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Executive Summary

 

In the present position paper, the European Union of the Deaf (EUD) showcases the cross-border barriers faced by deaf persons when exercising the right to freedom of movement in Europe. The document tackles cross-border barriers in labour and learning mobility. The position paper also outlines how these barriers link to gaps in EU laws and policies. EUD underlines that the perpetuation of these barriers constitutes disability-based discrimination in the equal enjoyment of the right to freedom of movement, and hence a violation of the Charter of the Fundamental Rights of the European Union and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

 

The barriers highlighted in this document showcase that deaf mobile workers and job seekers lose access to benefits that grant them access to sign language interpreting services when moving from one country to another, which leads to the denial of their linguistic rights. Regulation (EC) No 883/2004 on the coordination of social security benefits does not include these specific benefits, discriminating against many economically active deaf persons and violating their right to freedom of movement.

 

Cross-border barriers also include following additional proceedings in other European countries to have their disability status recognised, due to a lack of mutual recognition of disability status among countries in Europe. This means that a deaf person will not be officially recognised as deaf in a host country as established by the country of origin.

 

In the Erasmus+ Programme, only 1% of the participants are learners with disabilities. Deaf learners who wish to pursue learning mobility in another European country risk losing access to sign language interpreting services, as the Erasmus+ Programme does not coordinate the responsible authorities to ensure access to sign language interpreting services.

 

In light of the problems, EUD urges the European Union (EU) and European countries to amend and/or adopt legislation that ensures an equal enjoyment of the right to freedom of movement by deaf persons in Europe. In the last section of the document, EUD provides concrete recommendations to the EU and European countries to lift ongoing barriers. EUD urges EU and national decision-makers to take on board the recommendations, presented in full at the end of this document. These include

 

  • the EU to amend Regulation (EC) No 883/2004 or adopt new legislation to coordinate the work-related benefits that grant access to sign language interpreting services in the context of freedom of movement;
  • the EU to facilitate mutual recognition of the disability status among European countries;
  • the EU to establish a Central Information Point with accessible information about sign language interpreting services in different countries in Europe;
  • European countries to make administrative proceedings accessible in national sign languages;
  • European countries to develop training programs about accessibility of information and communication through sign languages;
  • European countries to provide for qualified and professional sign language interpreters, and respect national legislation in place in relation to national sign languages;
  • European countries to provide for the learning of national sign languages to learners participating in the Erasmus+ Programme;

 

1. Introduction

 

Freedom of movement of persons in the EU is a fundamental right which allows nationals of the EU Member States to move freely within the territory of the EU. The freedom of movement of persons is established by the EU treaties and is protected by the EU Fundamental Rights Charter[1]. Freedom of movement also applies in non-EU countries that are part of the Schengen Area, such as Iceland, Norway and Switzerland.  Free movement allows millions of persons to move, work, study, live and establish themselves in another country in Europe.

 

Non-discrimination is an essential element of freedom of movement, as Article 21 of the EU Fundamental Rights Charter states that any discrimination based on the grounds of disability shall be prohibited in all areas of life. This includes a prohibition of discrimination on the basis of disability in the context of freedom of movement.

The prohibition of disability-based discrimination was reinforced by the entry into force of the UN CRPD in the EU in 2011, which includes non-discrimination as a founding principle. The UN CRPD now applies both in the EU and all countries in Europe.

 

Therefore, deaf people, as part of the wider group of persons with disabilities, are protected by the EU Fundamental Rights Charter and the UN CRPD from any discrimination on the basis of disability, including when exercising their right to free movement.

 

Despite this, many persons with disabilities continue encountering numerous barriers while exercising their right to free movement. However, barriers vary depending on the disability type in question. For deaf people, realising their right to freedom of movement on an equal basis with others requires the removal of environmental and communication barriers, but also guaranteeing their linguistic rights through sign languages[2].

 

Environmental and communication barriers in freedom of movement for deaf persons may include, for instance, administrative proceedings for registration that are only available in a spoken language and/or refusal to provide a sign language interpreter.

