Europeans with disabilities are terrified

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The austerity measures taken in response to the European sovereign debt crisis have had a devastating impact on people with disabilities, leading to allowance cuts and a rise of unemployment rates that could generate greater economic and social exclusion, says John Evans from the European Disability Forum.

John Evans is a disability rights, equalities and diversity consultant, trainer and researcher in the UK. He is currently on the Board of Directors of both the European Network on Independent Living, and the European Disability Forum.

"We are currently living through unprecedented times. How things have changed since 2007. Then we were going through a new age with the UN convention for the protection and promotion of disabled people rights. It felt like we had an international legal instrument which recognised the rights of citizens.

It was a breath of fresh air – we had waited a long time to have such capacity, to realise our rights like nondisabled people. However, the Utopia was not to last, as the world was brought to the brink of an economic banking disaster. Four years later, we are now experiencing and paying the price for this.

Since the crisis began, the European Disability Forum and my organisation, the European Network of Independent Living, have been receiving many complaints and requests for support from members struggling to maintain their quality of life.

Disabled people 'terrified'

I can assure you, disabled people now are terrified of what is happening and what might happen next. No countries are exempt from these measures, even those who are leaders in services and legislation for disabled people. The UK was once the pioneer of independent living; now we find ourselves struggling to maintain what we built up over the last 30 years. In many countries, disability organisations have been uniting to protest and challenge the cuts made nationally.

In June 2011, the European Disability Forum established the EU Observatory of the crisis to monitor the effects of austerity measures on persons with disabilities and focus on what measures would be taken at the national level. Complaints of the situation have been received from Sweden, the Netherlands, UK, Belgium, Bulgaria, Slovenia, Portugal, Ireland and Greece.

There are barriers which have increased dramatically. The average percentage of disabled people in the workforce is less than half compared to non disabled people. This leads to further poverty and social exclusion for many disabled people. Over 70% in some countries are on benefits. Unemployment plays a crucial role providing status and sense of community well-being.

In the UK 400,000 disabled people will lose out on work support. The worst consequences of the crisis are in welfare systems. When introducing new pension schemes, governments must be aware of the fact that the majority of disabled people already are living below the poverty threshold. Further reduction of the income will increase more hardship. Studies showed that poverty has increased by 50% in the disability community. It is important when trying to apply the poverty target in the 'Europe 2020' strategy.

In Belgium now, over 500,000 disabled people are still waiting for the personal assistant budget. In the Netherlands, 174,000 persons will lose their budgets. These will have devastating effects for supporting disabled people and participation in society. It seems governments are only looking at budgets and cross-cutting and not the impact the cuts will have on the quality of life and well being of disabled people.

In the UK and Spain the crisis had negative effects on the health conditions of disabled people, causing more anxiety disorders and stress. In the UK, two disabled people committed suicide. It is important in such times that we are able to have escape mechanisms to protect ourselves.

The EDF Observatory has analysed and found some concrete trends. The first is reassessment and touches on the media. A worrying development has emerged on the reassessment of disability status, a dangerous distortion of reality in order to recover millions of euros.

Unfortunately, this has been supported by the media that portray disabled people as scroungers, not wanting to work who cheat the system. The media in the UK have been blatant in this approach.

After years of fighting, we are now at the threat of returning to the medical model, with the restrictions and barriers. The development of these stereotypes is dangerous and increase social exclusion and risk of further poverty.

The second trend is allowances. Universal cuts have been made of benefits for disabled people. In nearly every EU member state it is a sad consequence when cuts are being made, disabled people are often easy targets.

Third is around increase taxation – national recovery plans that involve increased taxation. It aggravates the burden for disabled people and the families in order to maintain a reasonable standard of life. Fewer resources mean it is more difficult to participate economically, socially and politically.

The other trend is the reduction in budgets, as local authority budgets have been reduced across Europe -in the UK, for instance, a 25% cut will go on for the next 4 years. Frontline services and the support systems to disabled people are being reduced despite challenges from organisations of disabled.

Many NGOs are concerned that EU funding will be reduced like it has been in many countries. The combination of the EU legislative framework and implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities could go a long way in helping to address the situation by highlighting member states the legal obligations. It is important that we work together, social NGOs, trying to come to support one another in this crisis.

Finally, it is true we need a strong legal framework in the EU that protects disabled people from discrimination. We need an apparatus enabling disabled people participating in social economic life. EDF calls upon the EU to raise awareness to ensure disabled people in the media, to avoid stigmatisation, inclusive of freedom of movement of disabled people, the right to live independently.

The right to work and employment must be protected. Measures for inclusion should include reasonable accommodation, education for disabled people to be respected, and access to health services. High standards in social services are a precondition for respecting disabled people’s lives and family life.

Furthermore, adequate living standards and social protection should be maintained to avoid poverty. Every step of the way organisations representative of disabled people should be consulted.

I call upon all EU institutions to join us and support us in addressing this problem and making sure it doesn’t get worse for disabled people who are out in the streets today. Don't forget the 80 million European with disabilities."

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