Campaigners and experts say they fear that Britain’s vote to leave the European Union (EU) could have serious consequences for disabled people, although it is too early for an accurate assessment of the likely impact.
Among the concerns raised are that the referendum result could trigger another recession, an increase in unemployment and a fresh round of spending cuts.
But there are also fears that disabled people could lose some of the legal protection from discrimination that they receive through EU membership, although it is far from clear what would happen to those rights when Britain leaves.
These protections include EU rules on procurement by public bodies; the air passengers regulation, which provides assistance for disabled passengers travelling in the EU, and similar rules for travel by train, ship, bus and coach; the EU directive on web accessibility for public sector websites, which was agreed last month but has not yet become law; the EU directive on equal treatment in employment and occupation from 2000, which bans disability discrimination in employment; and the planned European Accessibility Act, which will set “common accessibility requirements for certain key products and services”.
Experts have suggested that the impact on disabled people will depend on the departure terms the UK agrees with the rest of the EU.
If the UK stays in the EU single market – which is far from certain – it could mean that it will have to ensure that its domestic laws meet the standards set out in EU law relating to the market, according to Professor Anna Lawson, the disabled law expert who heads the new Disability Law Hub at the University of Leeds.
This is likely to include employment rights and discrimination laws and the proposed European Accessibility Act, she said.
If the UK agrees to maintain freedom of movement across other EU member states – which again is far from certain – this could help disabled people retain and recruit personal assistants (PAs), and enable the NHS to recruit staff, she added.
But the position of EU regulations on accessible air and ship travel is less clear and more vulnerable to being lost, as they are set out in EU law but not in separate UK legislation, she said.
She added: “So if all EU law were to cease to have effect in the UK, we would lose those rights automatically.”
The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) website confirms that the post-referendum picture will be a complex one.
Many protections under EU law have been incorporated into UK domestic law by legislation, and so would remain applicable post-EU exit unless repealed by parliament. The same applies to most – but not all – secondary legislation.
The commission also points out that if the UK exits the EU, it is likely to negotiate a trade agreement and that “existing models for trade agreements with the EU require an EU trading partner to comply with EU law (at least in the areas covered by the trade agreement)”.
It adds: “Therefore, leaving the EU, and conducting trade through a new trading agreement, would not necessarily result in lower protections for human rights and equality in domestic law.”
Emily Brothers, a former senior EHRC manager and now a high-profile disabled Labour politician, was less optimistic.
She said she was “extremely disappointed and concerned” about the implications for disabled people, as membership of the EU had brought them “strengthened rights and opportunities, as well as encouraging greater awareness and tolerance”.
She said she believed that progress was now at risk.
She said that if exit from the EU did lead to a halt to free movement across EU states, it could have a serious impact on the number of European migrants willing and able to work as PAs for disabled people.
She said: “The consequence of reduced migration is that the pool of PA support will become smaller and it will be more difficult to find support.
“As pay is often low and [there are] long or irregular hours, it is often taken up by hard-working Eastern Europeans.
“Therefore, it will be difficult for disabled people to find PA support that is reliable and effective.”
She said she believed that this could put the independence of many disabled people at risk.
Brothers said the Brexit vote had also created economic uncertainty, which “may well lead to the government stepping up their austerity agenda and that may have implications for funding of care and support”.
She said: “It is hardly surprising that many disabled people tell me of their worries about the potential consequences of Brexit.
“That may lead to some people not being able to sustain independent living and going into institutional care. That would be a serious backward step.”
She added: “Whether any of this happens will depend on the terms of the Brexit plan.
“There is no plan, so disabled people and others worry about the potential implications of Brexit.
“That’s why disabled people need to have a voice in the emerging reforms as they unfold.”
In a blog for Disability Now, John Evans, one of the founders of the UK independent living movement, said disabled people were “now confronted with the sad prospect of losing our human rights”, and risked losing access to EU legislation and directives “which have protected our rights for the last 20 years”.
He said they would also lose access to European funding from the European Structural and Investment Funds, including the European Social Fund, “which have been important for many years in supporting numerous projects for disabled people’s organisations and has also helped us strengthen our networks”.
Evans agreed with Brothers and Lawson that leaving the EU could have a severe impact on disabled people’s ability to recruit PAs.
He said: “I have been employing my own personal assistants for 33 years and during this time I have employed PAs from 12 different EU countries.
“I would not have been able to have managed this if we were not part of the EU.
“If we leave, this opportunity will no longer be available to us and will restrict thousands of disabled people finding new PAs.”
Disability Rights UK said it was important that “disabled people’s hard won rights are not eroded as the UK negotiates its way out of the European Union”.
It pointed to the web accessibility directive and the European Accessibility Act proposals, and said: “We need to make sure that as the UK de-links itself from EU law this isn’t at the expense of important new rights like that.”
Equality and human rights consultant Neil Crowther, former EHRC director of human rights, said he believed the UK would need to comply with the regulations that govern the single market, if it wanted to remain within it.
But he said it was less clear what the impact of leaving the EU would be on areas such as anti-discrimination laws.
He said: “I think the bigger implications are likely to be the economic consequences – another recession, unemployment, spending cuts.
“That’s what people will feel far more immediately and sharply.”
He said the loss of EU funding for services and research would also have a dramatic affect.
Professor Peter Beresford, co-chair of the national service-user network Shaping Our Lives, said that disabled people faced “at least a double whammy” as a result of the referendum vote, because they were “likely to become further direct targets of increasing social and economic insecurity and of course support services will be badly hit if the negative economic consequences of Brexit are proved to be true”.
He said that groups committed to social justice and social inclusion “should not take the results of the referendum as a done deal, but instead continue campaigning for a just settlement and continued freedom of movement for people”.
The disabled people’s organisation Inclusion Scotland warned that “extremely turbulent times lie ahead”.
It said: “The reality now is that the human rights, equality rights and workers’ rights that could not be removed while we remained an EU member are now no longer secure.”
It warned that the many third sector organisations that rely on European funding “appear to face a bleak future”, while further “swingeing” cuts to public spending now seem inevitable.
It called on Scottish disabled people and their organisations “to come together and work together” and “seize all opportunities – and there will be many because everything is now up in the air – not just to protect what we currently have, but improve on it”.