 

Removal of environmental and communication barriers needs to be accompanied by guaranteeing deaf persons, as well as sign language users, with their linguistic rights through sign languages. Sign languages are natural languages that have the same linguistic properties as spoken languages. Due to the specific cultural and linguistic identity of deaf persons, sign languages are essential to provide with a full barrier-free access to information, communication and knowledge[3].

 

In addition to a disability group, deaf people consider themselves a linguistic and cultural minority group, and to ensure their rights it is essential to go beyond disability instruments and protect national sign languages on an equal basis with other languages in Europe.

 

Within freedom of movement, deaf persons should be able to use sign languages in the same way hearing persons use spoken languages. Only by guaranteeing full access to information, communication and knowledge through sign languages when moving from one European country to another, freedom of movement of deaf persons can be considered as non-discriminatory.

 

For deaf persons to use sign languages for the purposes of work, education and training, they often receive benefits that grant access to sign language interpreting services. Among the European countries, the situation varies how and on which basis these benefits are provided. In some countries such benefits are given on the basis of a disability assessment, and in others they are provided as a type of social security benefit. Deaf people often use these benefits for the purpose of work, education and training in their own country. However, deaf people lose these benefits when exercising their right to free movement in Europe, and therefore their access to sign language interpreting services.

 

For instance, a deaf citizen from Country A is provided with benefits that grant access to sign language interpreting services and a certain amount of interpreting hours in that country. However, such benefits are not portable and are automatically lost if the same citizen moves to Country B. Often, the loss of the benefits that grant access to sign language interpreting services is the ultimate barrier which prevents deaf citizens from the free movement in Europe, as without an access to sign language interpreting services the exercise of the right to move, work, study, live and establish themselves in another European country is impossible. This demonstrates how discriminatory the situation is as non-disabled Europeans do not have such additional disability related barriers and can fully exercise their right to free movement.

 

Even though there is no EU level Regulation or Directive that regulates the free movement of persons with disabilities, some of the EU level initiatives highlighted the issue. For instance, the Resolution 2016/2952(RSP) of the European Parliament on sign languages and professional sign language interpreters (2016 European Parliament resolution on sign languages) urged ‘that the principle of freedom of movement for deaf, deafblind and hard-of-hearing people within the EU be guaranteed, especially in the context of Erasmus+ and related mobility programmes, by ensuring that participants are not disproportionally burdened with having to take care of their own interpreting arrangements’. Likewise, In its first Concluding Observations on the implementation of the UN CRPD in the EU, the UN CRPD Committee expressed concern ‘at the barriers faced by persons with disabilities (…) when moving to live or work in another European Union member state, irrespective of the length of the stay’[4]

 

For the purpose of this position paper, EUD will discuss the coordination of (i) the work-related benefits that grant access to sign language interpreting services of economically active deaf persons and (ii) the coordination of the access to sign language interpreting services for deaf learners within the Erasmus+ Programme as essential elements for the full enjoyment of the right to freedom of movement in Europe.

This paper focuses on the EU legislative and policy framework, however EUD underlines that the barriers experienced by deaf persons in freedom of movement within Europe also apply to deaf citizens outside of the EU, such as non-EU countries in the Schengen Area and participating countries in the Erasmus+ Programme. This means that EU efforts to ensure the equal enjoyment of freedom of movement to deaf persons should go beyond the EU Member States.

 

Within the right to freedom of movement, this paper will focus on the right to sign language and its cross-border implications. This paper also underlines that freedom of movement does not only involve removal of physical barriers, but any barriers related to accessibility of information, communication and knowledge through sign languages.

 

In the following sections, EUD presents existing barriers that deaf persons and sign language users face when exercising the right to freedom of movement for the purposes of work, education and training, and their link to gaps in EU laws and policies. Lastly, EUD will provide recommendations at the EU and national levels about how the barriers should be lifted.

 

EUD views these gaps as obstacles to the enjoyment of the right to freedom of movement of deaf persons, and therefore considers that they amount to discrimination. These gaps particularly affect economically active deaf persons and deaf learners from their full enjoyment of the right to freedom of movement.

