Guest post: UK Disabled People and their Families – Stronger and Safer inside the EU

I’m breaking my self imposed ban on blogging during maternity leave (which I enjoy thanks to the EU) to cross-post this article by Anna Lawson (Professor of Law and Director of the Centre for Disability Studies, University of Leeds); Gerard Quinn (Professor of Law and Director of the Centre for Disability Law and Policy, NUI Galway); and Hywel Ceri Jones (former co-chair of the European Consortium of Foundations on Disability Rights) – written in their personal capacities and not to represent the views of their organisations.  I firmly support these views.

The lives of UK disabled people and their families have been improved through our membership of the EU. Many positive changes in our laws and policies over the past 15 years result from European initiatives. Leaving the EU would put these advances at risk. EU law would no longer prevent UK Governments from rolling them back – nor from rolling back other disability rights measures currently set out in both UK and EU law. Leaving the EU would also mean that UK disabled people would not enjoy the potential benefit of exciting new EU proposals. And it would jeopardise much needed financial support for UK disabled people from EU Structural and Investment Funds – which have just been changed to place more emphasis on anti-poverty and social inclusion measures.

The number of people to whom disability rights issues are relevant is staggering. According to official statistics, there are “over 11 million people with a limiting long term illness, impairment or disability” in Great Britain – and still more in the UK as a whole. The link between disability and poverty is well known. In recent weeks, the impact of austerity measures on the lives of disabled people has taken political centre-stage. To date, however, the debate has not taken into account the EU’s positive role in supporting disabled people to lead fulfilling lives with opportunities equal to those of others.

The real added-value of EU membership to UK disabled people began in the mid-1990s with a dramatic shift of emphasis in EU disability policy away from charity and welfare toward equality and human rights. This soon led to the Employment Equality Directive 2000 – which requires all EU countries to prohibit disability discrimination in employment. This has dramatically strengthened UK disability equality law.

The EU helped shape the UN convention on the rights of persons with disabilities – a landmark treaty which is driving change right around the world. This treaty is the only UN human rights treaty which the EU has ratified. This means that  the EU must now (within its own sphere of competence) repeal or amend EU laws and policies which do not comply with the UN treaty and harness all its financial, legislative and other tools to benefit disabled people.

The UN treaty has already had a positive impact. A good example is the reform of the Regulations governing the EU Structural & Investment Funds mentioned above. From now on, EU monies will help Member States to move disabled people out of institutions and to develop appropriate community-based alternatives. This does not undermine national sovereignty but provides practical help to EU countries in their efforts to implement the right to live independently and be included in the community.

Another obvious example is accessibility. EU legislation already requires Member States to ensure accessibility in connection with a range of transport services, procurement processes and labelling of medicinal products. It also has exciting proposals on the table for new legislation on the accessibility of websites in the public sector and the accessibility of a whole range of products and several services. These proposals would also provide a mechanism through which agreed EU-wide accessibility standards could be used to flesh out the meaning of ‘accessibility’ in past and future EU law.

Nothing the European Commission proposes in the disability field is done without consulting disabled people’s organisations. This grounds EU action on the needs of the people concerned and enhances the legitimacy of EU disability initiatives. If we leave the EU, our disability movement will become more detached from its European counterparts. Further, the EU provides platforms for connecting senior officials (equality and human rights commissions and disabled people’s organisations) from all Member States so that they can share innovative ideas about disability policy and practice. If we leave the EU, we will be cut off from these sources of fresh thinking. Neither will we be able to contribute to them. The end loser will undoubtedly be disabled people and their families – in the UK and also in the rest of Europe.

Annex: Selected Examples of how Existing EU Disability Law and Policy have had a Positive Impact on UK Disabled People.

 1. Equality Law

Because of the EU Employment Equality Directive 2000, the original exemption in our Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (DDA) for employers with fewer than 20 employees was removed. So, because of EU law, in 2004 it became unlawful for all employers (and not just very big ones) to discriminate against disabled people.

