Disability and ableism in the European Union, what politics can (and must) do

Disability and ableism in the European Union, what politics can (and must) do

Apr 26, 2022
If we want to overcome the ableism still largely dominating the political debate, we also need to have much more diverse political representation.
Children play with ballons

Last month marked two important dates: Zero Discrimination Day and Disability Day of mourning. 

Zero Discrimination Day is a UNAIDS initiative born to raise awareness in the fight against HIV stigma. Since its launch in 2014, the celebration has integrated the fight against all forms of discrimination - just like the gay pride has evolved to be simply called pride by activists, so as to underline its inclusive nature.

Disability day of mourning is the day of remembrance of people with disabilities that have been murdered by caregivers and especially family members, but it should also be an occasion to remember all the forms of violence and abuse against this group. The convergence of the two celebrations seems very appropriate considering the huge discrimination that people with a disability experience, which is often not only based on cultural misconceptions but embedded in our societies.

Calling for the inclusion of people with disabilities is, in fact, a way more concrete issue than committing to a loosely defined promise, or worse, a public pity party. It's about the policies our governments put in place and how, by changing the world in which we live, we will also change the way disability is perceived.

According to the WHO, 135 million people in Europe live with a disability. The figure is not precise though, because each state has a different method for assessing what a disability is, including or excluding chronic diseases for example. The Strategy for the rights of persons with disabilities 2021-2030 which has just been adopted by the European Commission mentions only 87 million people in the European Union alone. To add confusion, if a person with a disability moves, the registration process to obtain their social protection in the receiving country is complex and does not guarantee success, which already per se depicts how a flawed governance structure can have a significant impact on the life of people, such as in their freedom to choose and enjoy an equal right to European mobility. 

But what is instead very clear, is how disproportionate the distribution of people living below the poverty threshold is in the group of people with disability. While economic inequalities are on the rise everywhere, in the general EU population 1 person out of 5 is at risk of poverty and social exclusion. Zooming in on the subgroup of people with disability, this affects 30% of the population. The economic disadvantage comes not only from direct barriers such as the higher probability of being unemployed and generally earning less even when employed; but also from less evident hurdles such as the extra costs for medical care, assistive devices, or personal support - which is not always provided by the state or anyway sufficient, and the lack of which is directly linked to isolation with all related mental health costs. Moreover, while disability is an obvious factor in poverty, more broadly, all the difficulties in accessing rights and care also contribute to the development of disability. Thus, the risk of developing disability is greater among the most fragile populations, such as migrant populations, nomads, or those living in medical deserts.

However, the challenge posed by this situation cannot be reduced to improving access to care for all and the financial costs associated with disability compensation. It is also essential to act in depth against all the factors of discrimination that contribute to the exclusion of people with disabilities, first and foremost, institutionalized exclusion. 

Building an inclusive society starts at school, as this is the place where we become citizens. Many European countries, guided by an essentially medical approach to disability, have for a long time considered it preferable to educate a large proportion of children with disabilities separately from other children, in special classes or schools. While this model of segregated schooling has never proven to be pedagogically relevant, it has above all nurtured social exclusion and the related prejudice. However, the change of model implies devoting significant resources to it, but in terms of collective reasoning and funding. A good example comes from Italy, which since the 70s has chosen to accommodate practically 100% of disabled children in ordinary schools and relies on additional teachers in classes to promote a much more individualized educational approach. Although still not ideal, this model should represent the way forward for all European countries.

And there is more, for example, the closure of all institutions specializing in accommodation for people with disabilities, as the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities is demanding. Deprivation of liberty on the sole basis of disability is unjustifiable and should be banned, also considering they often also pave the way to extremely serious situations of abuse. 

But how to achieve a complete revolution in the way we live and experience our society so as to dismantle institutionalized exclusion? The success of these changes can obviously not be achieved without the involvement of the people concerned. However public policies are carried out by a political class in which there are almost no people with disabilities. If we are to overcome the ableism that still largely dominates the public and political debate, and ensure that deliberative assemblies are based on much better collective intelligence, we also need to have much more diverse political representation. To date, the number of elected officials with one or more disabilities around the European Union is unclear, due to the aforementioned classification issues as well as the right to privacy of individuals. However, considering the social and cultural barriers described above, as well as the countries where these data are collectable, a fair representation of this community is far from being achieved.

As a party with the ambition of creating a more united and fair European Union, we have decided to take concrete steps for systematic inclusion, which implies putting accessibility at the heart of our internal practices (systematic subtitling of our videos, description of images in all our publications, accessibility for people with reduced mobility at all our physical meetings, etc). These measures should serve as a first step for a broader representation of people with disability inside the party in the first place, so as to open the debate on the conditions of access and participation in the electoral process with a broader community. When the problems of accessibility to transport, public spaces, buildings, or difficulties linked to a sensory or psychological disability, prevent campaigning in conditions of equality with other candidates, the system must be rebalanced with political action, particularly with a view to the next European elections in 2024, which must be an important moment for building an inclusive Europe.

The original article authored by Volt Europa Co-President, Francesca Romana D'Antuono and Ronan Kerleo was published in Italian on the 20/04 at Tutti Europa Venti Trenta.