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Annual Conference on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities

On 17–19 November, EUD Policy Assistant Toju Popo attended an online conference hosted by the ERA in cooperation with the Disability Thematic Network of the European Foundation Centre (EFC) and the EDF. It provided a forum for discussion of the updates and challenges involved in the exercise of the right to independent living as enshrined in the UNCRPD and relevant EU legislation, including the European Convention of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.

During the first day of the conference, Immaculada Placencia Porrero, Senior Expert at the Disability and Inclusion Unit within the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion, led a session on European Disability Strategy (EDS) 2021–2030. She covered the objective of the EDS, which is to ensure that PWDs can experience full social and economic inclusion on an equal basis with others and live free from discrimination in accordance with the UNCPRD. Furthermore, Mrs Porrero outlined the strategy through the seven flagship initiatives, including the European Disability Card and recently created Disability Platform. She also presented an update on the European legislation on accessibility, including the European Accessibility Act and the proposed draft law on anti-discrimination and web accessibility. The Commission will include accessibility and inclusiveness in the reinforced EU digital government strategy.

Marie Denninghaus, a Policy Coordinator at the EDF, led the discussion on mobility and disability relating to the Commission’s Sustainable and Smart Mobility Strategy and the Recast Rail Passengers’ Rights Regulation. She presented an overview of the adoption of the Recast as well as describing the challenges of the previous Regulation, which included passengers having to pre-notify staff of their need for assistance 48 hours in advance and failed to place an obligation on rail services to provide information in accessible formats and facilitate disability awareness training for their staff. Furthermore, Ms Denninghaus listed the improvements within the updated Regulation, which reduces the pre-notification time to 24 hours, strengthens the onus on rail providers to offer accessible information, and makes it obligatory to train staff on how to assist PWDs.

The second day of the conference focused on the realisation of the Right to Independent Living under Article 19 of the UNCRPD. This part was presented by Professor Jonas Ruškus, Vice-Chair of the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. He discussed the concept of independent living as a fundamental right for PWDs and presented ideas on the social and human rights models of disability. The former sees disability as a form of socially created oppression, while the latter frames impairment as part of human diversity. Professor Ruškus also discussed how institutionalisation is violating the human rights of PWDs through their lack of access to support and accommodations or resources, which are invested in the institutions instead of in developing possibilities for PWDs to live independently in the community.

Some of the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic were then explored in a presentation entitled ‘The impact of COVID-19 on rights of persons with disabilities: Social exclusion and access to health and other services’, presented by Ines Bulic Colocariu, Deputy Director at the European Network on Independent Living (ENIL). She presented the results of the COVID-19 Disability Rights Monitor (DRM) survey launched in 2020 by organisations such as Validity Foundation, ENIL, International Disability Alliance, Disability Rights International, the Centre for Human Rights at the University of Pretoria, International Disability Alliance and Development Consortium and the Disability Rights Fund. The results outlined how the emergency measures that were taken had exacerbated existing human rights abuses such as denial of access to healthcare, isolating residents when there was an outbreak and failing to provide them with adequate communication and information.

On the third day of the conference, Krzysztof Pater from the EESC spoke about the best practices in ensuring that PWDs can exercise their right to vote. He highlighted that in eight Member States, online information about the election process was minimal, but that Sweden’s election authority provides this information in approximately 31 languages including easy-to-read Swedish and Swedish Sign Language. Mr Pater underlined the importance of cooperation between national authorities and NGOs, who are the bodies with the knowledge and experience to prepare the information for various groups of PWDs in order to support their full access to the voting process.

Attending this annual conference was important for the EUD as each of the speakers provided examples of the progress made in certain Member States on implementing the UNCPRD. The event concluded with the steps that the European Commission plans to take in the coming year, which include the first meeting of the Disability Platform, one of the flagship initiatives from the European Disability Strategy.

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