Researchers with disabilities in the Horizon (2020)

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Horizon 2020, the legislative proposal for research and innovation in Europe, should guarantee the freedom of movement of researchers with disabilities and offer them equal opportunities. However, a recent case in Ireland shows Europe is still far from that goal, write MEP Catherine Trautmann and other signatories.

The following piece is co-signed by Catherine Trautmann, Member of the European Parliament, Gerard Quinn, Director, Centre for Disability Law & Policy (National University of Ireland, Galway) and Director of the DREAM network, and Yannis Vardakastanis, President of the European Disability Forum (EDF).

"Running from 2014 to 2020 with an expected €80 billion budget, Horizon 2020, the legislative proposal for research and innovation in Europe, is expected to create new growth and jobs: it should guarantee the freedom of movement of researchers with disabilities and offer them equal opportunities.

Sinead O'Donnell is a brilliant student who received bachelors and masters degrees in law with honours in Ireland, her home country. She did not want to stop short of her nascent and promising professional career and applied for the position as an Early Stage Researcher to a foreign European university to join the Disability Rights Expanding Accessible Markets network or DREAM. It is a training network for PhD researchers funded by the EU Marie Curie Initial Training Network (ITN) Funding Programme.

A fundamental condition of this funding is that the student must travel to another European country. The object of the DREAM network is to professionally develop the next generation of disability policy researchers and entrepreneurs. After tough competition, she was made an offer to join the network in another European university given her high qualifications. Unfortunately, this was also the point in time where her difficulties started.

Sinead O’Donnel is also a person with a disability, who requires the support of a personal assistant for her everyday activity. Such support has being provided by the State of Ireland all along her undergraduate studies, but could not be fully extended by the Irish authorities to follow her as a postgraduate student based in another European country. Given that the limited DREAM discretionary budget to cover accessibility costs, could not cover the costs of the personal assistant service either, the participating university in question had to withdraw its offer to enable its deadlines to be met.  The net result was that she could not take advantage of her prestigious Marie Curie opportunity which she won purely on academic merit and become a PhD student due to her disability.

This was not only a tragic but also extremely ironic situation for her, given the nature of the network she was set to join. The story of Sinead is a daily illustration of one of the main concerns of the European disability movement: freedom of movement for people, which is supposed to be one of the great achievements of the EU is obviously not a reality for persons with disabilities. The European Disability Forum (EDF) is the non-governmental organisation representing 80 million Europeans with disabilities.

In the context of the current discussions about the Horizon 2020 legislative package, EDF pointed out that: persons with disabilities are not given equal access to the potential of the European Research Programmes and the current review must bring a change by systematically grounding a disability perspective to promote the participation and access of persons with disabilities in the future Horizon 2020. This implies allowing 100% funding for organisations of persons with disabilities participating in research projects, reasonable accommodation in research policy and programmes, as well as additional funding to cover all disability-related costs (what would have ensured Sinead’s ability to perform her PhD research). Accessibility of documents and research material should also be guaranteed to citizens with disabilities as for anyone else.

As strong supporters of the inclusion of the disability perspective in European research, we would like to draw attention on the discriminatory problems encountered by persons with disabilities: they should be enabled to participate in Europe research as any other citizens. The European Parliament and Member States are currently scrutinising the Horizon 2020 proposals for legislation. We therefore call European decision makers to clearly integrate disability and accessibility as part of the orientation of European research and allocation of funding for the next 7 years of the decade; we have a chance to bring a real change and we should not miss it!"

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