Disabled people are ‘stronger and safer’ in EU, say leading academics

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Leaving the European Union (EU) would put at risk significant improvements that have been made to the lives of disabled people over the last 15 years, according to three of the country’s leading academics working in the disability rights field.

In the strongest statement yet on why remaining in the EU would be the right choice for those concerned about disability rights, the trio say in a new document that disabled people would be “stronger and safer” inside the union.

In UK Disabled People and their Families – Stronger and Safer Inside the EU, the trio point to the “dramatic shift of emphasis” in EU disability policy from the mid-1990s, which saw a move “away from charity and welfare [and]toward equality and human rights”.

This shift in emphasis saw the introduction of the Employment Equality Directive 2000, which led in the UK to the removal of the original exemption in the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) for employers with fewer than 20 staff, so that in 2004 “it became unlawful for all employers (and not just very big ones) to discriminate against disabled people”.

The employment directive also led to the DDA being changed to make direct discrimination by employers against disabled people unlawful.

And it led to the law in England, Scotland and Wales being altered to make it unlawful for employers to discriminate against carers. 

On transport, the EU Air Passengers Regulation 2006 means transport operators have to assist disabled passengers travelling by air through the EU, with similar obligations for travel by train, ship, and buses and coaches, while there is also “mutual recognition” of disabled people’s parking badges across the EU.

And because of the EU Medicinal Products for Human Use Directive 2004, they say, packaging of medicines must include labelling in Braille.  

The document was written by the disabled academic Professor Anna Lawson, director of the influential Centre for Disability Studies at the University of Leeds; Professor Gerard Quinn, director of the Centre for Disability Law and Policy at the National University of Ireland Galway; and Dr Hywel Ceri Jones, formerly co-chair of the European Consortium of Foundations on Human Rights and Disability, and a former director general for employment, social policy and industrial relations for the European Commission.

Among other benefits of membership, Lawson, Quinn and Jones point to the EU’s ratification of the UN disability convention, which means the EU now has to throw out or change laws and policies which do not comply with the treaty and has to “harness all its financial, legislative and other tools to benefit disabled people”.

The three academics also point to “exciting proposals” for new EU legislation that will benefit disabled people in the future.

These include the proposed Accessibility Act, which would ensure that manufacturers and suppliers of products such as computers, phones, ticketing machines and e-books would have to comply with new accessibility standards that would apply throughout the EU, while some service-providers would also have to comply with new accessibility standards.

The act would also ensure that EU and UK public sector money was “not spent on creating new barriers that lock disabled people out of the mainstream”, they say.

And the trio say that a proposed EU public sector website accessibility directive would force public sector providers of key services to ensure their sites were accessible.

They say that all European Commission proposals around disability follow consultations with disabled people’s organisations.

And they warn that leaving the EU would cause the UK’s disability movement to become “more detached from its European counterparts”.

They point out that the EU provides a platform for bringing together organisations that campaign for equality and human rights, including disabled people’s organisations, so they can “share innovative ideas about disability policy and practice”.

They conclude: “If we leave the EU, we will be cut off from these sources of fresh thinking. Neither will we be able to contribute to them.

“The end loser will undoubtedly be disabled people and their families – in the UK and also in the rest of Europe.”

The document has already secured the backing of leading disabled figures, including the crossbench peers Baroness [Jane] Campbell and Lord [Colin] Low; Diane Kingston, vice-chair of the UN committee on the rights of persons with disabilities; researcher and writer Jenny Morris, who helped write the Labour government’s Improving the Life Chances of Disabled People white paper; and Linda Burnip and Debbie Jolly, co-founders of Disabled People Against Cuts.

The co-authors of the document are now hoping to secure signatures from other supporters.

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