Disability World
A bimonthly web-zine of international disability news and views, Issue no. 7 March-April 2001

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European Commission Official Addresses Employment Opportunities For Disabled Persons before the European Disability Forum

The following is text of a speech delivered to the European Disability Forum in Crete in September 2000 by Anna Diamantopoulou, Commissioner for Employment and Social Affairs of the European Commission

It is a pleasure to be here with you today. As you might expect, I get a great deal of invitations to attend events and conferences but this is one I certainly wanted to come to given the personal importance I attach to meetings with disability and advocacy nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).

You are among the most challenging of my audiences. Organisations representing civil society rightly pressure their governments and the representatives of public authorities who meet them, just as they exert influence on their communities and society. Of course, to make a difference today, you need to have spirit, the drive to shape the future.

You understand the dream of a better, stronger society, waiting to unfold for each new generation and each individual. And you know what it takes to realise that dream. It takes passion. It takes commitment. And, in truth, it takes patience or, more probably, impatience.

That is why I am glad to be here. The Commission has made very serious commitments to European citizens, commitments designed to open doors. Doors to work experience, doors to learning, doors to equal participation and social inclusion. And those commitments apply equally and fully to Europeans with disabilities.

Much of the responsibility in the Commission for following through on these commitments lies with me. And these are responsibilities I am honoured to have. I believe strongly that a society as great as ours must bring about the full inclusion of all its citizens. And I believe in the importance of education, training and employment as an essential tool for shaping our future both as individuals and as a society.

Today, I want to outline some of the initiatives we are putting into place to help people with disabilities overcome barriers and enable them to prepare better for the future.

But before I turn to some practical details, I want to say a word on those principles which drive our policies, and the tools we need to deliver action on the ground.

Basic Principles
I also want to underline my commitment to two basic principles.

One is the right of people with disabilities to contribute fully and equally to active society, in all its forms, in all its contexts, in all its richness and variety. The second is the right of people with disabilities to play a full part in developing the strategy and action which flows from that commitment. If policy is to be effective, and truly inclusive, people with disabilities need to be creators, as well as consumers, at European, national and local level.

This is why all our work _ still very much work in progress _ is informed and enriched by the constant reinforcement of the Commission's relationships with NGOs in the disability field and by close and regular contact with the European Disability Forum. I am committed to deepening this relationship, and to making full use of it in transforming principles, and the platform we have built from these principles, into practical action on several fronts.

Let me also reflect just for a moment on the most important reasons for such action. The facts are clear. Around 17 percent of the EU population have a physical, intellectual or other disability, and for most of these people, their disability is accompanied by limitations which affect their performance in certain tasks.

We also know that:
  • more than half of people with disabilities are not in the labour force compared with less than a quarter of the rest of the population;
  • of those who are in the labour force, they are two times more likely to be unemployed, and to be so for longer periods, than the working population as a whole; and
  • of those who do find employment, many have limited career paths and career options, largely due to their more limited access to education and training opportunities.
Complex Issues and Barriers
This presents a very serious challenge for all of us here today and for policy-makers in each Member State. Not only must we improve the participation levels of people with disabilities in employment, but we must also shift the focus of the type of education and training they experience into an education and training which really matters--in other words, which is structured and valid and can provide worthwhile employment opportunities.

Responding to such complex issues and barriers demands a more holistic approach to disability; a stronger promotion of the rights-based agenda across the entire range of European policy; and a more focused use of resources in support of this whole approach, not least in terms of employment policy.

As far as promoting rights for people with disabilities is concerned, the Amsterdam Treaty provides the basis for a real leap forward in this area. In response to the growing demand of EU citizens and disability organisations, the Commission adopted last year a comprehensive anti-discrimination package.

From a disability perspective, the most relevant part of this package consists in a directive for equal treatment in employment which aims to ensure that workplaces in Europe are supportive of, and accessible to, people with disabilities.

Employment is obviously important for people with disabilities, for financial reasons, for participation reasons, and for reasons of independence. It is also a major part of the way in which society as a whole interacts. Of course, there is more to life, more to interaction and more to society than employment but it is nevertheless of fundamental importance .

Draft Directive for Equal Treatment in Employment
The draft Directive provides a legislative framework for legally enforceable rights for people with disabilities, including provisions on a number of key issues such as protection against harassment, scope for positive action, appropriate remedies and enforcement measures.

There is also a duty to accommodate the needs of people with disabilities in the workplace. Without this requirement, equality would be meaningless. Measures to meet the needs of people with disabilities include making adjustments to work premises, modifying instructions or reference manuals, providing training to enable an individual to acquire a particular set of skills, adjusting a person's working hours or providing disabled workers with access to appropriate material through alternative technologies.

This package also entails a proposal for a Community action programme to enable policy-makers and practitioners to compare experiences and to develop their capacity to address discrimination. It should offer a stimulus for policy development.

Legislation remains just one tool, however, in our broader strategy of raising the employment level of people with disabilities. The Treaty of Amsterdam also commits the EU to reinforcing the co-ordination of national employment policies. It foresees the establishment of common employment guidelines, which can lead to recommendations being issued to individual Member States.

