Equalisation of opportunities - Donald Tait

Equalisation of opportunities – strategies for people with disabilities

Donald Tait

DG Employment and social affairs
Unit for the integration of people with disabilities


I welcome the opportunity to take part in this discussion and to share with you our perception of the challenges facing the European Union and its current – and future – Member States as regards issues of concern to people with disabilities.  I would like to concentrate my statement on some of the wider social issues in relation to disability. 

This conference takes place at a time when a real 'wind of change' is blowing through the disability world.  Growing individualism, greater self-determination of people with disabilities, and better awareness of the rights of people with disabilities on the one hand, and the limits of the Welfare State on the other, calls for new and creative solutions to achieve the full participation of disabled people in all social and economic aspects of our societies.

Finding the right balance

The most important challenge facing us is to find the right balance between solidarity and individual responsibility.  This is going to dominate discussions in the disability field over the years ahead.  I hope and believe that the debate animated and reinforced through the European Year of People with Disabilities will create the impetus needed to make further progress in disability questions.

The European Commission is committed to help improve the situation of people with disabilities and it is indeed a core policy commitment. We seek an inclusive European society. Open and accessible for each individual citizen. With full and equal participation of people with disabilities  in all aspects of social, economical and political life.

And there our strategy is clear, as well as comprehensive and integrated. The basic principles on which we build up our actions are three-fold:

• Human, social and equality rights – as set out in the Social Charter
• The maintenance and strengthening of our European Social Model –as set out in the European Social agenda
• And our economic competitiveness and social economic goals – as set out in the Lisbon European Council in Spring 2000.
So what are the challenges for us all?

Well, there are many challenges and many areas where changes and improvements must take place.  In social policy terms, one of the greatest challenges we face is the effects of the demographic shifts taking place in the European Union.  Although the individual circumstances of each country vary, overall we are experiencing a Europe which is becoming progressively older - in the next 25 years the group of those aged over 60 years will increase by 37 million more people. By 2020 about 20 million people will be aged over 80 years.  And families are also having fewer children – for example, by 2005 there will be 17% fewer 20-30 year olds. 

With the greater life expectancy nowadays, more older people and fewer younger people, it is clear that many social protection systems in the EU are struggling to cope and social policy is trailing behind societal changes.  For many years, the record of Europe has not been particularly good:

• Lack of employment growth
• Poor policies for inclusion in employment
• Slow start to modernise social security
• Poor provision for care services

Although this situation has affected the whole of society, it is clear that disabled people have been disproportionately affected.   In general, not enough is done to promote independence for people with disabilities. Only 42% of disabled people are employed, compared to 65 % of the non-disabled population. Non-disabled people are more than twice as likely as disabled people to reach university.  And amazingly in some Member States between 20 and 30 % of the disabled population have no official income, either from work or benefits.  With the current demographic changes and greater life expectancy all round, it is clear that this situation will continue to affect more and more people throughout the EU.

So what are the solutions ?

In the EU, we need to be creating more and better jobs; providing for better access to employment through education and training; modernising social security and health systems to be able to cope better with the changes in society; and finally addressing issues of care.  In all of these areas, there needs to be more concerted action to ensure that the needs of people with disabilities are met. 

Within social policy, we all need increasingly to develop solutions which are tailored to the needs of all citizens, backed up with the appropriate structures and where necessary legislation.  We need to ensure that our social and economic policies aims to give disabled people where possible the choice to an independent life, and a quality of life. 

To achieve this, people with disabilities must be involved equally and at all levels, including through the mainstream political process itself. Political participation of people with disabilities is the key to successful policies and action.

Much of the responsibility for action lies with EU Member States.  With national, regional and local bodies. Who run the schools. Provide the social services. The health care. The housing provisions. And the transport facilities.

But, there is a strong European dimension too. Legislating against discrimination. Encouraging business and trade unions to attend to disability issues. Funding new research. Making relevant technologies more readily available. Sharing best practices. Fostering networks and contacts. Supporting the work of NGOs. And using the EU funds and resources that are available. The European Union has a key role to play in ensuring that issues of relevance to disabled people are taken into account in all policy areas, that they are in effect mainstreamed.   All relevant policy areas should take that same approach of inclusion and participation and supporting and assist the different players to make the changes which will count.  All policy need to take into account the rights to equal participation.

Community disability strategy makes it absolutely clear that disability is now properly recognised as a rights issue.  In essence, this means joining the mainstream of every aspect of life.  To empowering and enabling.  To increasing employment opportunities, not only to give greater access to work, but to good quality work with good career prospects for disabled people, full access to training opportunities and a salary commensurate with that.  To improving accessibility – to buildings, to assistive technologies, to information technology, to education – all these are areas where improvements are essential to a good quality of life.

This year, 2003, the European Year of People with Disabilities, provides an a unique and bold opportunity to mobilise society to address theses issues.  The year aims to raise awareness of disability as an issue which concerns the whole of society.  All parts of our society, all players need to be involved in the many, many activities which are being planned across the EU for the Year. Everyone has a part to play.

The EYPD 2003

The EYPD itself creates a challenge for the European Union and for the Member States alike.   The crucial issue for the success of the Year is whether it will produce sustainable results beyond 2003, setting long term goals for an accessible and inclusive society.   The challenge is to make a permanent difference and a lasting improvement in the quality of life that will endure well beyond 2003.  It is right and proper that the Member States themselves are making such a significant contribution to the EYPD for this emphasises the fact that policies and programmes, however well targeted, will only work if the people who implement and benefit from them are fully involved in the process.

Obviously, tackling barriers is not just for policy makers. All parts of our society, all actors need to be involved. People with disabilities must equally be involved at all levels. Our aim is to make a difference with disabled people. They should be involved through disability groups. Through the NGO movement. Through trade unions and business. But also through the mainstream political process itself, where - as we are all aware - disabled people are massively under-represented. Their political participation is key to successful policies and action.

Although the European Year maintains a national, if not regional and local focus, at European level we will be taking forward the policy agenda:

-  Building on the momentum generated by the European Year, one of the major tasks of the Commission will be to assess the impact of the numerous actions, initiatives, activities and debates carried out during the Year.

- Building on the impetus and interest created by the Year, we have ambitions for future progress on disability issues beyond the Year itself.  We will present a Commission Communication by the end of 2003 which will build upon the achievements made by the variety of initiatives taking place within the Year, and will set out a sustainable way forward for disability issues.

The Communication will outline the next steps we will take in respect of our policies in the context of an enlarged Europe of 25 Member States, working with all the stakeholders.

As you can see, very much at the heart of the European Year of People with Disabilities we are trying to focus attention on some of the key social issues.  We are underlining the same human, social and equality rights as set out in the European Social Charter. The maintenance and strengthening of our European Social Model as set out in the European Social Agenda.  There is no doubt therefore that the Year's challenge for all of us is to deliver inclusion, equal opportunities and quality of life. To develop a new Europe for people with disabilities. With accountability, effectiveness, coherence and governance all very much to the forefront.

Thank you.