The EU's Record on Disability? Shaky at Best

20/06/2016 17:08 | Updated 20 June 2016
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young voter

During the EU referendum campaign I've spoken with a number of politicians and campaigners on both sides, particularly on the question of disability rights; as the chairman of the youth council at a national autism charity and an advocate for disability inclusion in the workplace, this is something I naturally care about.

It's an issue which, sadly, has rarely been discussed in the campaign, but that's just made me even more determined to quiz politicians on it - otherwise, there's a risk that the futures of disabled people will simply be ignored.

I've noticed there seems to be an assumption that voting to remain will benefit disabled people, but I've yet to find any substance to this. It appears to be based on the belief that the EU protects disability rights because, well, it's the EU.

Yet whenever I've asked remain campaigners or MPs a simple question - "What does the EU do to help disabled people?" - they've been unable to answer. Often they'll speak about how much the EU has done for worker's rights; occasionally they'll mention the Human Rights Act (ignoring that it was passed by our national parliament and codifies the rules of the European Convention of Human Rights, a completely separate body to the EU) as evidence the EU wants to protect humans. Disabled people are both workers and humans, so they must be protected, mustn't they?

Even accounting for the flaws mentioned above, I suppose that makes technical sense. But if you asked me "What have you done for feminism?" and I explained how I've volunteered for Meals-on-Wheels, on the proviso that some of the OAPs I helped were women, you'd be right to point out I hadn't answered your question.

So why don't they simply list the EU's past achievements in spearheading disability legislation and protecting rights? Well, largely because the EU hasn't got any of note.

The United Kingdom isn't perfect on disability rights, but has often led the way among other European countries in this regard. The Disabled Persons (Employment) Act provided a quota system imposed on large businesses, mandating them to hire disabled people, as long ago as 1944. The UK instituted the Blue Badge scheme in 1970, years before we joined the EEC (European Economic Community, which became the EU).

And modern protections for disabled people, including reasonable adjustments at work, stem from the Equality Act 2010, the provisions of which essentially update the Disability Discrimination Act 1995's protections. Interestingly, this act was passed by one of the most Eurosceptic parliaments in history, which almost prevented the formation of the EU by voting down the Maastricht Treaty.

But more to the point, it needed to be enacted by our parliament because there was no comparable EU legislation. Disability does come under general EU anti-discrimination legislation; but much of this would have been passed by domestic governments regardless, and it's debatable how much it helps in practice. A recent House of Lords report is one of many which found that including disability within wider diversity legislation/policy - often at the end of a very long list - has diluted awareness of disability rights in practice.

The same is true of disability-specific UK legislation like the Autism Act 2009, instigated by Eurosceptic backbencher Cheryl Gillian; there has been almost no action by the EU to safeguard the rights of autistic people. Six years after the Autism Act the best they could manage was a 'Written Declaration on Autism' which essentially calls on member states to implement laws on this when they feel like it.

Moreover, the EU has done nothing to stop harmful treatment of autistic children in member states like France, driven by outdated psychoanalytic practices. And while there are undoubtedly aspects of domestic disability policy which are widely unpopular, the UN has done far more to help, launching an investigation, while the EU's looked the other way.

Of course, this isn't about history. But when the EU has such a tepid history of disability rights, why should we presume its future will be any different? The fact is that any legislation with a practical impact on the lives of disabled people has come from our own parliament, not the EU, and would remain in place should we leave.

That doesn't mean there'll suddenly be a raft of new protections if we leave. But it means attempts by Remain to claim disabled people will be worse off if we Brexit, or that we somehow owe our rights to an undemocratic body which has done vanishingly little to help us over the years, simply don't stand up.

By all means discuss the consequences for disabled people - I wish both campaigns would do this more often. But don't pretend remaining is the natural choice for disabled people, or those who care about them - because it isn't.

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