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29th Sep 2023

EU's new disability card — a hit for trips, 'insufficient' for moving

  • The card is also useful for people with 'invisible' disabilities, such as autism (Photo: European Commission)
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The proposed new EU disability card was unveiled by the EU Commission on Wednesday (6 September), aimed at ensuring mutual recognition of disability status across all 27 member states and helping users access essential benefits and services.

"They face inequalities because the disability status is not automatically recognised when travelling to another member state," EU commissioner Věra Jourová told reporters.

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  • With the card, non-national EU citizens will enjoy the same benefits as local residents in leisure, culture or even transport (Photo: stephen jones)

For disability rights organisations, the initiative is a "real improvement" for the disabled community, which has been calling for a better mobility within the EU for more than a decade.

"In our Union of Equality, people with disabilities have their rights, but these rights must not stop or change for the worse at national borders," Jourová said.

In practice, however, the card will be more useful for those visiting another EU country than for those coming to live, work or study.

"The European Disability Card will ease the daily lives of persons with disabilities visiting another country and strengthen our sense of European citizenship," Yannis Vardakastanis, president of the European Disability Forum (EDF) said.

The idea of the card is not new and is based on a voluntary pilot programme that ran from 2016 to 2019 in eight member states (Belgium, Italy, Malta, Slovenia, Cyprus, Estonia, Finland, and Romania), most of which maintained it afterwards.

The aim was to standardise the recognition of disability status, as each member state has a different system and not all of them have a card for it.

"Having this card brings a certain legitimacy," EDF deputy director Alejandro Moledo told EUobserver. "It helps to have your disability recognised".

The card is also useful for the recognition of people with "invisible" disabilities, such as autism or intellectual or psychosocial disabilities, Moledo said.

This mutual recognition is the main strength of the proposal. More so than the actual range of services to be included, which service providers may or may not voluntarily offer.

With the card, non-national EU citizens will enjoy the same benefits as nationals in leisure, culture or even transport, such as reduced fares, priority access or personal assistance.

What the card does not imply is a change in national eligibility criteria, which remain at the discretion of member states.

Still a national competency

"We are not seeking to harmonise who and how obtains a disability status in a member state," Jourová said. "This will remain the competence of the member states (...), who will issue a European disability card".

Nor does it mean that those studying for a limited period in another EU country (under the Erasmus+ programme) will have the same rights and support as national students with disabilities. Nor does it cover those who work abroad during the period in which the disability reassessment takes place.

In these respects, EDF describes the legislative proposal, which has taken the form of a directive rather than a regulation, as insufficient.

"A regulation, being fully-binding for member states, would have resulted in a more consistent and efficient implementation of the card," they complained.

Instead, a directive sets targets and gives member states room for manoeuvre to "translate" the text in its transposition into national law.

Among the remaining challenges to ensuring the free movement of people with disabilities is the accessibility of cities themselves.

"Only if we have full accessibility of transport, the built environment, digital technologies and other goods and services will freedom of movement become a reality for people with disabilities in the EU," stressed the EDF.

The proposal is now on the table. But that does not mean the card will be available this year, as the EU legislative process can take several years.

The EU executive's proposal will now be examined at parliamentary committee level. Once it is approved, MEPs will decide in plenary on the parliament's position, to start trilogue negotiations with the council and the commission to decide on the final legislative text.

Once adopted, member states will have 18 months to transpose it into national law.

"The commission must ensure that the card is practical and brings real benefits to citizens' daily lives," said MEP Dennis Radtke from the centre-right European People's Party, adding that this will require consumer awareness, public promotion and close cooperation with the companies offering these services or benefits.

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