On the 2nd and 3rd of December, the European Commission, in cooperation with the EDF, celebrated the European Day of Persons with Disabilities with an online conference. It featured talks by high-level experts and representatives from the Commission, OPDs, and national governments. The themes of the conference were access to healthcare, digital transformation, and the needs of children with disabilities. It was announced at the conference that Luxembourg City won the Access City Award 2022, with Helsinki and Barcelona in second and third place.
The European Commissioner for Equality, Helena Dalli, delivered the opening address and outlined the importance of the EU Disability Rights Strategy released in March 2021. She described some of its flagship initiatives such as the EU Disability Card and AccessibleEU, which seeks to bring together ideas and tools to improve access to places, services and information.
Yannis Vardkastanis, President of the EDF, cited the need for better communication and collaboration between the national governments and civil society. When preparing their national COVID-19 plans, many federal governments did not consult the civil society regarding the new recovery funds to help those most affected by the pandemic. This led to PWDs facing even more poverty and social exclusion. Furthermore, Cveto Uršič, the State Secretary of Slovenian Ministry of Labour, Family, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities, called for greater accessibility in the digital space. As 87 million PWDs in the EU have depended on digital resources during the pandemic, all websites should be updated and adapted to the appropriate standards so that these people can access them without interruption.
The first panel of the conference focused on the health of PWDs. Rodolfo Cattani, a member of the Executive Committee at the EDF, reminded participants that health is a universal human right and that under Article 25 of the UNCRPD, states must take measures to ensure access for all PWDs to health care services on an equal basis. This includes employing reasonable accommodation measures. Mr Cattani also said that the negative impact of the pandemic on health care systems has led to PWDs being denied access to medical services and emergency treatment.
The second panel focused on PWDs and the digital transition. Humberto Insolera, a board member at the EDF, cited Article 9 of the UNCRPD which obligates states to ensure that PWDs enjoy equal access to information and communication technologies. This includes the provision of sign language interpretation, subtitles, and audio description for access to television programmes and films. Mr Insolera outlined the two legal instruments that are designed to increase accessibility for PWDs: the European Audiovisual Media Services Directive, under which television programmes, films, and streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video must be accessible for PWDs; and the European Accessibility Act (EAA), adopted in 2019, which requires that products and services are accessible at an EU standard.
The EUD’s Executive Director Mark Wheatley posed a question to this panel regarding the accessibility of social media content. He highlighted the lack of sign language interpretation and video captions on websites and asked what measures are being considered to incentivise these and ensure that online content is accessible for deaf persons. Mr Insolera responded that the EAA already states that it is the responsibility of all producers and organisations to make their products accessible for those with disabilities.
The conference’s final panel focused on supporting children with disabilities and protecting their rights. Zuzana Kondradova, Thematic Coordinator at Eurochild, explained that children with disabilities face multiple challenges because of how society treats them. She said that these include a lack of quality, inclusive and accessible early childhood education, health care and rehabilitation. Due to the COVID-19 restrictions, children and young adults were not getting access to rehabilitation, and assessments and examinations were being put on hold. Mr Wheatley asked the panellist what measures were being considered across EU Member States to ensure access to sign language during childhood, especially for migrant and refugee deaf children. Elisabeth Gosme, Director of COFACE Families Europe (which advocates for social policies that consider families’ needs and guarantee equal opportunities for them), stated that the families of deaf and hard-of-hearing children need to be made aware of their right to inclusive education. In addition, Ms Gosme raised the importance of training for teachers to increase their knowledge of various disabilities.
The conference celebrating the European Day of Persons with Disabilities provided the blueprint for the Commission to address barriers and provide solutions to those challenges from the European Disability Strategy and the Disability Platform. However, it is essential to note that 14 EU Member States still do not comply with the UNCRPD in prohibiting discrimination against PWDs who are trying to access health care. The speakers highlighted the impact of COVID-19 on the rights of PWDs and the work that is needed to safeguard them.