Disability group: ‘Swedes can improve weak EU legislation’

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Current proposals for EU anti-discrimination legislation are too weak when it comes to disability rights and require strong action from the Swedish Presidency, European Disability Forum (EDF) Director Carlotta Besozzi told EURACTIV in an interview.

Carlotta Besozzi is the director of the European Disability Forum (EDF).

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here

You were in America last week, ahead of global discussions on the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. US President Barack Obama took the unprecedented step of signing the Convention, something the US has never done in the past. 

Basically, the US has signed the conventions at the UN level, which is effectively a moral engagement to ratify it and enshrine it into national law. 

So that is the next step, and it seems that the US is moving in the right direction for this to happen. We expect there to be a consensus around this in the US Houses of Congress, given that they already gave President Obama permission to sign the UN Convention. 

Another positive at US level is that they have very strong disability legislation – the American Disabilities Act – which came about mainly because of intensive lobbying from war veterans in the aftermath of the Vietnam war. 

How does the national disability legislation of EU countries compare to the American Disabilities Act? 

For some things, US legislation is more advanced. In the area of accessibility, for example, they have a lot more put in place. 

Also, while we do in Europe have anti-discrimination legislation on employment and training, there are some countries which are better in certain areas. Some are better when it comes to access to education for children with disabilities; some are better in terms of accessibility, and within that some are better in terms of their built environment while others are better when it comes to transport. So the overall picture is patchy. 

Can you be more specific? Which countries do well in which specific areas? 

In terms of education, the legislation which is most far-reaching is in Italy, as it’s really an obligation there that all education has to include children with disabilities.

In the UK and Ireland there is a good framework of anti-discrimination legislation which covers different areas, while in the Scandinavian countries and Austria, you have good accessibility legislation for transport and the built environment. 

The Scandinavian countries also score highly in providing social services, while some of the ‘new’ EU member states are doing well – Slovenia in particular, while Hungary has good legislation but has problems with implementation. 

In the opinion of the EDF, how well did the last Commission do in promoting a progressive disability agenda? Give us a ‘report card’ for the 2004-2009 Commission. 

I think we had a lot of positive steps in the area of transport and passengers’ rights, that’s definitely been one of the big plusses. 

We were fortunate in this respect that we had two commissioners who were both quite committed to the issue. 

The major thing was the adoption of the regulation on the rights of passengers with disabilities to travel. This was adopted in 2006 and entered into force in 2007-2008. 

And last December, the commissioner proposed two new pieces of legislation – also on passengers’ rights – which were mainly the result of disability campaigns regarding transport on buses and maritime/inland waterway ferries. That has already gone to the Parliament and is currently with the Council. 

What about the bad? Where has the EU not done as well as it could have? 

The main issue is anti-discrimination legislation – there’s a proposal on the table but we are not completely satisfied with its current content. 

This legislation was predated by the EU’s proposals for access to employment for people with disabilities, and there was a discussion about whether to extend the legislation to other areas of EU policy. 

At the same time, there was a strong campaign by EDF and its members, with the collection of one million signatures, to push for the EU to improve disability legislation. This contributed to the European Communities signing the Convention on the rights of persons with disabilities, which led to the non-discrimination bill now in the process of being implemented. 

So there was a political opportunity from this convention, which gave the EU a moral base to advance on disability rights. 

When the non-discrimination proposal did finally emerge, we were quite disappointed as we found it restricted in terms of disability aspects, and lacked specifics – the article which deals with disabilities is quite short, and we feel it should have been drafted more carefully. 

We regretted that there was very little consultation on the document, which was bad not just for us but for other groups. There was a big discussion about who exactly was going to be covered by this legislation. 

In fact, the Commission didn’t even have a proper internal consultation and everything was done very quickly. 

We are still hoping that we can improve it – it’s currently with the Council. 

So overall, you consider it to be watered-down. 

Yes, the Commission’s proposal is already not ideal, and it was also watered down further in previous presidencies. Now, with the Swedish Presidency, we have some hope that some exceptions will be removed and the text made a little stronger. 

These exceptions mainly pertain to accessibility. Basically, it’s the definition of “disproportionate burden,” where a company can avoid applying the legislation. 

So in the case of the employment directive, companies are required to not discriminate against persons with disability in the hiring process. They have to make reasonable accommodation – so if for example a person coming for an interview is blind, they have to give them more time to process the information and prepare written statements, or they might need an interpreter, or an adjustment of the job description. 

In these cases, the “disproportionate burden” is not so strongly defined in legislation, and it’s quite limited. 

You believe, therefore, that the legislation contains loopholes which allow companies not to enforce the legislation? 

Exactly. 

And you believe that the Swedish {residency could play a part in closing these loopholes? When do you expect a final agreement on this legislation? 

That’s the big question. The Swedish Presidency hopes to advance the legislation in the coming weeks, because we are not yet at the first agreement. The Council has been examining it for over a year and there is still no basic agreement in place. 

It could happen that the Commission is asked to redraw it or produce a new proposal, which might be a preferable option to us if the final text is not satisfactory. But we still hope that the current directive can be improved, particularly if the Swedish Presidency works in this direction. 

We will have an EDF board meeting in Sweden in mid-October where we hope to have a presidency representative, and we will also participate in the equality summit in November, and the round table on social exclusion. 

Has the advancement of this legislation been slowed down by the current financial crisis? Has it been pushed further down the agenda

I think for disabilities it has had an impact. For countries in Eastern Europe in particular, but also to a certain extent in older member states such as the Netherlands, people have raised the issue of costs – that the costs for bringing this anti-discrimination laws into force are too high during economic recession. This affects disabilities most of all, as it doesn’t really apply to religion or sexual orientation, which are the other areas covered by the legislation. 

So on the disability sections, some groups are urging caution, particularly bodies lobbying on behalf of SMEs. 

In other words, because of the recession, the lobbying of certain groups – particularly SMEs – could have an impact on the overall strength of the final legislation? 

Yes. But I also want to stress that we are really open and flexible to discussion, for example in the debate on accessibility of public buildings, particularly in terms of timeframes. In some accessibility legislation, there are timeframes for making public building accessible. 

In our own proposal, we made a distinction between new buildings and buildings being renovated, i.e. being very strict on new buildings having to have full accessibility but less so on renovations, thus ensuring that costs aren’t too high. 

Regarding SMEs, is this lobbying for less stringent rules a recent development directly related to the recession or were such measures being taken before the worst of the economic and financial crisis? 

I think it’s gotten worse because of the recession because member states are cost-cutting in so many areas. 

What about unemployment? Have people with disabilities been disproportionately affected by the need to cut jobs? 

I don’t have any statistics on this, but what we have heard from members is that there has been an impact on companies who employ more people with disabilities. In many cases, these companies rely on subcontracting work, and in several countries, because they have less orders they are less inclined to subcontract work and more inclined to be less stringent about previous ethical and CSR commitments, in many cases begin to outsource work to cheaper labour markets. 

Secondly, the impression we have is that when it’s a difficult climate for finding a job, it’s even more difficult for people with disabilities as they have to overcome more prejudice, and companies are less willing to make adjustments in the workplace to accommodate them. 

So you’re saying recession effectively provides a double-blow for the employment prospects of people with disabilities? Are you arguing for recovery packages to include stronger clauses to remedy this fact? 

Yes, definitely. There has been a discussion about that, and at the UN there will be a discussion on the economic crisis and how it affects people with disabilities. 

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