Leaders of the European Union institutions came together with European Disability Forum to discuss issues facing estimated 80 million Europeans with disabilities.
Presidents Jose Manuel Barroso (European Commission), Jerzy Buzek (European Parliament), Herman Van Rompuy (European Council) as well as European Commission Vice-President Viviane Reding, the EU's Justice Commissioner, met with pan-European representatives of the disabled community.
Jose Manuel Barroso, President of the European Commission, stated:
"The European Union must be attentive to the situation of people with disabilities. The European Disability Strategy sets an ambitious agenda for the next 10 years. The EU remains committed to empowering people with disabilities so that they can enjoy their full rights, and benefit fully from participating in society and the economy."
Jerzy Buzek, President of the European Parliament, said:
"One in six Europeans lives with some form of disability. Efforts to support vulnerable groups must be doubled in times of crisis as they are likely to be the first affected. Europe must ensure that the impact of the necessary austerity measures is minimized, especially for this group. All material and immaterial barriers to their full participation in society must be removed. The inclusion of people with disabilities would also provide an indispensable contribution to the near future needs of the European labor market as a result of the retiring millions of the baby-boom generation. The European Disability Strategy provides a valuable contribution in this direction. The European Parliament is firmly committed to safeguarding the rights of people with disabilities, as is reflected by their inclusion in all relevant legislation and staff regulations and last but not least by the Parliament as a workplace itself."
Herman Van Rompuy, President of the European Council, stressed:
"Europe has been at the forefront of the campaign to advance the cause of persons with disabilities. I should like to underline the importance of inclusiveness. Persons with disabilities must be part of tomorrow's social market economy. Even in the economic crisis our goals should remain accessibility and equal opportunities in a real sense, so that full participation of persons with disabilities becomes a reality. It is a matter of civilization, of defending our common values. In Europe, society means everyone and a modern society must reflect all its members."
The European Commission adopted a comprehensive strategy last year to create a barrier-free Europe for disabled people by 2020.
The plan outlines how the EU and national governments can empower people with disabilities so they can enjoy their rights. Today's discussion focused on the progress made so far in implementing the strategy and how people with disabilities are being affected by the economic crisis.
Under the lead of Vice-President Reding, the Commission will put forward the European Accessibility Act in autumn 2012 to ensure that people with disabilities have access on an equal basis with others to the physical environment, to transport and to information and communication services. Accessibility is a precondition for persons with disabilities to be able to enjoy the rights enshrined in the UN Convention, the EU Treaty and the Charter for Fundamental Rights. The Commission will shortly launch a public consultation on accessibility issues to help prepare the initiative.
One in six people in the European Union - around 80 million - have a disability that ranges from mild to severe.
Over one third of people aged over 75 have disabilities that restrict them to some extent. These numbers are set to rise as the EU population grows progressively older. Most of these people are all too often prevented from fully participating in society and the economy because of physical or other barriers, as well as discrimination.
Breaking down barriers is not only a societal task, but it can also create new market opportunities. A study by the UK's Royal National Institute of the Blind showed that a £35 000 investment by a supermarket chain in making their website accessible brought in additional revenue of over £13 million a year. In Germany, a study found that more accessible facilities would increase travel by persons with disabilities, yielding between 620 million and 1.9 billion in additional turnover for the German tourism industry.
Against this background, the European Disability Strategy underlines the EU's commitment to improve the situation of Europeans with disabilities. It complements and supports action by the Member States, which have the main responsibility in disability policies.
On 1-2 December the Commission organized a major conference in the context of the European Day of People with Disabilities, which also focused on the disability rights perspective of the economic crisis.
The EU Charter of Fundamental Rights says that the "Union recognizes and respects the right of persons with disabilities to benefit from measures designed to ensure their independence, social and occupational integration and participation in the life of the community." In addition, the EU and all its 27 Member States, have already committed to creating a barrier-free Europe by signing the UNCRPD.
The European Disability Strategy complements EU actions under the Europe 2020 strategy and the EU Citizenship Report.
The EU strategy focuses on empowering people with disabilities to enjoy their rights on an equal basis with others and on removing obstacles in everyday life.
The main actions are:
The strategy includes a list of concrete actions and a timetable. The Commission will regularly report on the plan's achievements and progress complying with its obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities (UNCRPD), which it has signed.