Every year, the European Commission (EC) celebrates the Day of Persons with Disabilities (EDPD) together with the European Disability Forum (EDF). This year’s celebration of European Day of Persons with Disabilities kicked off with the conference "We are EU citizens," which took place at the European Commission. At this event, a wide range of politicians, high-level experts and persons with disabilities debated the challenges faced by persons with disabilities and explored the best possible solutions.
The Head of the Disabilities and Inclusion Unit of the European Commission, Ms Emmanuelle Grange opened the conference and highlighted that the conference is an occasion to celebrate citizenship. It must be ensured that persons with disabilities are better informed of their rights and can make their voices heard. Ms Grange highlighted that the right to political participation is essential to every citizen in Europe and must be ensured for people with disabilities so they can live as fully-fledged citizens. Mr Ioannis Vardakastanis, President of the European Disability Forum emphasised that on the European level, it must be ensured that all values, especially human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, human rights are respected. Ms Helena Pall from Estonian Presidency highlighted that Europe cannot be truly inclusive if it does not ensure equal opportunities for all.
Two different panels took place during the first day. The first panel focused on the social aspects and was an opportunity to receive an update on European initiatives for better inclusion of persons with disabilities. Mr Michal Servoz, Director General for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion of the European Commission, announced that the Social Pillar has been proclaimed in the Social Summit back in November 2017 and it is a shared political commitment to build social Europe and is one of the means to implement UNCRPD.
Ms Anna Lawson, Pr. Academic Network of European Disability, discussed how to target and mainstream disability in the European Pillar of Social Rights. According to Ms Lawson the purpose of the Social Pillar is to promote fairness and efficiency in Europe. Targeting and mainstreaming disability in the Social Pillar is particularly important due to existing disability gaps in different fields such as employment or education. Ms Lawson provided with devastating numbers and indicated that employment gap between disabled and non-disabled persons in the EU is bigger than 25%. Moreover, 22% of persons with disabilities leave school early. Mr Rodolfo Cattani form the European Disability Forum highlighted that more than in the past, the EU decision makers need to engage and build strong social Europe. According to Mr Cattani lack of accessibility, prejudice, barriers and discrimination expose persons with disabilities to the higher risk of exclusion, therefore it is essential to implement the UNCRPD across all sectors and policy areas. It was emphasised that in the society where inequalities are growing it is essential to recognise rights of persons with disabilities.
Thorkild Olesen from Disabled People Organisation Denmark, reminded that it is crucial to implement Sustainable Development Goals, which are listed in the Agenda 2030. Disability is referenced in various parts of the SDGs and specifically in parts related to education, growth and employment. The 2030 Agenda and CRPD should be used together: in order to implement sustainable development in any given country, it will also need to implement the CRPD. Focus on the SDGs and CRPD in the EU must be followed by the disability inclusive budgeting and by establishing partnerships across all societal sectors.
After the first panel, the debate took place. EUD Board member, Gergely Tapolczai, took an opportunity and asked the panellists a question. Mr Tapolczai wanted to know what can the EU institutions do to protect the rights of parents and children with disabilities. Ms Anna Lawson, Pr. Academic Network of European Disability answered that parents with disabilities do not receive enough attention from policy makers. Ms Lawson emphasised that the Directive on equal treatment, if adopted, would have a big impact. Mr Rodolfo Cattani form the European Disability Forum commented that parents should be free to decide what should happen to their children. It is important to have a right to choose the best solution and the state should not be in the position to impose solutions.
The second panel brought forth the question of political participation. The right to vote and to be elected was discussed. The purpose of this panel was to identify challenges faced by persons with disabilities regarding the rights to political participation and to find solutions for a concrete equality concerning this fundamental citizen's right. Albert Prevos, from the European Disability Forum, emphasised that people with disabilities should have their autonomy. This means they should be able to decide for themselves and make their own choices. Restricting right to vote based on disability is direct discrimination according to CRPD Committee under article 21 of the Convention. However, there are too many obstacles for participation in political life for persons with disabilities. Legal and administrative barriers to political participation need to be removed. Voting procedures, facilities and election materials have to be made accessible. Generally, opportunities for participation in political and public life must be increased.
The second day focused on how EU cities could become more accessible on a sustainable basis and what is needed in order to allow better inclusion for all at local level. In this context, there was an interactive panel with cities from across Europe together with politicians from national and EU level. Finally, the Access City Award, rewarded cities across Europe for their efforts and commitments to be accessible to all, will close the conference. Ms Marianne Thyssen, Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs, Skills and Labour Mobility, announced the winners of the 2018 Award.