EUROPEAN BLIND UNION RESPONSE TO THE EUROPEAN COMMISSION GREEN PAPER EQUALITY AND NON-DISCRIMINATION IN AN ENLARGED EUROPEAN UNION 1 About the European Blind Union 1.1 The European Blind Union (EBU) is a non-governmental and non-profit-making organisation representing blind and partially sighted people from all over Europe. EBU's purpose is: - to promote the principles of non-discrimination and equalisation of opportunities for all disadvantaged groups, in particular blind and partially sighted people - to work towards the advancement of the well-being of blind and partially sighted people with the goal of equality and full participation in society - to provide a European Forum for the exchange of knowledge and experience in the field of blindness and partial sight - to promote the prevention of blindness and partial sight in Europe. 1.2 EBU currently has 44 member countries. The EBU network has a wealth of expertise in all areas relating to the consequences of sight loss. Our members provide services, training and advice as well as representing the rights of blind and partially sighted people. We undertake research, promote public awareness and empower blind and partially sighted people to take up their rights and lead active lives. 1.3 EBU is funded by member subscriptions, sponsorship and grants from the European Commission for coordination and project activity. The decisions taken by the European Union have a significant impact on the daily lives of blind and partially sighted people. EBU works to make sure that the interests of blind and partially sighted people are taken into account in all EU decisions which affect them. To achieve this, we actively seek to influence EU policies. We have good links with Members of the European Parliament, European Commission officials and European Expert Groups and the European Disability Forum, as well as with national government officials participating in the EU decision making process. 1.4 While recognising the value of an integrated approach to tackling the discrimination faced by people with disabilities and even other disadvantaged groups, it is important also to be aware of the distinctive needs of particular groups. We were glad to see that the European Disablility Forum (EDF) was very clear about this in its response to the Green Paper. It is the role of EBU, therefore, to be particularly concerned with the disability discrimination faced by blind and partially sighted people and EBU is uniquely qualified to identify and call attention to the particular needs of blind and partially sighted people. That is why we welcome this Green Paper and the opportunity to respond to it. 2 About Blind and Partially Sighted People and the Discrimination They Experience 2.1 People with sight problems come from all kinds of backgrounds and lead all sorts of lives. Each person is affected in a way that is individual to them - it is not the same experience for everyone. Age-related eye conditions are the most common cause of sight loss in Europe. 2.2 There are in excess of 10 million people entitled to be registered as blind or partially sighted and possibly as many as 30 million people with sight difficulties of some sort in the 44 member countries of the European Blind Union. This figure takes into account the varying definitions of visual impairment in different countries. 2.3 Discrimination and Rights. People with sight loss face discrimination and infringement of their rights on a daily basis, be it at work, in trying to find work, or in going to a cafe, supermarket or hospital. Protection in law is a key factor. EBU was a major player in the campaign to incorporate the reference to discrimination on the ground of disability into Article 13 of the European Treaty in 1997, which gave the European Union, for the first time, a legal base to combat discrimination. The EU’s Anti-discrimination Action Programme and the 2000/78 EU Directive on Equal Treatment in Employment and Occupation are direct results of Article 13. 2.4 EBU supports the European Disability Forum's proposal for a disability specific directive on non-discrimination, launched in March 2003 as part of the European Year of People with Disabilities. It would cover all fields of EU competence, and therefore help to break down discriminatory barriers in policy areas such as education, social protection, public health, consumer affairs and telecommunications, as well as improve accessibility of manufactured goods. A horizontal disability directive would also allow people with disabilities to benefit from equal treatment and it would ensure a level playing field across Europe, enabling them to use their right to free travel across Europe. Finally, such a Directive would enable issues to be resolved that can only be dealt with at EU level because they would otherwise interfere with the operation of the single market, such as obligations laid on manufacturers. 2.5 The proposed UN Convention to protect the rights of persons with disabilities will provide additional impetus for the implementation of the UN Standard Rules on the Equalisation of Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities and will complement EU non- discrimination legislation. A comprehensive EU directive combating discrimination against people with disabilities would be a very effective means to encourage EU Member States to develop systems for complying with the UN Convention at European, National and Regional level. 