Under the aegis of the European Commission and the European Disability Forum (EDF), 280 participants came together to celebrate the European Day of Persons with Disabilities (EDPD) in Brussels, on 29-30 November. The theme was the 10th anniversary of the adoption, by the UN, of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UN CRPD). Despite clear progress on securing a range of rights for people with disabilities, implementation gaps need to be addressed, notably in the field of employment and independent living.

The UN Convention: a major legal instrument at international and European level

Panellists presented the achievements of the past 10 years, starting with the adoption of the CRPD by the UN General Assembly in 2006 and followed by the introduction of a Committee dedicated to monitoring its implementation. Maria Reyes, Chair of the Committee, highlighted the role of the CRPD as a “powerful instrument to mainstream disability” within the work of other UN agencies and committees, eg on torture, children and employment, and to enhance civil rights and contribute to  sustainable development goals.

Despite the progress to date, speakers and participants from the audience agreed that more could be done to improve the lives of people with disabilities in the EU, including in the field of employment and independent living.

Active inclusion and labour market integration

Official European statistics tell us that the risk of poverty and social exclusion is as high as 50% for people with disabilities, who also have lower employment rates (between 28% and 55% depending on the severity of their disability against 72% for non-disabled people). For those who are in employment, they often do so within sheltered workshops, whereas international frameworks (UN CRPD’s article 27) and the experiences gathered through our working group on disability , existing evidence and testimonies from employers and persons themselves point to the importance of, and economic case for, “open” work environments that provide the necessary arrangements.

Esteban Tromel, senior disability specialist at the International Labour Organization (ILO), told the conference: “We need a paradigm shift, and a system that both protects and empowers through employment”. To ensure the successful integration of people with disabilities in a competitive labour market, “we must change attitudes, raise awareness in the workplace, and give guidance to employers on the benefits of employing these people”, Mr Tromel continued. He also mentioned the ILO Global Business and Disability Network. He explained that the initiative helps multinational enterprises advocate for the business and human rights case for hiring people with disabilities and accommodate them in the workplace.

Independent living

The aftermath of the 2007/2008 financial crisis has sometimes led to support for independent living sliding down the list of governments’ priorities. Since EU structural funds contribute significantly to investment in social assistance and services in a number of countries, representatives from the European Network on Independent Living (ENIL) warned that these funds should “not be used to “re-institutionalise people with disabilities”. Examples of this include the setting up of housing facilities which, although smaller and community-based, continue to promote an institutional culture and limited choice and control over one’s life. The European Commission responded saying that current regulations include additional provisions and monitoring instruments to make sure the transition to community-based care happens effectively.

Making the EDPD relevant: involving 

"It is expected that in 2020, 120 million Europeans will experience a degree of disability", said EU Commissioner for Employment Marianne Thyssen. To prepare for this, ESN suggests involving a much larger spectrum of professionals working on disability services at the European Day of Persons with Disabilities, starting with local authorities and public social welfare services. Being responsible for planning, commissioning and evaluating services, those are the best placed to improve support services and eventually, independent living for persons with disabilities. Professionals from the transport, accessibility and leisure sectors would also undoubtedly add value to the event.

Working in an integrated way is crucial so accessibility and disability services become truly mainstream. The EDPD should be the place where all stakeholders work collectively to co-produce practical solutions to the above-mentioned challenges.