This gives us a great opportunity to redefine the 'mainstream' of labour market policies to ensure they become more inclusive. It is a major task but also a fundamental challenge, and one that is essential if training and employment is going to be more relevant to, and have real meaning for people with disabilities.

Let me add that equity considerations are at the heart of our approach, with the primary objective being a broadening of equal access for all to the labour market.

Support of the European Social Fund
To achieve this, however, significant investment in workforce development programmes is also required. With the support of the European Social Fund, we are able to underpin innovative, comprehensive measures within the Member States.

It must be said that experience from the implementation of the 1994-1999 CSF for Greece shows that action for people with disabilities was more oriented to the traditional, protective "welfare" approach rather than the new "rights- based" equal opportunities approach.

However, in the new programming period 2000-2006 particular emphasis will be laid to minimising the risks of social exclusion and improving access to the labour market through an individualised, preventive and active approach in line also with the guidelines of the European Employment Strategy. The approach to be adopted will consist both of mainstreaming equal opportunities introducing, where necessary, the required adaptations to meet the specific needs of people with disabilities, as well as at developing specific measures raising obstacles to labour market integration.

As you might know, support for people with disabilities has also been available through Community Initiatives. Some 1700 projects have received, or are receiving, ESF funding under the EMPLOYMENT HORIZON arrangements.

These projects are about ideas, transnationality and partnership. They are about learning: as operators, as participants, as policy makers. Many operators and networks, have used this support to test and develop new ideas. Many have used it to help people with disabilities to play a constructive part in seeking solutions to the problems which they are facing. And to help direct the attention of policy makers in the Member States to the needs of people with disabilities.

This Community Initiative has generated a wealth of innovative, locally engaged, and outward looking networks. Our common task is to build on this energy, and these relationships.

The EQUAL Initiative
Now, we have EQUAL, which will contribute resources to our shared aims over the coming years up to 2006. Like Employment_Horizon, it will test, develop, and disseminate innovative ways of delivering employment policies.

As I said earlier, my wider ambition is also to implement a stronger promotion of the rights-based agenda, across the whole range of EU policy.

To be in a position to educate and inform the Member States about appropriate and effective approaches to disability, and to be in a position to provide those wishing to improve their approaches to disability with the information, coordination and access to resources they require, the Commission has to demonstrate its own commitment to inclusion . This involves a commitment to the following principles:
  • The adoption and the promotion of inclusionary policies and practices.
  • The removal and the prevention of architectural and design barriers.
  • The adoption of affirmative strategies to include people with disabilities in mainstream policy activities.
  • Support for, and constructive engagement with, organisations of people with disabilities.
That is why I presented a new Communication on a barrier-free Europe for people with disabilities to the Commission in May. This Communication concerns employment and issues of resources. However, it also looks more widely at what needs to be done to link up policies and commitments to make sure that disability is truly a matter of Community concern in the EU.

Steps toward a barrier-free society
The focus of the Communication is on those EU policies that can help us to drive towards a barrier-free society. That is why it examines how to achieve greater synergy between employment, education and vocational training, transport, the internal market, information society, new technologies and consumer policy.

It champions the provision of equal access to transport, built environments and new technology as an integral part of the fulfillment of the global commitment to equalising opportunities for disabled people. Architecture and design barriers also generate direct economic costs to society by reducing the economic and social output of people with disabilities. The wider availability of the various new technologies now on the market will enhance people's abilities with regard to self-directed learning and will foster independence, autonomy and the growth of self-esteem.

Ladies and gentlemen, the importance of these developments means that I have taken some time to let you know of the practicalities that we need to be engaged in and which involve all of us, as citizens, as workers, as companies and public bodies.

Let me end by emphasising the unifying concept behind all these parts of the strategy.

The aim is to create the conditions for all Europeans to see themselves as integral and valued parts of the richness, diversity and creativity of economic and social life in the EU.

We are all contributors, we are all in need of support, either as children or as adults, as citizens and as employees, as people with disabilities, as people who do not have disabilities.

To make this essential solidarity, and reality work for all of us, not least for people with disabilities, we have to make progress on all the fronts I have detailed today.

It is clear that the work is far from finished. I believe that we do have, now, a broad policy framework, underpinned by a clear targeting of resources, and a strong legal base.

But this is simply the end of one phase of our work, and the beginning of the next. We now need to work with disabled people and your organisations to turn the commitments about .

European Year of Disabled Citizens
I am pleased to say, too, the Commission will propose to the Council that the year 2003 should be designated as the European Year of Disabled Citizens.

This would provide us with a good starting point in the delivery of action on all fronts. It would contribute to increasing awareness, it would provide a catalyst for new policies and participation, it would strengthen the idea of fully inclusive European citizenship for disabled people.

I look forward to working with you, and with Europe's disability organisations, to make the European Union's contribution to a barrier free Europe for people with disabilities as effective as possible, throughout the EU

Thank you

For more information, visit:
European Union: http://europa.eu.int/
European Commission: http://europa.eu.int/comm/role_en.htm#1
Anna Diamantopoulou: http://europa.eu.int/comm/commissioners/diamantopoulou/index_en.htm
European Disability Forum: http://www.edf_feph.org/

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