European Commission Vice-President Viviane Reding told MEPs last week that she will present a proposal for a 'European Accessibility Act' before the end of 2012. This new legislation is seen by the Commission as a key element of the European Disability Strategy, which was unveiled last year.
The EU executive is getting ready to launch a major study that will identify and analyse the barriers which prevent people with disabilities from making full use of public buildings, transport and all kinds of services.
The results of this study will provide the basis for developing new EU legislation on accessibility standards.
Vice-President Reding spoke about the overall goals and scope of the 'European Accessibility Act' when she addressed a special meeting of the Disability Intergroup in the European Parliament, which took place in Brussels last week (13 January). The meeting was attended by MEPs and by organisations representing people with disabilities.
"I will work hard to get all the actors on board to make sure that products and services, public buildings and spaces become more accessible to all our citizens, and to this end we will launch a study to identify the issues at stake," promised Reding.
"Based on this study I will propose an accessibility act in 2012. I know that I can count on the European Parliament to support this crucial issue," she said.
Challenges and opportunities
Currently there are some 80 million people with various kinds of disabilities in the European Union, but this number is expected to increase in the coming years, mainly as a result of the growing proportion of older citizens in the population.
Reding is determined that the EU should try to be a world leader in developing products and services that are accessible to people with disabilities. "Europe should become an exporter of those goods and services," she said.
The vice-president believes this is important not just for ensuring fundamental rights and equal opportunities, but also as a way of creating jobs and growth by taking advantage of growing market opportunities.
To make the most of these opportunities, the Commission will develop common standards for ICT (information and communication technologies), the built environment and product design.
Reding hopes that it will be possible to agree on common standards not only at European level, but also in cooperation with other major players in the global economy.
"We should work with our partners on other continents in order to get global standards being put in place," said Reding. "We have already started to do so with the United States, and with other partners at international level, and in the end we hope that will bring coherence into our standards."
The Commission vice-president cited progress made in the USA under the provisions of the 'Americans with Disabilities Act', which has been in force since 1990. "I think we should learn from this positive experience and go ahead in Europe too," she said.
New legal framework
Reding noted that the Lisbon Treaty provides a legal basis for main-streaming disability issues into other policies, and also gives a legal status to the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights. In this new framework, the Commission is obliged to make sure that the needs of people with disabilities are taken into account during the development and implementation of all EU policies and legislation.
Another important development is that the European Union has recently concluded the process of ratifying the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. This is the first comprehensive human rights treaty to be ratified by the EU as a whole.
"The Convention will formally enter into force for the EU in a few days, on 22 January," confirmed the Commission vice-president.
Reding explained that the Commission will be responsible for coordinating and monitoring the implementation of the UN Convention at the level of the European Union, in cooperation with the other EU institutions and also with the member states.
All the EU's 27 member states have signed the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and most of them (16) have already ratified it.
The European Disability Forum (EDF), which brings together more than 50 national and European organisations representing people with disabilities, expressed satisfaction with recent developments. Yannis Vardakastanis, president of the EDF, said that "the UN Convention and the European Disability Strategy together present a unique opportunity".
"The rights that are enshrined in the Convention need to be delivered," said the EDF president, although this will be a "difficult challenge" for the EU institutions. "It goes without saying that the disability movement, from the grassroots level to the European level, is very much interested and determined to take part in the implementation process."
UK MEP Richard Howitt, a member of the Socialists & Democrats group in the European Parliament, congratulated vice-president Reding on her commitment to developing new EU legislation on accessibility, which he described as "the most important innovation" in the European Disability Strategy unveiled in November 2010.
Howitt encouraged Reding to continue making the case for a comprehensive anti-discrimination directive at EU level, based on the proposal that was published by the Commission in July 2008. In this regard, he invited the Commission vice-president to work with the European Parliament in order to put pressure on those member states that have been blocking the adoption of such a directive.
Dutch Green MEP Marije Cornelissen welcomed Vice-President Reding's suggestion that there should be a concerted effort to ensure that people with disabilities can take part in the next elections to the European Parliament, which will be held in 2014.
Cornelissen also called on the Commission vice-president to continue pushing for a comprehensive anti-discrimination directive at EU level. "No opportunity should be passed up to mention how important it is that this directive goes through," she said.
According to official statistics, 80 million people in the European Union (or one out of every six citizens) are affected by some kind of disability.
The EU Directive on 'equal treatment in employment and occupation' (2000/78/EC) entered into force on 2 December 2000, and makes it illegal for employers to discriminate against people with disabilities.
In July 2008, the European Commission published a proposal for a directive that would extend legal protection against discrimination in fields other than employment. However, the proposal was not accepted by all member states.
In November 2010, the Commission presented a European Disability Strategy, which outlines the initiatives it will take during the current decade (up to 2020).
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was agreed in 2007 and has been signed by all of the 27 EU member states. The UN Convention was recently (on 23 December 2010) ratified by the European Union.
- 22 Jan. 2011: European Union officially becomes party to United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
- 2012: European Commission to publish proposal for 'European Accessibility Act'.
- European Commission:EU launches Disability Strategy 2010-2020(DG Employment, Social Affairs & Inclusion) [FR] [FR] [DE]
- European Commission:European Disability Strategy 2010-2020 – frequently asked questions(Memo, 15/11/2010)
- European Commission:EU ratifies UN Convention on disability rights(Press Release, 5 Jan. 2011) [FR] [FR] [DE]
- European Commission:Fighting all forms of discrimination in the European Union(DG Justice)
- European Commission:Proposal for an anti-discrimination directive(published on 2 July 2008)
- European Parliament:Disability Intergroup of the European Parliament(homepage)
- United Nations:Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities [FR]
- United Nations:Rights and Dignity of Persons with Disabilities [FR]