On 23rd of June, citizens of the United Kingdom (UK) will vote in a referendum on whether to remain in the European Union (EU) or to withdraw from it.
EUD is concerned about the impact such a withdrawal could have on the capacity of civil society organisations in Europe to advocate for European policies that are inclusive of deaf and hard of hearing persons.
So far, the public debate about the referendum has concentrated on issues such as the economy, trade agreements, legal issues, employment and immigration. Media coverage on the subject of the livelihood, within or without the EU, of persons with disabilities, including deaf and hard of hearing persons, has been lacking however.
EUD recognises the democratic right of UK citizens to vote freely in their referendum on UK membership of the EU.
However, we believe that a common European human rights agenda for deaf and hard of hearing persons is better achieved together within the EU. Already in the past, many advances in combating discrimination and in strengthening equality for deaf and hard of hearing citizens have been achieved together.
For instance, the European equal employment directive prohibits discrimination in employment and occupation on the basis of disability and enables persons with disabilities to work in other EU countries. British citizens might not be protected by this legislation anymore, if the UK withdrew from the EU. Furthermore, UK citizens would not benefit from new legislation that is currently being developed, such as the European Accessibility Act. Once adopted, this act will set common accessibility requirements for certain key products and services, including transport, banking, telephony and audio-visual media services and related equipment. Due to its focus on ICT, it is highly relevant for deaf and hard of hearing persons, as it would allow them to benefit from a greater supply of such accessible products and services at more competitive prices.
The UK signed and ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD). As the EU has done the same, it is actively engaged in supporting EU Member States in achieving its objectives by adopting disability-inclusive European policies. We strongly believe that British deaf and hard of hearing citizens would benefit considerably from continuously having their rights protected in the European framework.
In the recent years of austerity, the rights of persons with disabilities, including deaf and hard of hearing persons, have been and continue to be undermined in EU member states. But we are in an excellent position to work towards more inclusive European policies: Two Members of the European Parliament use sign language as their native language, which provides us with more opportunities to advocate for the respect of deaf and hard of hearing rights in future European legislation.
Furthermore, EUD has led policy projects for deaf and hard of hearing persons, such as the InSign project, whose goal is to improve the communication between deaf and hard of hearing persons and the EU institutions. UK stakeholders, such as deaf-run businesses and a British university, took part in this project and benefitted from the expertise gleaned through it. Only when remaining in the EU, UK stakeholders have high chances of getting to participate in such European projects.
Incidentally, it was the British Deaf Association that founded EUD, formerly the European Community Regional Secretariat, in 1985; and it is still thriving. We strongly believe that together with UK deaf and hard of hearing civil society organisations, we have a much stronger voice advocating for rights of deaf and hard of hearing persons in Europe. We should work together to remove barriers, not create new ones.