An ambitious Disability Card is key to making the European Union a reality for people with disabilities.
In the European Union Strategy for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities 2021-2030, published in March 2021, the European Commission announced its intention to propose legislation to create a European Disability Card recognised in all member states. Together with other organisations of persons with disabilities and the umbrella group the European Disability Forum, the European Blind Union had advocated this as a component of the strategy—and that it is presented as one of the ‘flagship initiatives’ is by itself a success.
The commission is committed to presenting its proposal for the card by the end of this year and is engaged in consultations with stakeholders, more or less formal and public. As the voice of blind and partially-sighted persons in Europe, EBU is keen to make its recommendations heard.
Freedom of movement
The concept of a European disability card is not new. The disability movement started campaigning in 2010 for what it then called a ‘European mobility card’, to connect the notion to freedom of movement in the EU. Eventually, a pilot project was launched in 2016 on the by-then-renamed European Disability Card. Its declared aim was to help people with disabilities travel more easily between EU countries, by developing a system of mutual recognition of disability status to ensure equal access to a range of benefits across borders.
The pilot was evaluated in 2019-20. The evaluation, positive overall, said the benefits outweighed the costs, paving the way for the concrete commitment in the disability strategy. It however pinpointed—as did the commission’s consultations with the disability movement—some key shortcomings. Besides the obvious limitation that only eight countries participated (Belgium, Cyprus, Estonia, Finland, Italy, Malta, Romania and Slovenia), the piloted card’s practical value was constrained in various ways:
- Its material scope was limited and could vary among participating countries, with one country only looking at transport and tourism, for instance, whereas another might also cover culture and sports and even the purchase of some products.
- The concerned service providers—such as museums or transport companies—in each participating country remained free to join the system or not.
- The advantages offered to cardholders for a specific service could vary from one participating country to another and change over time.
- The country-per-country information on the dedicated national web portals was not sufficiently complete, up-to-date and accessible, and there was a low level of awareness, among not only potential cardholders but also staff handling the card, often unfamiliar with it.
These practical defects could all easily be corrected. More importantly, the pilot unwittingly highlighted the persistent discrimination people with disabilities experience when it comes to mobility in Europe.
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While a European card can prove that one has recognised disability status in one’s country of origin, it does not by itself ensure that that status is recognised in the host country—with consequent entitlements to cost reductions and/or benefits in equal treatment with nationals of that country with disabilities—since the participation of service providers is voluntary. This is not in conformity with the principles of the EU treaties.
This has fuelled EBU’s repeated call for a European Disability Card that would truly deliver on freedom of movement for persons with disabilities in the EU and make it what citizens with disabilities expect it to be—an EU-wide scheme of recognition with equal access to related services. The commission seems determined to address this issue, as it affirmed in the consultation: ‘The European disability card will facilitate free movement for people with disabilities in the EU. With the card, disability status recognised in one EU country should be recognised in others too, giving the holder access to preferential conditions for some services across the EU.’
There are practical but important details to address, such as the format of the card, the accompanying portal, funding and awareness-raising. But there also remain issues of principle.
The question remains open whether the commission will propose a directive or a regulation, or a non-binding legislative act. Precisely because it is a matter of ensuring equal treatment for persons with disabilities in the exercise of free-movement rights, EBU calls for binding legislation—preferably a regulation, to avoid differences in implementation at national level.
The material scope of the future card also remains largely to be defined. To ensure equal treatment, it must encompass all services and supports already provided, under the legislation of the host country, to national citizens with disabilities, beyond culture, tourism, leisure and sport.
Indeed, if the EU single market is to be a reality for consumers with disabilities, non-nationals/non-residents should enjoy, across EU-internal borders, the same access as nationals/residents to discounts on assistive devices or affordable communications plans, for example. Ideally—although this may be more difficult to achieve—there should be homogeneity across the EU regarding the associated benefits.
The commission has made clear that the card will not harmonise national eligibility criteria or rules. Member states will retain their discretion to decide who is eligible to receive the card, using the national definition of disability, and to determine the issuing procedure.
We understand that and also that the scope of the card will not cover social-security/social-protection benefits under national rules, including as co-ordinated by EU law in a cross-border context. Nevertheless, the card should concern, beyond travellers and consumers, also workers, trainees or students who move to another EU country, where their disability status needs to be recognised in that context for equal treatment—at least by facilitating the transition while undergoing a ‘reassessment’ process in the host country.
To illustrate why this is important, EBU’s executive director, when moving from Belgium to take up his new position in France, had to go through a time-consuming procedure of being officially recognised in the country as blind, and in the meantime wait to enjoy disability-related social and other benefits. This meant he had to use his own accessible PC for work purposes over quite a long period.
The commission has also said it will build on the experience of the EU Disability Parking Card and envisages the possibility of merging the two cards. This has raised mixed reactions.
EBU encourages the commission to improve the legal framework for the Disability Parking Card—today a mere Council of the EU recommendation—to harmonise its format, characteristics and issuing procedure. But the Disability Card, even if combined in a single legal initiative with the Disability Parking Card, should remain physically separate, because not all persons with disabilities who are potential holders of the Disability Card are concerned with the Disability Parking Card—and, if they are, they may need that to stay in the car while they carry the Disability Card around. Moreover, the Disability Card will bear personal information which should not be visible in a parking place.
Antoine Fobe is head of advocacy and campaigning at the European Blind Union, which has a network of 41 national members. He previously worked for European Citizens’ Action Service, Amnesty International, the Council of Bars and Law Societies and the French data-protection authority.