law and every decision affects us as citizens, in particular ways. But the conclusions of the conference fell short of addressing the needs and rights of over 100 million people in the EU.
We expected the conference to tackle how the EU can secure our inclusion—the equal rights and opportunities for which we advocate. Such rights are binding on the EU and all its member states, having ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
The European Disability Forum and its members were active with proposals and events, despite the barriers to participation. The lack of accessibility of the online conference platform was especially problematic. Yet although a thorough report, commissioned by EDF, pointed out the many problems and how to fix them, this was never adequately corrected.
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The conference thus failed meaningfully to include the views of persons with disabilities. The report of the final outcome, presented to the presidents of the three main EU institutions on Europe Day, reflects this deficit. While many broad objectives and measures might include persons with disabilities as part of the general population, explicit mentions and actions were scarce. Moreover, some of the proposals concerning persons with disabilities were not expressed correctly and insensitively elided disability with illnesses, which is discriminatory and incorrect.
Disability appears in only five out of 49 proposals and six out of 320 measures. These are cursory, too: education against stereotypes towards ‘those who are ill or disabled’ and fighting against health poverty through free dental care; a broad approach to promoting employment; increased public investment in education, health, housing, physical infrastructure and care; accessibility of digital tools for persons with disabilities—a critical point the pandemic has highlighted—and guaranteeing effective voting rights.
More ambition is essential if the EU is to become inclusive. We need concrete measures in many more areas, bold actions from the institutions and a general switch towards placing disability in the mainstream of every policy with social repercussions.
Inclusive labour market
Employment inclusion is one of the greatest challenges facing our societies. Of the working-age population, the employment rate of those with a disability is barely 50 per cent, compared with 75 per cent for persons without disabilities. Beyond unemployment, inactivity rates are also unacceptable: most persons with disabilities are excluded from the labour market even before they start looking for work.
Anti-discrimination policies must be promoted more effectively. This includes a better implementation of the 2000 directive on equal treatment in employment and occupation. It means creating more training opportunities and activation measures to ensure persons with disabilities are included in the open labour market. The EU also needs to promote accessible work environments and disseminate good practices, such as those within the social economy.
Fundamentally, EU countries must accelerate the transition into open-labour-market solutions, ensuring that persons with disabilities are not left aside in segregated models which do not comply with the UN convention. These include those which, at times, lead to inferior rights and incomes below the minimum wage.
Deinstitutionalisation—to ensure persons with disabilities live in the community and are not segregated in residential institutions—is a moral imperative as well as a legal obligation. EU funds must not be used to build or renovate these institutions, under any circumstances. Instead their closure must be pursued, even mandated, in favour of independent, humane alternatives: community-based support and services.
The conference report does not consider the intersectionality of disability and other oppressed identities, such as gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity and cultural background (including the intersection of these multiple identities). In particular, combating discrimination outside the workplace and violence—especially gender-based violence and abuse directed towards women with disabilities—must be addressed. The most effective vehicle is to resume negotiations on the ‘horizontal’ equal-treatment directive, blocked in the council for more than ten years.
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Future generations cannot be counted in if access to quality inclusive education is not tackled. Ensuring that educational infrastructures and services are fully accessible and boosting participation in tertiary education should be goals for the EU. Special attention should be paid to programmes related to mobility in education—far too many learners with disabilities are excluded from ERASMUS+, for example.
More action is also needed to reinforce accessibility to public space, goods and services. The European accessibility act, the web-accessibility directive and the directives and regulations on passengers’ rights have opened the path. Specific assessments and reforms are however required to ensure that physical spaces (cities, towns, rural areas) and the EU internal market (including the digital sphere) do not discriminate against persons with disabilities, because of a lack of accessibility.
Finally, the EU needs to improve how it gathers data, in its general statistical systems and within its projects. Better data allow for more efficient and effective policy and programme development. The statistical landscape regarding disability is far from adequate and more disaggregation is essential.
The Conference on the Future of Europe has marked the beginning of what will be a long path to adapt the union to the challenges of tomorrow as well as today. The rest of that journey has to be accessible and inclusive—a bolder approach which leaves no one behind.