Ten years ago, the European Union ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. It is the first human rights convention that the EU became party to, opening a new era in which respect and responsibility towards the rights of persons with disabilities is both a moral and a legal duty.

Over the past decade, the EU and its member states have worked to deliver on the obligations under the convention. For the EU, this means ensuring that EU rules, policies and programmes are inclusive of persons with disabilities, fully respect the convention and promote an inclusive Europe. All EU countries are also bound by the convention as well as by EU rules on non-discrimination and accessibility.

That means member states must ensure inclusive education systems for persons with disabilities and have in place legislation that prohibits discrimination in the workplace. They must also make transport and public buildings accessible.

The European Disability Strategy 2010-2020 guided EU action over the past decade. It placed disability high on the EU agenda and brought tangible improvement. The landmark European Accessibility Act, for instance, requires that key products and services such as phones, computers, e-books, banking services and electronic communications are made accessible so that they can be used by persons with disabilities.

EU passenger rights ensure that persons with disabilities have access to road, air or sea travel. The EU has also led the way globally in promoting the inclusion of persons with disabilities through our development and humanitarian policies.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed further inequalities that persons with disabilities continue to face and the tougher impact of the pandemic on them, also because of such inequalities. With schools closed and online classes, learning material and equipment is not always accessible to students with disabilities.

Teleconferencing, working from home and online shopping can present obstacles to some. Even access to information on the virus itself has proven to be a challenge. Thus, the EU response to the crisis puts equality high on the agenda while adopting the largest stimulus package ever in order to boost the recovery.

Our compass for a fair post-COVID recovery centres on the inclusion of persons with disabilities to live with dignity and autonomy and to have access to services that enable them to fully participate in the labour market and in society. In April, the Portuguese presidency will bring together the European Commission and member states for a high-level political dialogue on the rights of persons with disabilities to kick-start the new way forward.

The EU has led the way globally in promoting the inclusion of persons with disabilities- Helena Dalli

We are stepping up a gear to prevent the effects of COVID-19 from stalling progress for persons with disabilities. To ensure a resilient and fair recovery, policies should be designed in an inclusive manner for all. 

Following extensive consultations, I will present a new and strengthened European Union strategy on the rights of persons with disabilities for the period 2021-2030. It will build on the achievements of the previous 10 years and offer solutions to the challenges ahead. The strategy will cover all aspects of the UN Convention, turning the rights enshrined in the convention into action. It will provide a strong framework for the coming years to ensure that no one is left behind.

Living independently, learning in an inclusive environment, having the right conditions to work and to flourish are absolute necessities. The 87 million persons with disabilities in the EU deserve freedom from structural discrimination and from negative stereotypes on the airwaves and on-screen.

Our ambitions will require everyone’s commitment. The strategy will be the point of reference for the EU, all governments, social partners, civil society and the private sector. It will make it easier to work together on our commitments, including in dialogue and partnership with persons with disabilities. It will ensure that persons with disabilities can participate equally in all areas of life.

Our commitment and action in this area of policy will be another important step towards a Union of Equality. I will work closely with all EU member states to make the EU a model of inclusion, accessibility and human rights.

Nothing about persons with disabilities should happen without their involvement. They will be part of the dialogue and part of the process.

This is what being ‘United in Diversity’ is all about. 

Helena Dalli is European Commissioner for Equality.

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