2.6 EBU believes in the value of a broad definition of non-discrimination in the new European Constitutional Treaty and advocates that decisions about non-discrimination should be made by Qualified Majority Voting to facilitate progress. Several EU member states now have anti-discrimination legislation in place, and within our network we exchange information and share experience of these various approaches. There is no doubt that comprehensive and enforceable anti-discrimination legislation has the power to change the physical, social and communications environment and prevent the establishment of new barriers. 2.7 EBU supports complementary positive action measures to promote equality. For example, we have campaigned to include accessibility, design for all criteria and incentives to employ people with disabilities within the European framework for public procurement procedures. Companies with a track record in social responsibility, good employment practice and an inclusive design approach would score additional points for corporate social responsibility when tendering for public contracts. 2.8 EBU and its members also work with EU and national institutions on issues relating to the European Employment and Social Exclusion Strategies and the National Action Plans which take them forward from policy to practice. 3 EBU's Response to the Green Paper 3.1 General Issues This section of EBU's response is divided into two parts: - Application of the non-discrimination principle in legislation and in practice - Addressing disability as a cross-cutting issue. 3.1.2 EBU considers that: - Other groups at risk of discrimination will also have to be taken into account, since blind, partially sighted and other people with disabilities are also black, female, children, older people etc. Each person's situation should be considered as a whole. - Special attention must be given to those people with very severe and multiple disabilities to ensure their fundamental rights and needs are recognised and met. 3.1.3 Application of the Non-discrimination Principle in Legislation and in Practice EBU understands that it will be necessary to implement some legal changes and to support institutions whose prime role is to address discrimination, because: - Legislative action on measures to combat discrimination requires unanimous approval by the Council of Ministers despite the proposal of the European Commission to achieve the adoption of such measures by a qualified majority vote. This situation has been exacerbated by the recent entry of the ten new Member States, as the possibility of obtaining unanimity is now even more remote. - It will also be essential to continue to introduce legislation to protect groups at risk of discrimination. EBU understands that it is necessary to implement this legislation, and ensure correct and complete transposition of national laws in all Member States in a reasonable period of time. In order to achieve effective transposition, it will be essential to establish mechanisms for full public consultation and appeal. 3.2 Addressing Disability as a Cross-Cutting Issue 3.2.1 EBU considers that it is vital to ensure that information about anti-discrimination legislation is disseminated effectively and promptly to all citizens, paying particular attention to the special access requirements of people with sensory impairments. 3.2.2 EBU recommends that the EU should foster the establishment and development of agencies specifically concerned with the promotion of non-discrimination policies and strategies and to offer assistance to all those who have been victims of discrimination. 3.2.3 EBU advocates the establishment of a European Observatory on Non-discrimination under an accountable official and akin, at European level, to equality bodies established at national level. This agency would be responsible for: - Providing information on the discrimination faced by speciific groups of disabled people - Enforcing and monitoring compliance with European anti-discrimination legislation and guidance - Monitoring the impact of EU non-discrimination legislation and other initiatives to defen the rights of persons and groups at risk of exclusion and - Providing a flow of data that would inform future EU activities aimed at eliminating discrimination. The Observatory's monitoring and data collecting activities would be especially useful in tracking discrimination against disabled people in employment. 3.2.4 Full use of Community Funding and Reaction to the Challenge of Enlargement - EBU Supports EU Initiatives under the Structural Funds, particularly the European Social Fund, that aim to achieve social inclusion, thereby preventing discrimination against disadvantaged groups. It is crucial that the impact of these funds on disadvantaged groups such as people with disabilities be monitored. Furthermore, EBU considers that, as a consequence of the recent enlargement of the European Union, it will be essential for disability issues to be accorded high priority when resources for these initiatives are allocated. This will help to ensure that the discrimination currently experienced by the 50 million people with disabilities in Europe is addressed. 