Because of the EU Employment Equality Directive, in 2004 our DDA was changed to make direct discrimination by employers against disabled people unlawful.

Because of the way the EU Employment Equality Directive 2000 was interpreted by the EU Court of Justice in Coleman v Attridge Law (2008), the law in England, Scotland and Wales was changed to make it unlawful for employers to discriminate against carers and others because of their relationship with a disabled person.

2. Transport

Because of the EU Air Passengers Regulation 2006, operators are required to provide live (and trained) assistance to disabled passengers travelling by air throughout the EU. Similar obligations are imposed in relation to disabled people travelling by train (under the Rail Passengers Regulation 2007); by ship (under the Sea and Inland Waterways Regulation 2010); and by buses and coaches (under the Bus and Coach Regulation 2011).

Because of the EU Parking Badge scheme, there is mutual recognition of preferential terms for the use of certain parking facilities by disabled people in all EU countries.

3. Accessible Labelling

Because of the EU Medicinal Products for Human Use Directive 2004, the packaging of medicinal products must include Braille labelling.

4. Accessibility in Procurement Processes

Because of the Public Procurement Directives 2014, public bodies in the UK (and other EU countries) must include accessibility in the technical specifications. This means that public money should no longer be used to introduce or maintain inaccessible structures, systems or services.

5. Benefits

Because of the Regulation on the Co-ordination of Social Security Systems 2004 (and relevant decisions of the EU Court of Justice), disabled people from the UK can claim certain UK disability-related benefits in other EU countries. Thus, EU law makes it possible (in certain circumstances), for UK disabled people to live in other EU countries and still receive benefits including disability living allowance care component, personal independence payment living component, attendance allowance and carer’s allowance and the state pension. More information is available at

Selected Examples of EU Proposals for Legislation that would Benefit Disabled People

1. European Accessibility Act.

In December 2015, the European Commission published its proposal for a European Accessibility Act. If this is enacted (after going through due democratic EU process), it will create a mechanism through which to ensure that manufacturers and suppliers of a wide range of products (including computers, phones, ATM and ticketing machines, e-books and television equipment) comply with agreed accessibility standards applicable throughout the EU. Providers of specified services (including banking and transport) will also be required to comply with accessibility standards (including in relation to their websites and buildings). Further, this proposal would provide a mechanism for fleshing out what ‘accessibility’ means in other EU legislation imposing accessibility requirements (eg on procurement and Structural and Investment Funds) In the UK, this proposal has the potential to embed accessibility as a meaningful baseline in funding and procurement processes (thereby ensuring that EU and UK public sector money is not spent on creating new barriers that lock disabled people out of the mainstream). Further, UK law does not currently require manufacturers to make goods or products accessible to disabled people. The European Accessibility Act would therefore go a long way to addressing this troublesome gap.

2. Public Sector Website Accessibility Directive.

This proposal would require the public sector providers of key services to ensure that their websites are accessible. It would establish EU-wide standards to assist disabled citizens to access public services – not only in their own country but also when working and travelling in other EU Member States. In the UK, inaccessible websites continue to exclude and marginalise disabled people. This proposal has the potential to reinforce and clarify the obligations imposed on providers of public services by UK disability equality law not to discriminate against disabled people.

3. EU ratification of the World Intellectual Property Organisation’s Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons who are Blind, Visually Impaired or Otherwise Print Disabled (Marrakesh Treaty)

There is a proposal that the EU should ratify this treaty. This would mean making an exception to copyright rules so that accessible copies of books could be produced and distributed to disabled people who struggle to read print, without first seeking permission from the right holder – UK copyright law already contains an exception to this effect. It would also make it easier to exchange copies of books in accessible formats across national borders. For visually impaired and print disabled people in the UK, EU ratification would make it possible to import accessible versions of books produced in other EU countries.