 

 

2. Labour mobility for economically active deaf persons

 

Freedom of movement is essential for economically active deaf persons in labour mobility. Economically active persons refer to the labour force or workforce which includes both employed (workers and self-employed) and unemployed people (job seekers), but not the economically inactive, such as pre-school children, school children, students and pensioners.

 

In relation to the right to freedom of movement of deaf persons, we will discuss below the situation of economically active deaf persons in labour mobility. This includes deaf workers deployed by their current employer to work in another country in Europe, deaf workers who move to another European country for a new work opportunity, and deaf job seekers who move to another European country to seek new work opportunities.

 

For deaf workers, access to sign language interpreting services ensures their full access to information, communication and knowledge in a workplace where a sign language is not the main language. It allows deaf persons to enjoy their right to work on an equal footing with others. At the national level, economically active deaf persons receive benefits that grant access to sign language interpreting services which allows them to fully exercise their right to work on an equal basis with others. An access to sign language interpreting services for deaf persons is an indispensable element of their right to work in workplaces where a sign language is not the main language. Similarly, for deaf job seekers, access to sign language interpreting services ensures their access to information about the job market, including job vacancies, and guarantees their access to communication during job interviews and selection processes.

 

Granting access to sign language interpreting services is the procedure done at the national level and by national authorities. However, when moving to another to another country, economically active deaf persons lose access to sign language interpreting services, as these benefits granted in one country are not portable to another country..

 

The lack of portability of benefits that grant access to sign language interpreting services under current EU legislation creates barriers that hinder the enjoyment of the right to freedom of movement of economically active deaf persons. Also, deaf persons and sign language users experience additional barriers as they have to follow additional proceedings in other  European countries to have their disability status recognised, this is due to a lack of mutual recognition of disability status among European countries.

 

This leaves economically active deaf persons in an unfavourable situation: if they exercise their right to freedom of movement, they will lose access to benefits that are essential to them for the enjoyment of the right to work in another European country.

 

The lack of portability and the lack of a centralised coordination system of these benefits at the EU level, means that deaf persons have to carry the burden of organising their own sign language interpreting services. In doing so, deaf persons face multiple barriers that put at risk the quality, affordability, availability and accessibility of these services, which becomes a threat to their enjoyment of their right to freedom of movement on an equal footing with others.

 

In 2004, the EU adopted Regulation 883/2004/EC (Regulation 883) to coordinate social security systems among the different EU Member States. The provisions introduced by this regulation do not replace national social security systems but provide for their coordination by guaranteeing that the application of various national legislations does not pose a limitation to the right to freedom of movement[5]. Regulation 883 was adopted before the UN CRPD entered into force in the legal order of the EU, which resulted in Regulation 883 not reflecting a human rights-based approach to disability and coordinates the benefits of economically inactive people with disabilities only, disregarding the reality that many persons with disabilities work across borders.

 

For economically active deaf persons, Regulation 883 leaves out the coordination of ‘work-related benefits that grant access to sign language interpreting services’. A coordination of benefits that grant access to sign language interpreting services would include a coordination of any benefit in kind, cash or combination of both that is provided to economically active deaf citizens to guarantee their access to sign language interpreting services in another EU country with the objective of supporting their access to, inclusion and retention in the labour market.

 

For deaf persons and sign language users exercising their right to freedom of movement, the current exclusion of work-related benefits that grant access to sign language interpreting services from the EU social security coordination rules constitutes a violation of the UN CRPD, in particular Article 27 thereof, as well as Directive 2000/78/EC establishing a general framework for equal treatment in employment and occupation.

 

For the freedom of movement of economically active deaf persons to be of a non-discriminatory nature, a coordination system of disability related benefits, such as benefits that grant access to sign language interpreting services and the portability of benefits must be established. Only when a clear coordination system exists, economically active deaf persons can fully exercise their right to freedom of movement in the area of employment.

