Interview

Disability in the EU - a 'paradigm shift'

04.12.12 @ 10:14

  1. By Honor Mahony
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BRUSSELS - Over recent decades, there has been a "paradigm shift" in the way disability rights are treated in the European Union with policy-makers now focussing on how to make society more inclusive of disabled people.

  • Mark Priestley - "We've come a very long way" (Photo: EDPP)

"We've come a very long way. If you go back to World War II and the emergence of the United Nations and the EU, disability was not really on the agenda even though there was an agenda for human rights, says Mark Priestley, a Professor of Disability Policy at the University of Leeds in the UK.

It was until the 1970s that disability issues started to make a mark on public dialogue. But back then it started off as an individual-focused issue. Care, rehabilitation and compensation were the lenses through which people with disability were viewed. The idea was that they needed to be given medication or treatment or state subsidies.

But more recently the emphasis has shifted to the "social model of disability." Under this model it is the environment, rather than the person, that leads to the disadvantage that disabled people experience.

"Take cerebral palsy," says Priestley, "historically people would have said 'we can see that those people get less education, they're less likely to be employed, they're more likely to live in poverty and the reason for that is because they have got cerebral palsy."

"Now we'd be much more likely to say: 'it's because the environment is much more inaccessible to those who use wheelchairs, there are negative or discriminatory attitudes. So it is turning the whole discussion on its head by saying it is not the disabled person's problem but a societal one."

This model is much more compatible with EU powers. "The change in the philosophical paradigm opened up a space for the EU to become a much more significant actor," says Priestley.

This change was coupled with disabled people becoming much more vocal about their rights.

In 1993, the European Commission sponsored the first ever 'European Parliament of Disabled People' to articulate the claims and needs of disability people.

Three years later, a report called "Invisible Citizens" by a group of human rights lawyers highlighted how, when it came to European law, disabled people simply did not exist.

This then led to disabled people being named for the first time in the 1997 Treaty of Amsterdam. It gave the EU the power to act on grounds of disability discrimination. "This was a turning point," said Priestley.

In 2000, the EU agreed the directive on equal opportunities in employment. And over the past decade the Union has been focussing on what it can do at a regulatory level, such as easing accessibility in different areas of transport.

"It is about restructuring the single market to make it more accessible," says Priestley. "That's a huge shift from compensation and care to human rights and changing the environment."

Other politically symbolic changes are happening too. The European Disability Forum, a pressure group set up in 1996, last year heralded a breakthrough when it had a meeting the presidents of the EU's three most powerful institutions.

Meanwhile the European Union in 2011 ratified the UN's convention on persons with disabilities. It was the first international human rights treaty that the EU signed as an entity rather than its member states. Aside from being politically important, it obliged the EU to ensure certain basic criteria within its own institutions.

Change in jargon

EU jargon has changed too. Instead of vague disability action plans, there is now the more concrete 10-year disability strategy.

Both the strategy and the UN convention offer a "huge opportunity" for the EU to be a positive force, says Priestley, particularly given the "retrenchment" witnessed in many member states due to austerity measures.

However there is only so much the EU can do without political will from member states. The so-called fourth anti-discrimination directive, tabled in 2008 and meant to boost minority rights in the services sector, has stalled.

One of the sticking points is making the service industry to be accessible to disabled people.

"It's quite easy to sign up to political principle of equality for women and anti-racism. When you build disability into that, people go along with it but when you start to talk about what that actually means, such as reasonable accommodation, then people get scared."

"I imagine it could take up to twenty years to get through," says Priestley, looking to the timeline for a similar bill in the UK.