Viewpoint: Yannis Vardakastanis – Why Europe needs a human rights approach to persons with disabilities

On International day of persons with disabilities, this ‘Viewpoint’ article is authored by Yannis Vardakastanis, President of the European Disability Forum (EDF)

There are 80 million people with disabilities in Europe representing 16% of the overall population. That means that one in every four families in Europe has a person with disability. Despite the fact that persons with disabilities represent a remarkable part of the population, they are still facing discrimination and barriers to their full inclusion and participation in society.

The Council of Europe has been working for more than 50 years on the rights of persons with disabilities. Currently, the organisation is discussing the adoption of a forthcoming Disability Action Plan 2016-2020.

The European Disability Forum (EDF) advocates for including the principles and obligations enshrined in the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with disabilities (CRPD), in this Action Plan. The human rights model to disability should be promoted in the Action Plan and the Plan should focus on the legal and other barriers that are obstacles to the full realization of the human rights of persons with disabilities in Europe.

A cross-cutting approach and mainstreaming of disability issues in all policies should be adopted in the Action Plan. It implies that disability is taken into consideration in all sectors’ legislation and reforms.

Mainstreaming needs to be accompanied by specific measures to ensure equality of opportunity (such as reasonable accommodation, affirmative actions and support services among others), so that persons with disabilities can enjoy their rights.

In addition, the European Court of Human Rights has taken up the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in its jurisprudence and is taking significant steps toward increased CRPD recognition and compliance.

While there remain issues of conflict between the court’s case law and the CRPD, it is a positive sign that the court is interpreting the European Convention on Human Rights in the light of the latest standards on the rights of persons with disabilities, the UN Convention.

The European Union (EU), as well as the big majority of its member states, has ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UN CRPD), the first human rights convention that has ever been signed and ratified by the European Union. With this ratification, the EU has committed to promote the human rights of persons with disabilities enshrined in the convention.

The European Disability Forum (EDF) is fighting for the implementation of the convention and of the rights of persons with disabilities in all EU policies to ensure that persons with disabilities have full access to fundamental and human rights through their active involvement in policy development and implementation in Europe.

However, the economic crisis has been often served as an excuse for governments to delay the implementation of the convention. The EU is about to present to the UN Committee a report on the actions it has taken towards the implementation of the Convention. The EDF has identified several gaps in the EU report and it will also submit an alternative report covering areas that are left out from the EU report.

Apart from its work in the EU, through its recent project ‘Musawa II,’ EDF has also opened a dialogue with the Mediterranean and with Arab organisations of persons with disabilities, in particular. The aim of the project was to develop a better coordinated movement for persons with disabilities which is more democratic, more inclusive for persons with disabilities. To this end, EDF organised conferences in and outside of Europe (Cairo, Tunis), gathering persons with disabilities to discuss the situation for the disability movement worldwide.

Yannis Vardakastanis was born in Zakynthos (Greece) in 1957. In 1989, he graduated in Political Sciences at the University of California in Berkeley. He has extensive experience in the field of disability. He is the President of the European Disability Forum and the President of the Greek Organisation for persons with disabilities, while he has also been the first elected Chair of the International Disability Alliance.

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