 

3. Learning mobility for deaf learners

 

The Erasmus+ Programme is the main EU programme to promote learning mobility. A survey carried out in 2018 among young Europeans aged between 15 and 30 years shows that more than 90% value having opportunities for student and learning mobility[6]. All learners in Europe must be given an opportunity to take part in the Erasmus+ Programme equally, however, the reality is different for learners with disabilities. As outlined by the European Students Network (ESN), only 1% of the participants in the Erasmus+ Programme are learners with disabilities.

 

Deaf learners and other learners with disabilities must have a fully inclusive and accessible participation in the Erasmus+ Programme. However, learners with disabilities including deaf learners continue to face additional barriers while accessing the Programme. Often, barriers to access sign language interpreting services prevent them from having a barrier-free experience within the Erasmus+ Programme.

 

For deaf learners to have a meaningful learning mobility within the scope of the Erasmus+ Programme, moving physically to another European country other than the country of residence entails moving their sign language interpreter with them or accessing new interpreting services in the host country.

 

Currently, the Erasmus+ Programme does not coordinate which authorities, sending or receiving, are responsible for ensuring inclusion and accessibility measures. Moreover, it also does not ensure the quality and availability of the accessibility measures, which are necessary to fully enjoy the right to freedom of movement for learners with disabilities and to have a fully meaningful Erasmus+ experience.

 

The lack of concrete inclusion and accessibility measures for persons with disabilities within the Erasmus + Programme, such as the lack of coordination system among participatory authorities on the provision of sign language interpreting services, creates barriers for learners with disabilities that prevent them from exercising their freedom of movement for the purpose of education and training on an equal footing with others. 

 

For deaf learners to have a fully inclusive and accessible participation in the Erasmus+ Programme, a coordination system among participating countries should be established to determine the responsible authority to provide for sign language interpreting services. A coordination system would provide with information on the measures of accessibility and would ensure that the experience of deaf learners is fully accessible.  

 

The national sign languages of the European countries taking part in the Erasmus+ Programme need to be a fundamental pillar to ensure its full inclusiveness for deaf learners. In this regard, the language support provided within the learning mobility of the Erasmus+ Programme must include sign language support. The learning of languages, including sign languages, contributes to mutual understanding and mobility in Europe.

 

Including sign language support within the language support of the Erasmus+ Programme and establishing a clear coordination of access to sign language interpreting services should guarantee that deaf learners enjoy a non-discriminatory exercise of the right to freedom of movement.

 

 

 

4. Recommendations

 

EUD provides the EU and European countries with policy recommendations that aim at the removal of existing barriers to ensure the full realisation of the right to freedom of movement for economically active deaf persons and deaf learners who move within Europe for the purposes of work, education and training. All the recommendations below should be read together with the obligations stemming from the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, paragraphs 48 and 49 on freedom of movement of the 2015 Concluding Observations to the EU by the UN CRPD Committee, Articles 21 and 45 of the EU Fundamental Rights Charter, principle 17 on the inclusion of persons with disabilities of the European Pillar of Social Rights, Goals 4, 8 and 10 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals and point 28 of the 2016 European Parliament’s resolution on sign languages.

 

Recommendations

 

(i)             European Union

 

  • For deaf persons in Europe to exercise their right to freedom of movement on an equal footing with others, the coordination of work-related benefits that grant access to sign language interpreting services is essential. EUD notes with concern that the Regulation 883/2004/EC on coordination of social security benefits does not coordinate existing benefits of economically active deaf persons, such as work-related benefits that grant access to sign language interpreting services. In light of this, EUD recommends that
    • the EU amend existing legislation, including Regulation 883/2004/EC, or adopt new legislation that coordinates the work-related benefits that grant access to sign language interpreting services for economically active deaf persons who exercise their right to freedom of movement. ‘Work-related benefits that grant access to sign language interpreting services’ means any benefit in kind, cash or combination of both that is provided to economically active deaf persons to guarantee their access to sign language interpreting services in another European country with the objective of supporting their access to, inclusion and retention in the labour market.

