The annual European Day of Persons with Disabilities conference, held the 1-2 December, gave more than 250 politicians, high-level experts and self-advocates the opportunity to discuss online the upcoming Strategy on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (EDS) 2021-2030 and the impact of COVID-19 on persons with disabilities. Autism-Europe’s members and staff took part in the discussions on how to promote the mainstreaming of disability issues and to raise awareness of the everyday challenges faced by people on the autism spectrum.
In its opening statement, President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen recognized that “on the rights of persons with disabilities, the EU is not perfect.” She referred to the new EDS as “a strategy for change”. “Our goal is a Union of Equality. A Union where everyone can enjoy the same rights and opportunities. Where we are all equal, with all our differences. A continent where we can finally be united in diversity”, highlighted von der Leyen.
Last round of inspiration for the EDS 2021-2030
The first part of the conference hosted discussions to assess the results of the European disability strategy (2010-2020) and discussed the priorities and features of the upcoming one. The EU strategic work on disability started back in 1996 recalled Inmaculada Placencia Porrero, Senior expert of the Disability and Inclusion unit of the European Commission.
Richard Smith, managing Consultant with ICF’s Employment, Skills, and Education research practice, shared with the audience an independent study supporting the evaluation of the EDS (2010-2020). This evaluation evidenced that the strategy design wasn’t linked enough to the UN CRPD and was not sufficiently addressing invisible disabilities, such as autism. In this regard, Autism-Europe issued a position paper on the EDS 2010-2020 in 2019 expressing the priorities of autistic people and their families. More recently AE also provided written feedback on the Roadmap for the new EDS calling for an ambitious implementation that leaves no one behind and takes into account the diversity of disability, support and accessibility needs.
In view of the new strategy, Yannis Vardakastanis, President of the European Disability Forum, reminded that “the pandemic has brought up the exclusion, poverty and discrimination that persons with disabilities are faced with in all areas of life. The new EDS should ensure that the rights of persons with disabilities as they are enshrined in the CRPD, are met and implemented.”
COVID-19 and the recovery: what about persons with disabilities?
The second part of the conference was devoted to the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on persons with disabilities. Thereupon, László Bercse, Vice President of Inclusion Europe and Chair of the European Platform of Self-Advocates, denounced that “before the pandemic, we already faced discrimination and isolation. Governments and the EU must investigate how many people with intellectual disabilities died because of the lack of healthcare”.
Dr Anastasia Pharris, expert at the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, presented a Guidance on the provision of support for medically and socially vulnerable populations in EU/EEA countries and the United Kingdom during the COVID-19 pandemic. The report evidence that people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, including autism and other related conditions, face an elevated risk of infection and a substantially elevated risk of mortality, as well as an increase of distress of the individual.
It echoes a study conducted jointly by Autism-Europe and renown academics that evidenced that “the COVID-19 pandemic has further emphasized healthcare inequalities for autistic people/those with ID, likely contributing to disproportionate increases in morbidity and mortality in these groups. Current policies and guidelines regarding the accessibility of COVID-19 services require urgent revision to prevent the widespread exclusion of autistic people and those with ID from services, which represents a violation of international human rights law”.
“The work that we need to carry out must be done urgently”, urged the vice president of the European Disability Forum, Ana Pélaez, in the concluding speech. “The pandemic has really shown us the weak points of our democracies. And also our European economic model. COVID-19 has also shown us that persons with disabilities didn’t receive important public health messages because they were not accessible. We also learned that once again – even when it comes to health – persons with disabilities are forced to the back of the queue ”, she said.
On this occasion, Autism-Europe unveiled on Twitter some of its key findings following its EU-wide survey on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on autistic people and their families, with a comprehensive report to be released in the coming weeks.
EU Access City Award ceremony
As part of the conference, the Access City Award ceremony was held online with the participation of the Commissioner for Justice and Equality Helena Dalli. Out of 50 applications, Jönköping was designated the winner of this 11th edition. Jönköping, a city located in the south of Sweden, made continuous improvements in both the new and old areas of the city, in collaboration with disability organisations. The city also created a local ‘Access City Award’, for businesses or organisations that worked with their customers to improve accessibility.
The city of Bremerhaven in Germany and the city of Gdynia in Poland are the second and third place winners of the competition. Poznań in Poland received a special mention for accessibility of public services in times of the pandemic. Two further special mentions were awarded to Komotini in Greece for “accessibility as an opportunity for the whole city” and Florence in Italy for the “built environment”.
The Access City Award is organised by the European Commission together with the European Disability Forum, and is one of the actions of the EU Disability Strategy 2010-2020. The Access City Award was launched in 2010 to raise awareness of disability and promote accessibility initiatives in European cities with more than 50,000 inhabitants.