3.2.5 Strengthening Co-operation with Interested Parties - EBU considers that it will be very useful to establish mechanisms aimed at increasing social awareness. This will promote a better understanding of the impact of unacceptable discriminatory social conduct. - To achieve progress in this area, it will be necessary to establish a dialogue with a wide range of organisations that interact with the citizens of the EU. 3.2.6 EBU also considers that if discrimination against blind, partially sighted and other people with disabilities is to be combated: - International co-operation must be strengthened - Complementarity with other areas of community policy must be achieved and maintained - Studies must be undertaken to establish the nature and extent of discrimination, action taken to address this and monitoring subsequently introduced to ensure its elimination - Publication of information and awareness raising material in all branches of the media must continue in order to promote a positive image of people with disabilities. The specialist disability media could be encouraged to form a network to support this endeavour - A comprehensive glossary of non-discriminatory terms that should be adopted when disability issues are being discussed in the public domain should be prepared - The knowledge and understanding of diversity and equality through appropriate training at all levels and in every part of the European Union need to be increased. 4 Specific issues 4.1 EBU urges the European Institutions to develop strategies, policies and legislation that take full account of the particular needs and circumstances of different groups of people that arise from the specific impact of their disabilities. For example, blind and partially sighted people seeking employment experience more discrimination and prejudice than people with other disabilities. This is clearly illustrated in the recently published Campaign report No 22 of the Royal National Institute of the Blind in the UK - 'Beyond the Stereotypes'. 4.2 EBU, whilst noting the action taken to reduce discrimination against older EU citizens in relation to the provision of goods and services, is very concerned that the EU, through its Treaties, Directives and other instruments has done little to address the needs and rights of older EU citizens, including those who are blind or partially sighted. This is despite the fact that the Amsterdam Treaty specifically calls upon EU member countries to address discrimination on the grounds of age. The proportion of older people in all European countries is predicted to continue to increase very substantially during the next twenty years. Of course, this means that the numbers of people with disabilities in our population, particularly blind and partially sighted people, will increase significantly during the same period. 4.2.1 EBU understands the economic imperative that impels the EU to promote employment based initiatives. However, it is equally important to address the needs of the older population and to help older people, especially those who are blind or partially sighted, to maintain independent lives. Their well-being and ability to live inclusive lives in their communities will have a direct impact on the resources that national and local governments will have to allocate in future years to support our ageing population. 4.2.2 There is anecdotal evidence that central and local government policies and strategies differentiate between provision for people above and below 65 years of age. This is done regardless of any assessment of individual need and adversely affects blind and partially sighted people over 65. There is also anecdotal evidence that some hospital services are less likely to provide treatments for older patients, including those who are blind or partially sighted. Some governments' statutory benefits for blind and partially sighted people are only available to citizens below 65 years of age. These practices are discriminatory; EU should be giving a lead to EU member states to address these and other instances of institutional discrimination against older blind and partially sighted people. 4.2.3 So, it is becoming increasingly important for EU to - identify the extent to which the needs of older blind and partially sighted people are being understood and met in EU countries - Determine whether the policies and practices of the health and social services as well as the commercial sector currently discriminate against older blind and partially sighted citizens and the medium to long term impact this has on the economic, health an social well-being of older citizens, especially those who are disabled by visual loss. 4.3 EBU welcomes the encouragement being given by EU through the social inclusion action plans to national governments and their agencies to consult with national non- governmental organisations representing the interests of people with disabilities. This consultation needs to take place on all strategic and legislative matters, as the entire spectrum of activities in these areas has a direct or indirect impact on the lives of people with disabilities. 4.4 EBU notes the action being taken by the EU to combat violence against women and children. People with disabilities, especially blind and partially sighted people, are subject to heightened levels of violence. This has recently been recognised in the UK, where new legislation imposes additional penalties on the perpetrators of violence against people with disabilities. EU should encourage other EU member states to emulate this example. 