BRUSSELS – Already at the margins of society by virtue of casual discrimination, disabled people are often among the worst hit by the waves of austerity measures being put in place right across the European Union.
As governments seek to cut their budget deficits, social services and aid – which make a difficult life more bearable or in some cases simply liveable – have been sharply cut back.
A study compiled by the European Disability Forum shows that disabled people are feeling effects of the austerity drive sweeping Europe in a variety of ways, including cuts in disability allowances, a reassessment of disability status and a reduction in services for disabled people.
In the UK, over 400,000 disabled people will be affected by a decision to limit employment and support allowance to one year. In the Netherlands, the number of people eligible for a personal budget scheme, used for things such as home nursing, has been cut by 90 percent. A decision to reduce supported employment for those with intellectual disabilities in Spain could see up to 12,000 such jobs being lost.
Meanwhile, the superficial discourse hides the fact that changing the eligibility criteria often means fewer disabled people are entitled to money – fitting in with the budget-saving objective.
In short, disabled people across Europe are finding that the gains of recent years – societal inclusion, a voice in legislative discussions, and awareness-raising, risk being wiped out by the impact of the financial and economic crisis that started to be felt about three years ago. And behind the numbers, peoples’ lives are being turned upside down.
No room for optimism
“There does not seem to be any room for optimism. You can understand people considering suicide. You have to remain belligerent and strong, otherwise you would land in manic depression,” says John Evans, a severely disabled wheelchair user needing a permanent assistant.
In his native UK, benefits been have cut and a new more rigorous assessment system is expected to see many no longer eligible for funding.
Meanwhile, the Independent Living Fund, which helps Evans and 21,000 other severely disabled people live at home rather than in care homes, will be stopped in 2015.
“I don’t want to think what the situation will be in five years’ time because the scenario is very, very grim indeed,” says Evans, who is an active rights campaigner for disabled people.
Conferences and events dealing with this issue are full of people not simply “concerned” about the cuts, but “terrified” by them, he notes.
These types of hardships are being felt across Europe.
“The situation of disabled people in Greece has immensely worsened due to the crisis,” says Yannis Vardakastanis, a prominent disability campaigner in the troubled eurozone country, which is implementing harsh austerity measures in return for international aid.
Vardakastanis, who is blind, says that disabled people have been hit both by government cuts in pensions and salaries and a dropping off in employment possibilities.
“Even during prosperity, disabled people are the first to be fired, the last to be hired. So in a crisis, they are the first to be fired and are not hired at all.”
He also points to the “tremendous impact” of budget cuts on educational and training services for disabled people, noting that one under-reported consequence of the lack of money could be that mentally disabled people are returned to psychiatric hospitals because there are no longer the resources to support them in the community.
’Cuts across the board’
Siobhan Kane, from Inclusion Ireland, the national association for people with mental disability, points to the policy impact of the cuts in her country, another eurozone bail-out state.
“Those key pieces of legislation were one of the first things to be shelved when the going got tough in 2008,” she says, referring to the National Disability Strategy, designed to boost inclusion and social involvement, launched in 2004.
Disability allowances have been cut by almost €900 euro a year since 2008. Carers allowances have also been cut. And services that were previously free – such as “respite” care giving tired relatives a day’s break from looking after disabled loved one – are now no longer so. “The cuts went across the board,” notes Kane.
Tiny Latvia, meanwhile, is seen by some as the austerity poster child for being on the way to achieving a fiscal adjustment of 16 percent of GDP after the 2008 collapse of Lehman Brother’s put an end to its booming economy.
But the social effects of what is said to be one the world’s harshest austerity programme have been great.
Gunta Anca, chair of Sustento, an umbrella association for disability in the country, says “people still they feel things are going down and down and this is especially so for people with disability”.
Governments bailing themselves out
The rate of unemployment, which peaked last year at 21 percent, means it is “almost impossible” for disabled people get a job in Latvia, while losing a job as a disabled person means losing all income as there are no disability allowances, unlike in many other EU countries.
In addition, notes Anca, the number of disabled people in the country has been “rising quickly” in the last two years because people cannot afford the rising costs of healthcare, so pushing an illness into disability. Yet the technical equipment remains scarce. It can take a year to get a wheelchair.
The European Disability Forum is seeking to raise awareness of the effects of budget cuts on disabled people across Europe ahead of European Day of People with Disabilities on 1 December.
Evans, who campaigns on behalf of the EDF, says: “We know the debt crisis needs to be addressed but there seems to be no assessment of the long-term effects that these cuts will have on the quality of lives of disabled people in the future.”
“The governments bailed out the banks and now they are in a position of trying to bail themselves out. We didn’t get ourselves into this situation.”