Show your Support

The views set out above are supported by:

Peter Alldridge Drapers’ Professor of Law, Queen Mary, University of London
Angharad Beckett Associate Professor of Political Sociology, Deputy Director of the Centre for Disability Studies, University of Leeds.
Theo Blackmore PhD Independent Disability Researcher
Jennifer Bowen Founder of LOOK, Federation of Families with Visually Impaired Children and Young People
Sal Brinton Baroness, a disabled peer, President of the Liberal Democrats
Linda Burnip Co-founder of Disabled People Against the Cuts
Marc Bush Visiting Professor at the Institute of Health & Wellbeing, University of Northampton
Bronagh Byrne PhD Lecturer in Social Policy and Co-Chair Disability Research Network, Queen’s University Belfast
Philipa Bragman Director CHANGE – Working for the human rights of people with learning disabilities
Richard Brunner Research Associate. School of Social & Political Sciences, University of Glasgow
Jane Campbell Baroness Campbell of Surbiton, DBE
Tom Campbell PhD Lecturer in Social Theory, University of Leeds
Darren Chadwick PhD Reader in Applied Psychology, University of Wolverhampton
Luke Clements Cerebra Professor of Law & Social Justice, University of Leeds
Beverley Clough PhD Lecturer in Law and Social Justice, University of Leeds
Katherine Coussement Disability Support Librarian, J.B. Priestley Library, University of Bradford
Neil Crowther Independent expert on equality and human rights
Jill Edwards PhD Research Fellow, School of Healthcare, University of Leeds
Louise Ellison Professor of Law and Director of the Centre for Criminal Justice  Studies, University of Leeds
John Evans OBE Disability rights consultant and independent living activist
George Anthony Giannoumis Assistant Professor of Universal Design of Information and Communication Technology at Oslo and Akershus University College of Applied Sciences
Simon Goldsmith Head of Sustainability, University of Greenwich
Dan Goodley Professor of Disability Studies and Education, University of Sheffield
Rob Greig Chief Executive, National Development Team for Inclusion
Samantha Halliday Associate Professor in Law, University of Leeds
Debbie Jolly Co-founder of Disabled People Against the Cuts
Amanda Keeling School Academic Fellow in Disability Law, University of Leeds
Diane Kingston OBE Elected Vice Chair of the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities
Benz Kotzen Senior Lecturer, Dept of Architecture and Landscape, University of Greenwich
Oliver Lewis Professor of Law and Social Justice, University of Leeds
Colin Low Lord Low of Dalston CBE
Marianne Markowski PhD User Experience researcher and accessibility consultant
Jenny Morris Disabled feminist
Ivan Newman Independent Specialist Study Skills Tutor and Diagnostic Assessor, Specific Learning Difficulties
Erin Outram LL.M Projects Manager at CHANGE, a user led organisation working for equal rights of people with learning disabilities.
Bridget Penhale Reader in Mental Health, University of East Anglia
Sue Porter Research Fellow, Norah Fry Centre for Disability Studies, University of Bristol
Mark Priestley Professor of Disability Studies, University of Leeds
Katherine Runswick-Cole PhD Senior Research Fellow Disability Studies & Psychology Manchester Metropolitan University
Nikki Scambler BSC Learning Support Manager University for The Creative Arts, Epsom
Sonali Shah PhD Lord Kelvin Senior Research Fellow, Strathclyde Centre for Disability Research, University of Glasgow
Tom Shakespeare Professor of Disability Research, University of East Anglia
Helen Shore Academic Advisor (Disabled Students), Royal Holloway University
Melanie Thorley PhD Disability and Diversity Outreach Officer and *AccessAbility Project Co-ordinator STEM NET ambassador, University of Greenwich
Lisa Waddington Professor in European Disability Law, Maastricht University, the Netherlands
Maggie Wallace Long time (24 years) sick and disabled by M.E. Former Medical Laboratory Technician.
Laura J Welti Campaigner and Manager of Bristol Disability Equality Forum
Gerry Zarb Business Development and Policy Manager, SPECTRUM Centre for Independent Living



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