Ioannis Vardakastanis: Persons with disabilities have already paid a very high cost

The EU funds should never be used to produce inaccessible environment, segregation situations and institutions

Photo: Maria Koleva Iohannis Vardakastanis.

The next EU Disability Strategy should absolutely reflect the drastic and profound changes that has been happening and will happen in the EU as a whole – in the European society, in the European economy, in the European political system. It should also mainstream disability rights in the old and in the new policies, says Ioannis Vardakastanis, EESC's Diversity Europe Group Vice-president and President of the European Disability Forum, in an interview to Europost.

Mr Vardakastanis, the corona crisis poses difficulties to all, but how did it concretely affect the life of people with disabilities across Europe?

The pandemic has a very heavy impact on persons with disabilities, on persons with chronic diseases and on elderly people. On people living in institutions, or alone at home without medical care, without support, without any attention. We have seen that among those Europeans who passed away because of the coronavirus pandemic, in many countries were mentioned many times in high levels people with disabilities and with chronic diseases. Not only the impact is very heavy on the social, economic, health situation of the persons with disabilities, persons with chronic diseases and their families. These people have already paid very high cost losing their lives. What is proven is that the exclusion and poverty have very severely impacted persons with disabilities at times of stability. At times of crisis like this pandemic, we have observed that the vulnerable people in society like those we are talking about are the first to pay the cost. This pandemic has challenged our systems - the health system, the social system, the economic policy. Everything that was not questioned by the vast majority before the pandemic, is under question, and we have already seen changes starting to happen in the EU. Nothing is the same now like it was before the pandemic.

It is estimated that as early as next year, people with some kind of disabilities in the EU will be 100 million. What should be the next EU Disability Strategy 2021-2030 in order for this huge challenge to be soundly addressed?

There is no question anymore in the Union as a whole and in all Member States that the persons with disabilities constitute the largest minority of European population. And this number of 100 million persons with any kind of disability will even increase in the future because of the ageing of the population. Doesn't matter the number, the European Union has an obligation to itself - to its history, to its values and principles, to put in place a very concrete, very measurable Agenda for disability rights.

We have worked both at the EESC and the European Disability Forum and the European disability movement as a whole, even during the period of the pandemic, to influence the proposal for the next EU Disability Strategy 2021-2030 that the Commission will present at the beginning of next year.

The new strategy should absolutely reflect the drastic and profound changes that have been happening and will happen in the EU as a whole - in the European society, in the European economy, in the European political system. It should also mainstream disability rights in the old and in the new policies. We have the Next Generation EU package, we have other funds in place. All those should address the needs of vulnerable groups, including persons with disabilities. The new strategy cannot be like probably some sort of the one before the pandemic. It has to be drafted taking into consideration - from the beginning to the end - the new situation. We are in a completely new era.  

Discrimination, exclusion and poverty are the main characteristics that the vast majority of persons with disabilities in the EU are faced with. Therefore, the new Agenda for disability rights should be driven, firstly - by the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the first ever ratified human rights convention, secondly - by the 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals that EU has committed to implement, and thirdly - on the EU pillar on social rights. That agenda should, on the one hand, deal with the longstanding need for legislative initiatives to combat discrimination and other obstacles, but on the other hand, it has to do with the day-to-day situation, with the real living conditions of the persons with disabilities in the EU.

Because the pandemic not only has deepened inequalities in the society, it brought about new inequalities. It has completely put aside all policies that were put in place before the pandemic. Societies need to plan differently, they need to invest in social protection systems, into health systems, in education, in jobs. The economies need to be restructured. We saw what happened with the Stability Pact earlier this year and what the EU leaders decided in July with the fund of €750bn. It was completely unthinkable before the pandemic.

How can the people with disabilities be able to freely choose their own lives and fully participate in the society if many of them have limited access to personal assistance, to transport and other vital services?

Persons with disabilities can enjoy their rights and live their lives like anybody else only if they have the possibilities to find accessible environment of all kinds - accessible transport system, accessible buildings, accessible roads, accessible public spaces and accessible digital environment. These people need specific policies and measures to be put in place, to allow them to live in the community independently and to decide themselves with whom they live and where they live. Employment and education are very important, because there you have the real exclusion founded. Without access to education and employment, the exclusion and poverty follow, and they become structural characteristics of this group of European citizens. That is why there is a need for a very coordinated action, using the European Semester and other means and processes of the EU, on the one hand to put in place the Agenda for disability rights, but on the other - through these processes to have national disability rights agenda and to coordinate all polices. The persons with disabilities do not live at the level of the EU, they are not abstract people. They live in the villages and in the towns of the Member States of the Union. There is possibility to take away all the barriers and to allow them to live and to move freely, but this is connected to what the EU and member countries should do together. Also, the EU funds should never be used any more to produce inaccessible environment, segregation situations, institutions and all these that are connected with the condition of the persons with disabilities today.

