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A Beacon for Equality - The Case to Remain in Europe for Disabled People

04/06/2016 15:38 | Updated 04 June 2016

There is widespread acceptance that the complexities and inflexibilities of EU officialdom need reform. That's why a light remains flickering through the foundations of EU bureaucracy, laying a path for nations and their people to more effectively and democratically shape a fairer future. Taking that beacon of equality through the debris caused by the current EU storm will ultimately strengthen our common endeavour, not least by supporting 19.4 million UK disabled people.

Campaigning by the 'Disability movement' alone didn't secure improved economic, social and employment rights for disabled people in Britain. Activists like me fighting for the Disability Living Allowance (introduced in 1992) and the Disability Discrimination Act (passed in 1995) weren't deluded that John Major's Government had discovered a new enlightenment for civil rights. Indeed not, but it was with more progressive influences across Europe which set in train fundamental change. With EU institutions supporting disabled people organising within their country and across The Community, strategies to challenge discrimination and prejudice were shaped and delivered. It was this alliance, amongst other drivers, that helped empower the disability movement and bring a Tory Government to engage with us.

It shouldn't be forgotten that Tories fought like rats in a sack over the Maastricht Treaty, rather than embrace improvements to worker's rights and social justice. That created instability in markets, resulting in Britain being forced out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism. It was Tony Blair's Labour Government that signed the Social Chapter to herald new employment rights and set out clear economic tests on membership of the European Monetary System.

Bringing together Attendance Allowance and Mobility Allowance to form Disability Living Allowance in 1992 was just a financially driven as today's austerity replacement with Personal Independence Payments. After several Tory defeats over initiatives on civil rights legislation for disabled people, the Major administration embroiled in turmoil over Europe conceded ground. With public opinion turning the Government had to respond, but it still held back from enforcing new anti-discrimination laws. It was with Labour's initiative to set up the Disability Rights Task Force and establish the Disability Rights Commission did things begin to change. That refresh was taken with EU developments and UN obligations in mind.

This snapshot of UK-EU relations over the last 25 years clearly demonstrates the importance of influence being applied by our partners. In the absence of a Labour Government, the EU can constrain some of the worst effects of Tory power. When Labour is in office, it provides opportunities for progressive economic and social change at home and across Europe.

Around 80million people in the EU are affected by a disability to some degree. Due to the ageing of the population, the figure is expected to increase to 120million by 2020. Accessibility is essential for our equal participation and active role in society. That enables disabled people to contribute to sustainable and inclusive growth.

Disability is integral to the EU's social and equality framework on non-discrimination. It is driven by the EU Disability Strategy, resulting in proposals for a European Accessibility Directive. This seeks to bring in common standards across the single market covering banking services: cash machines; computer, telephones and TV equipment; audio-visual services and e-books; transport and e-commerce. The proposed legislation aims to make it easier for companies to provide accessible products and services across borders. It will also apply to procurement and EU funding.

The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities contains accessibility obligations. It requires that its Parties, like the EU and the Member States, take measures to ensure fundamental rights are observed, including legislation on accessibility. Without EU action, each country will continue to develop different laws to implement their obligations, thus fragmenting the EU market. The EU is seeking to avoid this by creating more market opportunities for businesses and reducing costs of accessible products and services.

Bringing together access standards and freedom of movement means that disabled people are better able to work, learn and enjoy recreation anywhere across the 28 nations. This generates cross benefits, with business securing opportunities through market barriers being removed and disabled people having discriminatory barriers removed.

Living with a disability brings us in contact with health and social care services regularly, many on a daily basis. Great attention is given to doctors and nurses coming to Britain for NHS work, but little thought is given to low paid carers from Eastern Europe that support disabled people with very basic tasks which enable independent living. The consequences of Brexit raise the spectre of disabled people without support and forced back into institutions. With labour supply curtailed and individual rights eroded, Britain's retreat will pull up the drawbridge on disabled people.

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