EU laws ‘have played crucial role’ in fight for disability rights

Survey evidence shows that a large minority, in some cases a majority, want Britain to leave the EU. Photograph: Federico Gambarini/EPA
 Photograph: Federico Gambarini/EPA                 

Disabled people have been urged to recognise the importance of the European Union (EU) in maintaining and building on their rights, across areas such as access to information, transport and accessible goods and services.

The call for disabled people to vote to remain in the EU in this month’s referendum came at a Westminster seminar chaired by the crossbench disabled peer Baroness [Jane] Campbell.

The seminar was addressed by influential disabled campaigners and “remain” supporters including John Evans, one of the founders of the UK’s independent living movement and a former chair of the European Network on Independent Living; the crossbench peer Lord [Colin] Low, a former president of the European Blind Union; and Professor Anna Lawson, who heads the new Disability Law Hub at the University of Leeds.

It took place a day after a letter in The Times, signed by more than 50 peers, MPs, activists and academics – including Baroness Campbell, Lord Low, and fellow disabled peers Baroness [Tanni] Grey-Thompson, Baroness [Sal] Brinton and Baroness [Celia] Thomas – explained that leaving the EU would create a “bonfire” of disabled people’s “hard-won rights”, while a post-Brexit Britain would see disabled people “banished to the margins of British life once more”.

Lord Low told the seminar that disabled people who were too busy fighting other campaign battles to pay attention to the referendum should realise that it was “one of the most momentous decisions they will face in their lifetime”.

He said that being a member of the European single market had had a significantly positive affect on disabled people.

He said: “I would argue that we were able to achieve a great deal for disabled people [as a result of various EU mechanisms] that we simply could not have achieved at national level.”

He pointed to three pieces of European legislation that have had, or will have, a significant positive impact on disabled people in the UK.

He said that EU policies on procurement by public bodies, such as local authorities and government departments, offer a “substantial lever” to improve the accessibility of goods and services.

He also pointed to draft EU rules on the accessibility of public sector websites, which have been agreed despite “strong resistance from national governments who delayed progress for almost two years”.

The EU Directive on Web Accessibility for Public Sector Websites will mean that new websites and mobile phone apps of all public sector organisations will have to be accessible, while existing sites will have to be updated.

Lord Low also pointed to the proposed European Accessibility Act, which was published in draft form last December and will outlaw discrimination faced by disabled people in accessing key products and services, encouraging investment in accessible goods and leading to consistent standards across the EU.

Legislation like this, he said, will only be possible if we remain in the EU, because the UK government would never introduce such laws if the country voted to “leave”.

Professor Lawson told the seminar that EU law “plays a really crucial part” in “enabling and entitling disabled and older people to travel and get about”.

She said the EU’s Air Passengers Regulation was “a really good example of the benefits to the UK of being in the EU”.

The regulation means transport operators have to assist disabled passengers travelling by air through the EU, with similar obligations for travel by train, ship, and buses and coaches, while disabled people’s parking badges receive mutual recognition across the EU.

Before the regulation, she said, air travel was “a nightmare” as it was not covered by UK discrimination laws, because of its international dimension.

She said: “I had people saying, ‘We can help you as far as the check-in desk, but then you’re on your own.’

“I cancelled flights because I couldn’t risk being left on my own.”

Tara Flood, chief executive of The Alliance for Inclusive Education (ALLFIE), told the seminar that her organisation had twice benefitted from EU funding, which had allowed ALLFIE to build “fantastic collaborative relationships” with other EU countries to campaign for an end to segregated education and move towards an inclusive education system.

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