‘The road to equality for persons with disability is still long’

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European Commissioner for Equality Helena Dalli presents her
Strategy for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities 2021-2030
March 3rd 2021. Picture taken from her official Twitter account

At the beginning of the month March, European Commissioner for Equality Helena Dalli presented the Strategy for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities 2021-2030. She reacted positively at my request to go deeper into some aspects of the Strategy by an interview. Below are her answers.

How do you think the European Union has acted with regard to the inclusion of people with disabilities in the recent years?

We paved the way to a barrier-free Europe with the European Disability Strategy 2010-2020. The adoption of the European Accessibility Act in 2019, for instance, was a milestone. It makes products and services such as phones, e-books and banking services accessible, so they can be used by persons with disabilities. Yet, while progress has been achieved, the road to equality is still long and the pandemic has worsened existing inequalities. Persons with disabilities are still at a disadvantage when their situation is being compared to that of persons without disabilities. Due to structural inequalities – for instance in the field of access to healthcare, lifelong learning, employment and recreation activities – full inclusion remains difficult, participation in political life is limited and 52% of the people concerned experienced discrimination. Hence, our new and strengthened Strategy for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities 2021-2030 steps up the ambition and aims to ensure their rights can be enjoyed. This will require constant and collective commitments. With all governments, with social partners, with civil society and the private sector and of course in close dialogue and partnership with persons with disabilities. Nothing about persons with disabilities should happen without their involvement.

What can we expect from the European Pillar of Social Rights as far as inclusion of people with disabilities in the short and long term is concerned?

The European Pillar of Social Rights is our beacon guiding us towards a stronger social Europe. This comprises the full inclusion of persons with disabilities. As such, the objectives of our new Strategy for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities are included into the new European Pillar of Social Rights Action Plan. One of the innovations in the new action plan is a stronger link between the Social Pillar and the European Semester, which is the annual process of economic and social policy coordination. Countries that are not performing well, for instance on ensuring equal access to employment or education of persons with disabilities, will receive a recommendation to remedy the situation. There is a strong incentive for countries to act. They can receive billions of EU funding to boost their recovery from the coronavirus crisis, as long as their plans address the challenges raised in the European Semester. The coronavirus has made it even more acute to step up EU policies for persons with disabilities. With regard to a resilient and fair recovery, policies should be designed in an inclusive manner for all.

Income inequality, risk of poverty and social exclusion are still challenges in the European Union. How will the European Union solve them in 10 years from now?

Before the pandemic hit us hard, we were heading in the right direction. In 2019, there were 17 million fewer people at risk of poverty or social exclusion than in 2012. Despite the strong support by the EU and its member states the situation is now likely to worsen in the short term, due to the impact of the coronavirus crisis. Therefore, we want to act now and limit poverty and income inequality as much as possible.

The European Pillar of Social Rights Action Plan sets a headline target to lift at least 15 million people out of poverty or social exclusion by 2030. At least 5 million should be children in order to break the cycle of disadvantage and give all children in the EU the same opportunities, especially the most disadvantaged. We have just presented a European Child Guarantee which guides and supports EU member states in achieving this goal. As persons with disabilities have a higher risk of poverty than those without disabilities, the new Strategy for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities will help to improve the situation.

What can we expect from the European Disability Strategy for the next 10 years?

Regardless of gender, racial or ethnic origin, religion or belief, age or sexual orientation, persons with disabilities should be able to participate in society on an equal basis with others. That means having equal access to education, employment, healthcare, our democratic systems and justice. This also means they should be able to decide where, how and with whom they live. As well as being able to move freely within the EU regardless of their disability.

Through the new Strategy we are taking action on three main themes. Persons with disabilities should enjoy their EU rights on an equal basis with others, enjoy quality of life and autonomy and live free from discrimination. Among the key initiatives are the launch of a European resource centre on accessibility, ‘AccessibleEU’, and a European Disability Card for all EU countries.

Delivering on the actions in the Strategy will require everyone’s commitment. The Commission does not have the power to enact these changes alone. By ratifying the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the EU and all member states have already committed themselves to concrete actions to continue breaking down barriers, ensuring equal access and combatting discrimination. In April 2021, the Portuguese EU Presidency holds a high-level conference in the area of disability to kick-start the new way forward. 

In March, the European Commission proposed to create a card to facilitate the circulation of people with disabilities in the European Union. How will this help people with disabilities?

Today, persons with disabilities who move to another EU country, to work or study for instance, face trouble in having their disability status recognised. This means that they may not have access to the services and support they need in their everyday lives. Already now, eight EU countries are participating in a pilot project for a European Disability Card. Persons with disabilities tell us that this represents an advantage. Hence, the Commission would like to propose a European Disability Card in all 27 EU countries by the end of 2023 which will make it easier for people with disabilities to make use of their right to move freely and enjoy their rights and services they need to live the way they want to. 

Can people with disabilities expect fair employment integration within the European Union? Can a person with a disability be sure he/she will be able to find a job that he/she can carry out, within his/her capabilities?

EU law bans discrimination and prescribes that employers must provide a reasonable opportunity to persons with a disability to work with them. The European Union has some of the most extensive anti-discrimination laws in the world. Yet, only half of all persons with disabilities have a job, compared to 75% of those without disabilities. The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed further inequalities that persons with disabilities continue to face. The pandemic has thus a tougher impact on them.  Teleconferencing or working from home can present obstacles to some. In addition many persons with severe disabilities work in so-called sheltered employment, which does not always ensure good working conditions.

Together with disability organisations the Commission will develop a package to improve the labour market participation of persons with disabilities. In addition we call on EU member states to unlock the potential of persons with disabilities and set targets for their level of employment. We will continue to monitor their progress through the European Semester. 

What should be the role of the private sector? How can public policies have an impact in mobilising private companies?

All employers in the EU, both in the public and the private sector, have the obligation and the responsibility to fight discrimination at work. This means concretely that employers should be providing the necessary support or changes to the work environment or job organisation to enable a person with a disability to apply and reach their full potential on equal basis with others.

The Commission will continue to foster the social economy which provides both services and job opportunities for persons with disabilities. By the end of this year, the Commission will adopt an Action Plan on Social Economy. Tapping into the potential of this sector to create qualitative jobs and contribute to a fair, sustainable and inclusive growth for all.

Do you think governments should recognise and even give benefits to companies which include people with disabilities in their job opportunities?

When raising awareness on the obligations of the private sector, governments can of course encourage and value inspiring practices. Nonetheless, it is not common to provide benefits to companies simply because they are complying with the rules. For instance, Portugal has legislation establishing employment quotas for persons with disabilities with a degree of disability equal to or greater than 60% since 2019. Hiring persons with disabilities is mandatory for medium and large public and private companies which will have to hire between 1% and 2% of workers with disabilities.

Companies that champion diversity and inclusion experience advantages. They can tap into a wider pool of talented workers and their workers are more productive, because they feel respected, recognised and safe. Diversity in the workforce also leads to more creativity and boosts a company’s image.

What does the European Commission needs to do to be a more inclusive institution itself?

The Commission is currently reviewing its human resources strategy in order to create a work environment where everyone can reach their full potential. The Commission will also boost the recruitment, effective employment and career perspectives of staff with disabilities. It will continue to create inclusive work environments by reinforcing its commitment as an employer to foster diversity and equality. In addition, the Commission will step up efforts to make buildings, IT and information more accessible, both for staff and visitors. We aim to lead by example and call on other EU institutions to do the same.

Copyright text: Johan Peters, 30/03/2021 - ...