 

  • The cross-border recognition of the disability status would allow deaf persons to exercise their right to freedom of movement without additional proceedings in the hosting country. However, EUD notes with concern the ongoing lack of cross-border recognition of disability status in Europe. When moving from one to another country in Europe, many deaf persons lose their work-related benefits that grant them access to sign language interpreting services because the enjoyment of these benefits depends on an individual disability assessment which is different in each European country. In light of this, EUD recommends that
    • the EU facilitate the mutual recognition of the disability status amongst European countries. When moving to the host country, a deaf person should have their deaf status recognised as established by their country of origin. This would prevent lengthy proceedings in the host country and would allow deaf persons to access sign language interpreting services more rapidly. This would ultimately enable deaf persons to access information and communication faster in cross-border situations, hence facilitating and promoting the right to freedom of movement;

 

  • For deaf persons in Europe to exercise freedom of movement on an equal basis with others, more available, accessible and centralised information is needed on how to access sign language interpreting services in another EU country. EUD regrets the current lack of information about sign language interpreting services in different European countries that would be available for deaf persons who wish to or aim at exercising their right to free movement. EUD hence recommends that
    • the EU establishes a Central Information Point (CIP), such as a website, with an accessible information about sign language interpreting services in different European countries. A CIP would allow deaf persons and sign language users to make informed decisions by learning about the availability, affordability, accessibility and quality of sign language interpreting services before physically moving to another country in Europe;
    • a CIP should include all relevant information about how to access work-related benefits that grant access to sign language interpreting services in another European country;
    • a CIP would allow for the exchange of good practices and compare availability, affordability, accessibility and quality of sign language interpreting services in the different countries in Europe;
    • a CIP should be accompanied by an accessible online call centre to facilitate accessibility of information and communication were sign language interpreting services may not be available;

 

  • For deaf persons to fully enjoy their right to freedom of movement, the EU needs to adopt a horizontal anti-discrimination directive prohibiting disability-based discrimination in all areas of life, including freedom of movement. EUD notes with regret that the negotiations for the adoption of the Equal Treatment Directive continue to be blocked at the EU Council. In this regard EUD recommends that
    • the EU propose and adopt a horizontal non-discrimination directive that would ensure freedom of movement for all. Non-discrimination is an essential pillar of the right to freedom of movement. Adopting the horizontal non-discrimination directive would materialise the prohibition of disability-based discrimination, as enshrined in Article 21 of the EU Fundamental Rights Charter and the UN CRPD. The final adoption of the Equal Treatment Directive would ensure that all EU Member States take the necessary steps to advance the equality of deaf persons in the EU in all areas of life ;

 

  • Economically active deaf persons and their right to access to information and communication through sign languages in labour mobility should be taken into consideration by the relevant authorities at the EU level. EUD welcomes the establishment of the European Labour Authority (ELA), with the mandate to ensure that EU rules on labour mobility and social security coordination are enforced in a fair and effective way. EUD therefore recommends that
    • the ELA pay more attention to the situation of persons with disabilities, and in particular to the right of deaf persons to access information and communication through sign languages, to facilitate and ensure their exercise of the right to freedom of movement without discrimination;
  • Deaf learners need to be ensured a full access to sign language interpreting services in order to experience a fully accessible learning mobility within the Erasmus+ Programme. EUD celebrates the success of the Erasmus+ Programme, however, it notes with concern that deaf learners and sign language users still face barriers while accessing the Programme on an equal basis with others due to the lack of coordination of access to sign language interpreting services amongst participating countries. EUD recommends that:
    • the EU efficiently coordinate an access to sign language interpreting services for deaf learners and sign language users who wish to move to another European country for the purposes of education and training. This should clarify which country and institution provides sign language interpretation while participating in the Erasmus+ Programme, and should enable deaf learners the full accessibility of their learning mobility through high quality, affordable, accessible and available sign language interpreting services;
    • the EU include national sign languages in the list of languages which are available within the language support provided during the learning mobility of the Erasmus+ Programme. This should ensure that deaf learners can exercise their right to sign language in the host country. Only if sign language support is granted for deaf persons, will the Programme be fully accessible for deaf participants;