4.5 EBU appreciates that the EU has facilitated the free movement of citizens between member countries as well as the EU wide recognition of degrees and other qualifications. Yet in some EU countries, it is not possible for a blind or partially sighted person to carry out any professional activity of his/her choice, e.g. to obtain a post as a teacher in a public school or as a judge and work in a court of law. Nor do some EU member states permit the appointment of blind and partially sighted people as jurors. This inequity is unacceptable and constitutes discrimination. The EU should encourage member states to appoint blind and partially sighted people to posts within the public administration and the judiciary. 4.6 Provision by all postal service providers of free postal services under the 'Articles for the Blind' scheme following the introduction of liberalised postal services has to be satisfactorily resolved. Discussions that have so far taken place between EBU and EU have been inconclusive. Failure to find an outcome to these discussions that will retain the present provision of free postal services for 'Articles for the Blind' would very adversely impact on blind and partially sighted people throughout Europe and would constitute institutional discrimination. 4.7 It is essential for EU to set an example of exemplary practice for access to information in the public domain. For instance, EU should ensure that all of its published documents, whether in hard copy or electronic format, are fully accessible to blind and partially sighted people at the same time as the information is available in formats for other citizens. The practice of just using PDF formats on the EU's Website is not acceptable, as PDF is at best difficult and at worst impossible for blind and partially sighted people to read. 4.7.1 Another example of access to information that EU needs to address is the provision of communicators for deafblind people at EU events and meetings. Failure to provide this service discriminates against a group of very severely disabled people with major communication difficulties. 4.7.2 In addition, the right of blind and partially sighted people to access books in alternative formats such as Braille and audio without having to pay more than their sighted colleagues, should be recognised in EU initiatives such as the upcoming EU VAT legislation. Though progress has been made with the EU Copyright Directive, it is still of great concern to EBU that the right of disabled people for fair use and for private, non-commercial copying of protected works is not unconditionally recognised as it should be. Much still depends on the transposition into national law of exceptions in favour of copies made for the benefit of blind and partially sighted people and on complex negotiations over digital rights management regimes. 4.8 EBU recognises the important work that EU has already achieved in improving accessibility to public transport. Yet there remains much to be done before blind and partially sighted people no longer experience discrimination every time they use public transport. There are four main issues - the design of vehicles, the provision of information, free travel for personal assistants and the training of staff. EU is in a very strong position to introduce new directives that will set standards of service that would, over time, have a major beneficial impact on the nature and quality of public transport services for blind, partially sighted and other groups of people with disabilities in all EU countries. 4.9 The EBU has taken an active part in the dialogue initiated some five years ago by the EU to discuss air passengers' rights with ECAC and the air industry at large. This is an area where blind and partially sighted people, and other persons with reduced mobility (PRMs), much too often face discrimination (transfer of the cost of assistance directly to the PRM, lack of accessible information, unjustified restrictions in seat allocation and carriage of guide dogs in the cabin). EBU therefore warmly welcomes the repeated commitment by the European Commission to introduce an EU regulation on the rights of air passengers with reduced mobility. However the regulation was due in early 2004 and EBU is very much concerned that it has not been released to date. We therefore hope that the Commission will press ahead with its plans and release the regulation as soon as possible so that people with disabilities can enjoy equal rights to free movement and are guaranteed full access to air travel. 4.10 EBU has noted the recent increasing interest being taken by EU regarding access to the built environment. This is welcomed, as there is a proliferation of design practices developing in different EU countries relating to the built environment. Tactile surfaces and audible signals at controlled pedestrian crossings are but two examples. Blind and partially sighted people rely on such features to facilitate independent mobility. However, the variation of practice in different countries is causing increasing confusion amongst blind and partially sighted international travellers. It is becoming increasingly important to establish EU wide design standards in the design of the built environment for people with disabilities. The EU is in a key position to take the lead. Perhaps the first step should be to identify priority issues for consideration and then fund rigorous and objective research to identify examples of good practice in environmental design that could form the basis for the establishment of standards in this field. 