The first ever European binding law on access for disabled people, officially proposed today (Wednesday 2 December) by the European Commission, is a victory after decades of political pressure, according to Richard Howitt MEP, a leading advocate for the law in the European Parliament.
The British Labour Euro MP, Co-Chair of the All-Party Disability Rights Group of MEPs, says the new act has the potential to create a genuinely single market by stopping exclusion of disabled people, but that European officials have shamefully ‘dragged their feet’ on a promise to outlaw disability discrimination in access to goods and services, made as long ago as the year 2000.
As parliamentary negotiator for the anti-discrimination package in that year, Richard Howitt MEP will make the first public response to the new proposal as a keynote speaker in tomorrow (Thursday’s) “European Day of Disabled People” conference in Brussels, saying that without years of relentless campaigning by disabled people’s organisations, the promise would have been forgotten altogether.
The draft Accessibility Act requires mandatory access for a range of mainly digital services, but it is argued will mean ‘cash points’, travel bookings and new generations of mobile devices are to be made fully accessible to disabled people across the whole of Europe.
The proposal is expected to lead to improvements in physical access – a bank has to be accessible if the cash machine inside it is to be so. The law also seeks to ‘operationalise’ European rules which require all EU-funded services and infrastructure to be fully accessible to people with disabilities.
Richard Howitt MEP says he regrets that the proposal falls short of meeting the promise for a general right of non-discrimination for disabled people’s access to goods and services, but that he expects the European Parliament to seek to toughen up a provision to allow access rights to apply more widely to the ‘built environment’ in EU member states.
The British Labour Euro MP says that the battle is now on to ensure the law is comprehensive in scope, is consistent with human rights commitments and is agreed between the European Parliament and EU Governments without any further delay.
Richard Howitt MEP said: “For the first time we can start to talk honestly about Europe’s single market, because it will be one where the barriers preventing disabled people from participating are finally being lifted.
“Although I am proud that Europe has made progress on disability access rules in the past in relation to the installation of lifts, for some public transport and on the internet, the bitter truth is the large swathe of the built environment remains a ‘no go’ area for people with disabilities in Britain and in Europe.
“Today’s proposal is not yet freedom of movement for disabled people, nor is it inclusive design of products, nor is it the right of equal access to services.
“But it does begin the legislative process, allowing the European Parliament to begin to negotiate what can be achieved.”
Commenting on the protracted delays in getting the legislative proposal, Richard Howitt MEP added:
“It is shameful how long disabled people have been forced to wait – the foot-dragging by anyone and everyone in Brussels has to stop right now. Echoing the slogans of disability activists, today is much more a victory ‘by rather than for’ disabled people themselves.
“When I helped negotiate the EU law against disability discrimination in access to employment in 2000, the European Parliament was promised that action to outlaw the same discrimination in access to goods and services would soon follow.
“Today, that promise still remains unfulfilled, but we can make sure that the Accessibility Act becomes a step towards it. It is equality itself which must finally be given equal treatment.
“Perhaps the most significant comparison is in the twenty-fifth anniversary this year of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which can be said to have inspired some of today’s European proposals.
“It is a sign of how far Europe has fallen behind in guaranteeing civil rights to disabled people and how quickly we must now act to catch-up.”
The European Accessibility Act was formally proposed at the European Commission meeting this morning, Wednesday 2 December. It will be publicly debated for the first time by Marianne Thyssen, European Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs, Skills and Labour Mobility, with Richard Howitt, fellow MEPs and representatives of disabled people’s organisations, at the “European Day of Disabled Persons” annual conference tomorrow (Thursday 3 December) in Brussels.
Later today (Wednesday 2 December) Richard Howitt MEP is also hosting a meeting at the European Parliament with the European Network for Independent Living, to protest against the impact of public service cuts on disabled people’s services across Europe.