With a few days to go before people cast their vote in the most important election in our lifetime, I wanted to look at what the EU referendum means for the 12 million or so sick and disabled people in the UK. You may not be disabled and think this has much to do with you, but given that 90% of disability is acquired this may be more relevant to you than you think.
Although the UK’s 1995 Disability Discrimination Act was an important step in tackling disability discrimination, EU membership saw a shift in emphasis in disability policy away from charity and welfare towards equality and social justice. The principle that disabled people should be able to participate fully in all aspects of society, including work, accessing the same opportunities that everyone else can including being able to use their talent and skills to the best of their ability was fundamental to this. This led to the EU Employment Equality Directive 2000 requiring all EU countries to prohibit disability discrimination in employment which dramatically strengthened UK disability equality law.
Since then, EU legislation has been introduced which has helped to better protect disabled people from discrimination. For example, improving accessibility to transport and buildings. And access to information too, for example having Braille on medicines’ packages. Treatments have also been developed through European research for diseases so rare that no one country could have done it alone. But it doesn’t end there. The EU helped to shape the UN Convention on the rights of ‘persons with disabilities’, the only UN Treaty the EU has ratified and which was endorsed by the UK as well in 2009.
The 2009 EU Charter of Fundamental Rights brings together in a single document all the rights that people in the EU enjoy. In particular, Article 21 prohibits discrimination on various grounds including disability, and Article 26 recognises the rights of disabled people to ‘benefit from measures designed to ensure their independence, social and occupational integration and participation in the life of the community.’
EU funding through the Structural Funds has aimed to reduce social and economic inequalities between regions and social groups, including being directed towards combatting disability discrimination. For example the Erasmus+ programme – an education programme for young people – is designed to be accessed by and to support disabled people.
The 2010-2020 European Disability Strategy has even greater ambitions including combatting the poverty that so many disabled people face. In the UK, disabled people are twice as likely to live in poverty as non-disabled people. And the 2016 Accessibility Act proposes common accessibility requirements for a number of products, for example, computers, and services, for example, telephonic services including emergency services, across the EU.
20 years ago the UK was leading the way in tackling disability discrimination. As we have seen over the last 6 years with the punitive 2012 and 2016 Welfare Reform Acts, this is no longer the case. More worryingly there is no guarantee that existing EU legislation that aims to improve disabled people’s lives will remain. No one should feel they are unable to reach their best potential or that their hopes and dreams don’t matter.
So for disabled people everywhere I urge you to vote to remain in the EU.