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19th Nov 2017

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Economic crisis turning back the social clock for disabled people

Austerity measures are reversing the welfare, educational and societal gains made by disabled people in recent years, a new study shows.

The findings are "most evident" in Greece, Ireland and Portugal - countries which have all been bailed out by the EU and the International Monetary Fund and which have been slashing their public spending in return for the money.

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  • Only 'robust' states such as Germany, Austria and the Nordic states have generally maintained the level of state protection for disabled people (Photo: shugfy)

But the same trend is true of Spain (in line for a state bailout), the UK and Hungary - all six the particular focus of the EU-wide study published in November.

Produced for the European Foundation Centre - an umbrella organisation for philanthropic foundations - the study for the first time gives a broader picture to the largely anecdotal or local-level evidence about the effects of the crisis on some of society's most vulnerable people.

Harald Hauben, one of the authors, said it proves that the lives of disabled people are "seriously curtailed" by austerity measures.

"The crisis on its own already affected disproportionately people with disability as compared to people without disabilities," he said, referring to increasing poverty statistics.

He said that social care, long term care and rehabilitation have been the hardest hit by the spending cuts in almost all member states.

Only "robust" states such as Germany, Austria and the Nordic states have generally maintained the level of state protection for disabled people.

The austerity axe falls in different ways across member states.

Pensions and allowances for disabled people have been slashed by up to 50 percent in Greece. Parents caring for severely disabled children in the Czech Republic have had their pension rights curtailed. Social security payments are delayed in Spain by up to 15 months.

Member states such as Italy are introducing means testing for personal assistant allowances, while the UK, Greece and Portugal have introduced tougher disability assessments, making its harder to be eligible for assistance.

Meanwhile, most governments no longer index their disability pensions and allowances to inflation.

The report also talks of a deepening of prejudice and stereotypes about disabled people.

In pre-crisis times in Ireland, for example, 6 percent of parents objected to having a mentally disabled child in the class room. This has now risen to 20 percent. People in the UK, regularly exposed to media articles describing benefit scroungers, "largely over-estimate the level of fraud by people with disabilities."

Planned moves to ensure better physical and social access in society for disabled people have been shelved in several member states - including Romania, Bulgaria, Ireland, Portugal, Hungary and Greece.

Meanwhile, straitened public coffers has resulted in a push to hand some social services to private companies, where profit is the bottom line.

There is also an increasing tendency towards putting people in institutions or simply prescribing drugs and away from the "social model" and its "multidisciplinary approach towards assessment and service provision."

Immaculada Palencia Porrero of the European Commission - itself under fire for pushing austerity measures in bailed out countries - said the study is "good for evidence-based policy-making" with only five of the 27 member states actually collecting data on disability.

But the commission has little say in social policy.

Porrero, who deals with disability issues in the EU executive, says the commission tries to influence member states in the areas through its annual economic policy recommendations (CSR) to individual member states.

"We have country specific recommendations and specific reports where the commission highlights where member states have to pay attention to different areas," she says.

But she adds: "There is a lot of competition to put what are the most important issues for a country, and we are not always successful."

In the last round, the reports for Denmark, Estonia, the Netherlands and Germany touched on disability matters but mostly in relation to the sustainability of pensions.

Disabled people live in 'terror' of the future

As EU governments cut corners on their budgets, welfare spending is usually the first on the chopping block. The decision can be made at the stroke of a pen. But the on-the-ground effects for welfare-dependent disabled people can be devastating.

Disability in figures

People from Malta are least likely to have health problems that limit their daily activities. In 2011, 88 out of 100 told EU pollsters they were fine. Only 64 percent of Slovenes did, and some 75 percent of EU citizens.

Disability rights and the crisis

With Europe now in its fifth year of economic crisis, the most vulnerable in society are feeling the effects of governments' reined-in spending. Disabled people, often reliant on both state services and allowances, are among those hardest hit.

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