Yannis Vardakastanis is the president of the European Disability Forum.
He spoke to Euractiv Managing Editor Daniela Vincenti.
President Barroso hosted recently the first meeting of a series of State of the Union event on disabilities. Is this kind of event going really to advance the cause of 80 million citizens with disabilities or is it just lip service?
The State of the Union on Disability has been an historical event. It is the recognition by the EU institutions that they have to listen to the 80 million Europeans with disabilities through its united voice in the European Disability Forum (EDF).
The main goal of this presidents’ meeting was to make sure the European institutions are working together towards the implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and that the participation of persons with disabilities in the process is ensured.
The State of the Union was a unique opportunity for EU leaders to reflect with us on how put in place all the necessary policies and measures to make the European Institutions work for the real protection and promotion of the rights of persons with disabilities. This is the only practical way to combat poverty, discrimination and exclusion and to promote the inclusion of 80 million Europeans with disabilities working together for more freedom, participation, democracy and human rights.
The meeting was not just lip service, this meeting has brought concrete commitments and a high level roadmap for the next two years until the next State of the Union. The crisis forced European leaders to deliver and to protect the most vulnerable. We will continue our work, at the agreed meetings, i.e. the UNCRPD session at the College of Commissioners, the Director Generals’ meeting and the European Parliament of People with Disabilities 2012.
The crisis has affected people with disabilities, possibly more than other groups. Much EU and national funding has been cut to help people with disabilities. What steps can be taken to solve this gap?
We will not stop denouncing the terrible impact that the financial crisis is having on the lives of persons with disabilities, via the EDF Observatory on the Crisis. We are monitoring the situation across the EU and the picture is worrying, today more than yesterday.
Raising awareness on the situation is the first thing to do. That is why together with the Commission EDF organised the conference on the European Day of persons with disabilities on this theme. Gathering political will and commitment in protecting the most vulnerable European citizens is the next step.
Ensuring adequate standards of living and social protection, giving access to education and employment to persons with disabilities as well as access to social services, should be seen as an investment and not a cost. If persons with disabilities, as every other citizen, can live independently and included in the society, they will contribute to the growth of the community, both from a human point of view and an economic one.
The EDF representatives presented to the presidents of the EU institutions the dramatic situation persons with disabilities are faced with, especially in the member states most hit by the crisis. Furthermore, the representatives called on the presidents to send a clear message to the troika and to the members states’ governments that persons with disabilities need to be protected from horizontal cuts and from cuts in disability specific policies and measures.
Would you say the EU is retrograding when it comes to implementation of anti-discrimination rules?
At the beginning of 2011 we were very positive and hopeful. We had the newly approved European Disability Strategy, a strong commitment from the European Commission to develop a European Accessibility Act, and above all the entry into force of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities [CRPD].
The reality is that we still are unprotected regarding discrimination against people with disabilities in other areas of life apart from employment. The need to develop non-discrimination legislation and to add measures on the internal market, such as the European Accessibility Act, is urgent.
In the course of the year, concrete legislative proposals that could benefit persons with disabilities in the field of transport and structural funds were made.
We cannot say that the EU is well equipped with legislative tools to fight discrimination; moreover the implementation of the employment directive is clearly deficient.
If the EU is not retrograding in putting in practice the legislation, for sure is not advancing. Too often macro-economic concerns prevail on human considerations. But as EDF, we are determined to be not only the watchdogs but also to be innovative in suggesting our way ahead.
The retrogression in rights comes out from the austerity measures in the countries. If the EU does not take action to stop this, it will be contributing to this retrogression.
President Barroso stated in the meeting that the CRPD should be promoted and implemented despite the crisis. This very important statement needs to be proven by delivery.
Do you think EU leaders have done enough to find a social way out of the crisis?
I think that more long-term solutions are needed. Leaders are taking decisions focusing on the short-term economic solutions and are asking the European citizens to pay for something they were not responsible for. Solidarity, equality, social justice, and the view that economic wealth should be used to benefit all members of the community, without excluding or discriminating against groups or individuals, are at the basis of the so called “Social Europe” which used to distinguish the EU from the rest of the world.
Are these principles lost? For sure they are frozen and we have to make sure that they come out from hibernation as soon as possible. The answer, therefore, is that the EU leaders make statements about the social way out of the crisis, but the grim reality is that the social way has not been integrated in any decision they have taken to deal with the crisis so far. The gap between words and deeds needs to become narrower as a matter of urgency.
How do you see the situation evolving in 2012? Which battles is EDF is going to pick up in 2012?
The priority of EDF in 2012 will be to ensure European policy and legislative measures to protect people with disabilities from the effect of the crisis and the austerity measures taken to exit the crisis. The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disability will be as well an EDF driver and agenda-setter.
We will work hard to ensure that the EU starts delivering on its words by assessing the compliance of the existing and future EU laws and policies with the obligations deriving from the Convention. The need to ensure the capacity of the European disability movement to engage in the political debate and the policy making at the national and European level will be as well a priority for the movement.
Accessibility will remain our buzz word until we see a concrete proposal for a legally binding European Accessibility Act that will change ... the way our societies work, making them really accessible for all. In 2012, the EU will renew several financial instruments including the future regulation on structural funds.
At this regard we will do our best to make sure that these tools are used to promote anti-discrimination, accessibility and social inclusion for persons with disabilities. In the areas of transport, built environment and ICT we need to follow up very concrete legal proposals that are supposed to be discussed in 2012.