 

(ii)            European countries

 

  • For deaf EU citizens to successfully follow compulsory administrative proceedings upon arrival to the host country, these need to be available in the local sign language(s). EUD notes with regret that many compulsory administrative proceedings are only available in the written or spoken language of the country. EUD therefore recommends that
    • European countries make administrative proceedings, such as compulsory registration after three months of residence, accessible in their national sign language(s). This should allow deaf EU citizens to follow administrative proceedings on an equal basis with other EU aliens;

 

  • Deaf persons that arrive to another country in Europe should encounter a sign language-friendly environment that will facilitate their access to information and communication. EUD is concerned that in some European countries, there is a continuous lack of awareness about accessibility of information and communication through sign language(s) and/or sign language interpreters. In light of this, EUD recommends that
    • European countries develop training programs about accessibility of information and communication through sign language(s). These trainings should raise awareness among public sector professionals about the need of deaf Europeanaliens to access information and communication through sign language(s) and sign language interpreting services, in order to provide the best possible support as well as guidance about their rights and obligations upon arrival to the host EU country. These trainings should be developed with the meaningful consultation with and involvement of deaf persons through National Associations of the Deaf to ensure a human rights-based approach to deafness in line with the UN CRPD;

 

  • For deaf persons to have full access to information, communication and knowledge in the exercise of their right to freedom of movement, provision of qualified and professional sign language interpreters is essential. EUD notes with concern the lack of qualified and professional sign language interpreters in many European countries, which poses a risk in the quality of sign language interpreting services. In view of this, EUD recommends that
    • European countries provide for qualified and professional sign language interpreters, so as to ensure that sign language interpreting services meet the requirements of affordability, availability, accessibility and quality to allow deaf persons to have full access to information, communication and knowledge during their labour and/or learning mobility, to ensure the enjoyment of the right to freedom of movement on an equal basis with others;
    • European countries respect existing domestic legislation in relation to national sign languages, so as to guarantee that deaf persons and sign language users can exercise their linguistic rights directly or through affordable, available, accessible and high-quality sign language interpreting services;

 

  •  EUD views the Erasmus+ Programme as an opportunity to promote national sign language(s). In this regard, EUD recommends that
    • European countries provide for, in line with Article 24(3)(b) UN CRPD, the learning of the national sign language(s) to learners participating in the Erasmus+ Programme. For deaf learners, learning the sign language(s) of the host country should encourage them to connect with the deaf community and culture of that country, similarly to how hearing learners are encouraged to learn the spoken language(s) of a host country;

 



[1] The free movement of persons and freedom of establishment was already introduced by the Treaty of Rome as far back as 1957. The Treaty of Maastricht (1992) created the concept of European citizenship, automatically acquired with the nationality of an EU Member State. Considered the “cornerstone of European citizenship”, the concept of freedom of movement broadened to include mobility beyond employment. The right to freedom of movement in the EU is now enshrined in Article 3(2) of the Treaty on the European Union, Article 21 and Titles IV and V of the Treaty of the Functioning of the European Union, Article 45 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union

[2] World Federation of the Deaf, Submission on the Draft General Comment No. 6 on ‘Equality and Non-discrimination’, see https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/HRBodies/CRPD/GC/Equality/WFD.doc

[3] European Union of the Deaf, Position Paper on Accessibility of information and communication, see https://www.eud.eu/about-us/eud-position-paper/accessibility-information-and-communication/

[4] UN CRPD Committee, Concluding Observations on the implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2015), see https://documents-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/G15/226/55/PDF/G1522655.pdf?OpenElement

[5] International Labour Organisation, Coordination of Social Security Systems in the European Union, see https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/---europe/---ro-geneva/---sro-budapest/documents/publication/wcms_166995.pdf

[6] European Commission, Education and Training, see https://ec.europa.eu/education/policies/higher-education/mobility-and-cooperation_en

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