How can the deinstitutionalisation and development of community-based services for this group of people in the Member States be supported at the EU level?

The EU can promote policies, programmes, but the most effective way is to prohibit the use of EU funds. Because through the Cohesion policy, the European Social Fund+, the European Regional Development Fund and other financial opportunities, Member States receive very big amount of funding from the EU. There should be a ban this money to be used for institutional setting, for segregation, and it should be only used to put in place community-based services in order to support persons with disabilities to live in the community. Because it is not a theoretical process - support for the person with disability to live in community is necessary. The people who live in institutions - in order to move them out from there, support is also needed. To live in other settings, there is a need for these settings to be put in place.

What proposal by the Commission do you expect in order for the employment rate among persons with disabilities to be increased?

It is a very important, but at the same time a complex question to deal with, because what we get in the employment situation is what we have in the education situation. What we need is to invest in exclusive education, in vocational training, in upskilling, in reskilling. Continuous improvement of the skills of the persons with disabilities to lifelong learning is needed for increasing the possibilities of these people to take part in the labour market. In addition, we need a system of all possible means - incentives, quotas - that can be put in place for achieving and increasing the employment rate of persons with disabilities. We see that we have the ageing of European population, and it is to the benefit of European society and economy to utilise all possible human resources in Europe. We have unused human resources here.

What concrete measures does EESC suggest in this respect?

As you know, we have the Youth Guarantee and now the Commission is working on the Child Guarantee. The EESC says that the new Agenda for disability rights should have some teeth, meaning it should have some funding available that should be utilised to promote the employment, vocational training, lifelong learning, reasonable accommodation, personal assistance. It is a series of measures that have to be put in place, but again if you don't have accessible environment or the transport system is not accessible, then people have problem to move, to go to work. Even if the building where they should work is absolutely accessible, but the other systems are not accessible, then there are big barriers we need to overcome. The proposed by the Committee Disability Rights Guarantee is a way to put aside an amount of funding that goes directly there to use it for personal assistance, which is connected to independent living, for reasonable accommodation, etc.

Why does the implementation of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities take such a long time?

The convention is a game changer, supposed to bring change in the society. Change does not come very quickly and is not accepted very easily by the current structures that we have. So, there is a need for the EU to re-examine its structures first. That is why we are proposing disability focal points in all of the Commission's directorates-general, and for the main focal point to be located within the EC general secretariat. That is why we are proposing the Disability Rights Committee and the Interinstitutional coordination mechanism among the Council, the Commission and the Parliament. The Council should also have a focal point. There is a need to put in place a new system. We are proposing a EU Access board to be established, in order to create the mechanics, to allow for a faster and more correct implementation of the convention. Furthermore, there are exclusive EU competences and shared competencies, and we need to find a way on the one hand to take initiatives for the exclusive competencies they have, but also to do things together with Member States. To make the long answer very short: If there is political will, all the doors open, if there isn't, even if you have the best tools in your hand - the doors are closed.

What could be the EU role in reducing the risk of poverty and social exclusion for these people?

It is very important for the EU to take all key measures to combat the roots of poverty. We already talked about education, employment, etc. Exclusion and poverty go hand in hand with disability. These people need to have all the necessary disability-related support to overcome all the barriers that are connected with inaccessible environment. The improvement of the living conditions of the persons with disabilities is a very complicated area of work. It has to do with the Member States and the EU. These people should have the capacity to live in dignity and to be able to cope with their personal and social needs. We should never give up until we reach the point when the barriers are taken away. This is for wheelchair user, for blind people, for deaf people, for people with intellectual disabilities, for all persons with a disability.


Ioannis Vardakastanis is Vice-President of the EESC's Diversity Europe Group and President of the European Disability Forum. He is a political scientist from Greece. Throughout his life he has been a human rights campaigner, active at national, European and international level. His involvement in social movements started from the Greek movement of the blind. Mr Vardakastanis is the rapporteur of 'Shaping the EU agenda for disability rights 2021-2030: a contribution from the European Economic and Social Committee', which is own-initiative opinion.

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