by Magdi Birtha
3 December is the International Day of People with Disabilities. The annual conference organized by the European Commission in cooperation with the European Disability Forum (EDF) is a platform for mutual learning and networking among key actors in the disability policy field. This year’s conference was held 1 and 2 December and was focusing on the effects the crisis is having on the lives of people with disabilities bringing together relevant stakeholders, European policy-and decision-makers and some of the major organizations representing people with disabilities.
The crisis hit the 80 million persons with disabilities across the EU the worst with unprecedented austerity measures. According to the European Disability Forum Observatory report people with disabilities are affected, by the austerities in a variety of ways, including significant cuts of allowances, reduction in services and rise of unemployment rates. Yannis Vardakastanis, President of EDF stated in his keynote speech “a clear, strong, and loud message to all governments, to all institutions, to all those who take decisions, that the EU determined to protect the most vulnerable, disabled people from the repercussions of the crisis”. The disability movement made a clear statement saying the economic crisis must not have a devastating impact and threaten the lives of people with disabilities by pulling back the overarching results of the last 30 years. John Evans, Board Member of both the European Network on Independent Living and the European Disability Forum said that the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities seemed to be a legal instrument to protect and promote Disability Rights. The fact that the European Union has also become State Party of the CRPD showed its commitment to recognize those rights, therefore in these insecure times, there is a need for a strong legal framework in the EU to ensure the social inclusion of people with disabilities.
A parallel session focused on the new regulations of the European Structural Fund. Representative of DG REGIO held a presentation on how the European Commission intends to cover disability under anti-discrimination in the new proposal. Javier Güemes, acting director of EDF expressed his concerns about the new regulations and pointed out the necessary elements to avoid misusage of the EU money by maintaining institutionalized care. He suggested that the only way forward was to improve inclusion in the community life and progress the deinstitutionalization movement.
The second Access City Award ceremony also took place during the conference. The prize was awarded to a city with 50,000 inhabitants or more, which has demonstrably improved accessibility in fundamental aspects of city living. This involves four main areas: built environment and public spaces; information and communication; transport and related infrastructure; and last but not least public facilities and services. Access City is part of the Commission’s European Disability Strategy 2010-2020 action to create a barrier-free Europe and provide better access for people with disabilities.
European Commission Vice-President Viviane Reding presents the winner of the Access City Award at the European Day of Persons with Disabilities conference in Brussels, 1-2 December 2011
The jury selected Salzburg (Austria) as the most accessible city in Europe. There were three other European cities in the final: Krakow (Poland), Marburg (Germany) and Santander (Spain). European Commission Vice-President, Commissioner for Justice, Fundamental Rights, and Citizenship Viviane Reding made a political commitment in her speech that the European Accessibility Act will be presented by the European Commission in 2012. Adam Kosa, MEP and Chair of the European Parliament Disability Intergroup urged the Commission in his plenary speech to submit the proposal of the Accessibility Act next year, so the European Parliament can take significant steps to sustain employment rate and social inclusion of ageing population in Europe.