Friday

19th Oct 2018

Interview

Disability in the EU - a 'paradigm shift'

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.

"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.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Support quality EU news

Get instant access to all articles — and 18 year's of archives. 30 days free trial.

... or join as a group

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

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.

Disabled people have a right to live in the community

An estimated 1.2 million people with disabilities in Europe continue to languish in long-stay institutions. Institutionalisation is widely recognised as a systematic and egregious violation of human rights, writes Judith Klein.

EU parliament leaders in disability pledge

European Parliament leaders have committed themselves to better upholding the rights of persons with disabilities, starting with making their political websites more universally accessible ahead of next year's EU elections.

Disability and EU austerity: a Portuguese case study

As executive director of a recuperation centre for disabled people in central Portugal, Cristina Silva has seen first hand how the economic crisis in Portugal is affecting society's most vulnerable.

News in Brief

  1. EU to open trade talks with US on beef
  2. EU court orders Poland to suspend firing judges
  3. Japan to focus on circular economy at G20
  4. Italian budget 'significant deviation' from rules, says EU
  5. Podemos initiates debate on legalising marijuana in Spain
  6. Merkel: Focus on banking union at December EU summit
  7. Scotland confirms mad cow disease case
  8. European 'Green surge' set for repeat in Hessen election

Russian activist warns on 'fake news' as EU backs action

In 2015, internet activist Lyudmila Savchuk went under cover to expose a troll factory in St Petersburg. As the EU summit endorses anti-disinformation action, she told EUobserver the Russian government is bankrolling many more.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. International Partnership for Human RightsOpen letter to Emmanuel Macron ahead of Uzbek president's visit
  2. International Partnership for Human RightsRaising key human rights concerns during visit of Turkmenistan's foreign minister
  3. NORDIC COUNCIL OF MINISTERSState of the Nordic Region presented in Brussels
  4. NORDIC COUNCIL OF MINISTERSThe vital bioeconomy. New issue of “Sustainable Growth the Nordic Way” out now
  5. NORDIC COUNCIL OF MINISTERSThe Nordic gender effect goes international
  6. NORDIC COUNCIL OF MINISTERSPaula Lehtomaki from Finland elected as the Council's first female Secretary General
  7. NORDIC COUNCIL OF MINISTERSNordic design sets the stage at COP24, running a competition for sustainable chairs.
  8. Counter BalanceIn Kenya, a motorway funded by the European Investment Bank runs over roadside dwellers
  9. ACCACompany Law Package: Making the Best of Digital and Cross Border Mobility,
  10. International Partnership for Human RightsCivil Society Worried About Shortcomings in EU-Kyrgyzstan Human Rights Dialogue
  11. UNESDAThe European Soft Drinks Industry Supports over 1.7 Million Jobs
  12. Mission of China to the EUJointly Building Belt and Road Initiative Leads to a Better Future for All

Latest News

  1. What Italy's budget row is actually about
  2. EU preparing 'concentration camps' for migrants
  3. Poland to respect EU injunction on judicial purge
  4. EU votes on Facebook and plastic This WEEK
  5. Top EU banks guilty of multi-billion tax fraud
  6. Polish left a glimmer of hope in fight against illiberal democracy
  7. Europe and Asia seek stable relations in troubled times
  8. Asylum reforms derailed, as EU looks to north Africa

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. International Partnership for Human RightsCivil society asks PACE to appoint Rapporteur to probe issue of political prisoners in Azerbaijan
  2. ACCASocial Mobility – How Can We Increase Opportunities Through Training and Education?
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersEnergy Solutions for a Greener Tomorrow
  4. UNICEFWhat Kind of Europe Do Children Want? Unicef & Eurochild Launch Survey on the Europe Kids Want
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Countries Take a Stand for Climate-Smart Energy Solutions
  6. Mission of China to the EUChina: Work Together for a Better Globalisation
  7. Nordic Council of MinistersNordics Could Be First Carbon-Negative Region in World
  8. European Federation of Allergy and AirwaysLife Is Possible for Patients with Severe Asthma
  9. PKEE - Polish Energy AssociationCommon-Sense Approach Needed for EU Energy Reform
  10. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Region to Lead in Developing and Rolling Out 5G Network
  11. Mission of China to the EUChina-EU Economic and Trade Relations Enjoy a Bright Future
  12. ACCAEmpowering Businesses to Engage with Sustainable Finance and the SDGs

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us