The European Social Network’s (ESN) new toolkit ‘Towards more independent lives for people with disabilities: Reflections from social services across Europe’ showcases steps that can be taken by social services to promote the independence and autonomy of people with disabilities. It is based on the results of ESN’s working group on disability which brought together ESN members to share and discuss innovative practices and policies from their own services for people with disabilities.

The toolkit is divided into different thematic chapters each providing overviews of national policies, detailed descriptions of local practices, and key challenges and opportunities for disability services planners and providers.

Promoting active inclusion in the labour market

The first chapter presents strategies for increasing the participation of people with disabilities in the labour market. People with disabilities experience lower rates of employment and higher rates of poverty compared to the wider population, therefore removing barriers to their inclusion in the labour market is a key policy objective.

The toolkit highlights how local authorities and public social services can play an important role in supporting people with disabilities to find employment through integrated planning and coordinated services. This is illustrated by examples including one from Ireland. In 2015 the Irish government published a ten-year employment strategy for people with disabilities. It emphasises a cross-government, concerted effort to tackle barriers hindering the employment of people with disabilities. This includes education services preparing people with disabilities with the right skills at an early age and engaging with employers to create routes into work.

Fostering service user involvement

The involvement of people with disabilities in the planning and delivery of services that affect them is enshrined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities (UN CRPD) and is the second theme addressed in the toolkit.

For social services, including people with disabilities means providing information and advice so they can make decisions on their care and support. It also means recognising people with disabilities as experts by experience who should be consulted in the evaluation and planning of services.

One example included within the toolkit illustrates how the municipality of Aarhus, Denmark, has introduced a framework for developing services alongside people with learning disabilities, their families, and staff. This has led to multiple ideas being proposed for improvements and innovation within services.

Harnessing technology for independent living throughout the life-cycle

Technology offers significant opportunities to promote greater autonomy for people with disabilities and is the focus of the final thematic chapter of the toolkit. Assistive technology such as smartphones designed for people with sensory impairments enable people with disabilities to go about their lives with less need for supervision and reduced need to travel to meet carers or health staff.

Furthermore, robotics can make daily tasks easier for people with disabilities. One example presented in the toolkit is a robotic arm which can help people with mobility impairments when eating.

This is a small snapshot of the diverse range of technologies being utilised by social services for people with disabilities, which are playing a vital role in helping people with disabilities participate in society to the same extent as the wider population.

The three thematic areas are examined in greater detail within the toolkit, supplemented with analysis of the opportunities and challenges related to each theme. The toolkit concludes with a practical checklist which provides recommendations to directors and professionals working in social services so they can promote the independence of people with disabilities, and contribute to the overall objectives of the UNCRPD.