Europe in Action speech by Pietro Vittorio Barbieri, EESC, President of Thematic study group disability rights. Session about employment for people with intellectual disabilities on 7th of September 2022 at the European Economic and Social Committee in Brussels.
Thanks to Inclusion Europe for the invitation to this very important seminar. I have to say that I feel at home. I chaired one of those national umbrella organisations that helped the founding of EDF at the time of its inception. That organisation is taking together many different DPO’s among which the majority is of intellectual disability. I did it for 18 years and today’s issue was one of the main one. So I’m quite familiar with it. I’ll say it clear: it is far too easy to place a person with physical disability into a job. Indeed unemployment rates are testifying that for intellectual disability instead it is very very difficult task. At the same time successful stories of job placement of intellectual disabilities represent a step forward inclusion for all persons with disability.
I don’t think I have to present the European Economic Social Committee. You’ve been choosing us as a partner for this seminar. But let me just say few words about the Committee. The political strength of the Committee lies in bringing demands to the social partners. The movement of people with disabilities is led to think that institutions are the ones that must guarantee the rights of people with disabilities. But let’s think about the issue of work: it is virtually entirely a private act that takes place between the worker, with his or her own protections, and the market. Here, dialogue and sometimes fierce confrontation with the social partners is fundamental, first and foremost for us to be recognised as discriminated against. A similar issue can be recalled with regard to schools: workers in that sector need to be convinced and trained in order to be able to empower inclusion in mainstream schools.
I will focus on a couple of examples. The Committee recently was called to give its contribution through the usual opinion on two directives: the work with technological platforms and the one concerning the exploitation of workers outside the European Union.
In the first case, we were able to clearly insert the need for those rules to extend to persons with disabilities, and therefore to the accessibility of platforms. Easy to read is an integral part of the concept of accessibility. Net of what was subsequently accepted by the European Commission, we have found consensus on these points by the social partners and therefore they will be able to actively take on the issue on board and get committed into their daily work. It’s up to us to keep on working on that specific issue.
In the second case, among the workers at risk of exploitation and slavery, we have included persons with disabilities, since we know perfectly well that they are a group of people particularly subject to exploitation in the poorest countries. We’re not happy to build an armed castle in which everything works and outside it is just a wild environment. We have to be clear: human rights belong to everybody, or they risks to turn into privileges for the few.
The setting up in the EESC of the thematic study group on disability rights, which recently changed its name to permanent group, would not have happened without the presence of colleagues from the movement of people with disabilities, starting from Ioannis Vardakastanis.
With this action, the Committee intends to act as a subject that gives an example to the European institutions on the one hand and to the similar committees of the 27 member countries on the other. Leadership is therefore is seek to be asserted in the field of inclusion of people with disabilities. It is clear that like any initiative of this nature, it needs to be supported and by members with disabilities who come from movements and associations. It is equally clear that the interaction with DPOs must be constant and we must recognise each other as it happens today in this initiative. The radical modification of the terms with which exclusion and the lack of equal opportunities occurs in our society, has to find points of reference, including institutional ones, capable of formulating positive examples from which to start for the enormous challenge of social inclusion. From this point of view, the question concerning intellectual disability is fundamental since it is the first to be excluded and since there is a prejudice on the real possibility of inclusion that must be fought with all possible weapons.
Today we are faced with the need to relaunch the initiatives of the Committee in the field of disability as we are at a crucial point. The intersection between the new financial policies of the European Union, starting with the Next Generation EU, the union of equality with the European disability strategy, and the Social Pillar, marks a never-before-seen opportunity to conquer new frontiers on rights and for equal opportunities. The way in which these bastions of European politics are put in place will make a difference.
The Russian aggression on Ukraine, which moreover happens right after the pandemic, is a factor that does not help. We are all focused on supporting Ukraine’s defense and welcoming refugees, obviously in our case with particular attention to those with disabilities. All the necessary emergency policies are already questioning the New Green Deal on the energy side. I think that if the war lasts long, the topic of inclusion will not be touched upon. Indeed, in war times, the rights of people with disabilities hardly find the space they deserve. In fact, peace is a fundamental state to be able to work on the enlargement of rights.
Moreover, in these days, we live a further emergency, that is the one on energy price and availability. This represents an emergency for people with disabilities at risk of poverty, for associations and service providers, and for all those people with disabilities who, thanks to new technologies, can breathe, leave their house independently and so on. Those technologies don’t work without electricity. This could lead persons with disabilities towards a concrete risk of impoverishment with a consequent further possibility of social exclusion, or even the possibility of putting the very existence of some people at risk. I only want to recall the death rates in Greece after the recent crisis. But there is a second emergency that could happen: the member states of the European Union commit themselves, as they should, to reduce the impact of the emergency costs on families on businesses. Obviously, huge public resources will be committed and this can only lead us to suspect that the public investments for inclusion risk at least being postponed to another date.
It is therefore still necessary to work with maximum intensity. There are issues that cannot wait: people with disabilities who are engaged and leaders of associative movements, or like me in a European institution, have increasing responsibilities. I believe we need to come together and collaborate even more, starting from the basics. We have tools to work on, even new ones such as the European strategy on disability itself. The main points it gives us are de-institutionalization and independent living, school, work, accessibility. Thanks to EDF and to its associations, we also have a European environment transversal to organisations that we can consider positive: I am thinking of the questions that EASPD poses today on the quality of services and consequently on their consistency with the CRPD. In a recent side event at the COSP in which we took part, Facundo Chavez (Human Rights and Disability Advisor, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights) announced that the United Nations will soon intervene on the issue, starting with a question: to guarantee fundamental rights, there cannot be only one service provider for a person with a disability, but more services must guarantee the rights of the community, that is to say of all and everyone.
This is a fundamental term of the question: the lives of people with disabilities belong to themselves, not to institutions, to service providers or to professionals. They must be put in a position to be able to express their choices and to choose their life project. Institutions, together with service providers and professionals, are called to a new role, that of facilitating and empowering people with disabilities.
We must bear in mind that the pandemic has highlighted the severe state of segregation and lack of ability to respond to the needs of people with disabilities in health systems. There is a hiatus between that and what Facundo claims. Not small. The movement of people with disabilities, perhaps with the help and support it may have from the European Economic and Social Committee, will be able to face it with strength and determination.
Returning to the concept of prejudice, it should be noted that it is necessary if not indispensable to work first of all to overcome it. This kind of reasoning could appear very high but without concrete repercussions. But we know that a rigorous and appropriate job matching and couching can represent the true way to overcome the prejudice of companies and workers on the unproductively of the worker with disabilities, in particular intellectual and relational. It is therefore necessary to build public and private systems of job placements that know how to work in this direction and offer companies an edge for an action that can be concretely finalised. Some member States have adopted the quota system for the obligation to hire workers with disabilities. Others have chosen non-discrimination paths. Still others are working with social enterprises. In each of these situations, the quality of job placement is paramount so that it is effective both from the point of view of the worker and the company. We could say that this is the real challenge, to personalize and coach.
I am here to listen and learn, but also to offer all the support in a difficult battle that we could all win together.
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