4.11 EBU is concerned that most manufactured goods are not designed to take account of the needs of people with disabilities and especially blind and partially sighted people. Additionally, very few manufacturers provide instructions about their products and their use that is accessible to people who cannot read normal print. Some EU countries place a legal responsibility on retailers to ensure that products are suitable for use by people with disabilities and require them to provide accessible product information. As a result, many products have to be adapted for blind, partially sighted and people with other disabilities at the point of sale. This is often less than satisfactory, as adaptations often do not enable people with disabilities to use the full range of products' facilities. Additionally, it often proves difficult for retailers to provide product information in an accessible format. The solution to this problem is to produce manufactured goods that conform to 'Design for All' criteria. EBU therefore calls on the EU to address this discrimination by requiring all manufactured goods that are sold in EU countries to conform to 'Design for All' criteria and for all manufacturers to be required to produce and distribute product information in a range of formats as has recently been agreed in relation to the labelling of medicines. 4.12 EBU takes a particular interest in EU initiatives in the field of employment despite its disappointment at the pace of transposition and implementation of the relevant directive. All the same, the EU Directive on Employment is slowly beginning to have a positive impact on employment for disadvantaged people in factories, shops and offices. However, there are many people with disabilities, including blind and partially sighted men and women who, for different reasons, perhaps because of multiple disabilities, are not able to work under ordinary conditions. These people have the right to be able to make a contribution to their own financial needs by being given the opportunity to work under a range of supported employment conditions. The EU has not yet recognised this basic human need and taken steps to encourage EU member states to develop policies and practice in this area. Anecdotal evidence indicates that the provision of supported employment in many EU countries is actually shrinking. As a result, more severely disabled people are becoming totally reliant on state benefits. EBU urges the EU to monitor levels of supported employment and also to identify levels of need for this important provision. EBU also believes it could be very helpful to establish a quota which sets a minimum number of people with disabilities that should be employed in different fields, and to implement the social profitability concept in firms, and ultimately the concept of the social economy. 4.13 EBU notes the substantial EU programmes in the fields of culture, leisure, sport and library services. We appreciate the support given by EU to EBU's campaign to make television programmes and receiving equipment accessible to blind and partially sighted people. This initiative is an example of what can and should be done to facilitate access by blind and partially sighted people to culture, leisure and sport. At present, blind and partially sighted people and deaf and hard of hearing people are largely unable to access mainstream facilities in these areas. This is clearly discriminatory, as the means exist to provide access. EBU calls on the EU to take full account of access issues when developing and monitoring programmes in these areas. Access for all people with disabilities should be a strand of all EU funded and promoted programmes in culture, leisure, sport and library services. 4.14 EBU understands that EU only has limited influence on insurance services. We note for example that the EU has recently intervened to ensure that male and female drivers are treated equitably when purchasing vehicle insurance. There are many areas in insurance where blind and partially sighted people are required by some companies to pay a higher premium for some cover. This is discriminatory and requires action. Perhaps the EU could consider whether there is scope for EU institutions to investigate the extent to which people with disabilities are discriminated against by the insurance companies and what action can be taken to address this problem. 4.15 EBU is concerned at the generally low participation of blind and partially sighted citizens at elections, be they European, National, Regional or local. This is mainly due to voting facilities and equipment not being fully accessible. In particular voting information is seldom made available in accessible formats, which deprives people with a reading disability of their right to confidential voting. Electronic voting, which many saw as a promising means to secure improved access to voting, has not lived up to expectations. As evidenced during the last European Parliamentary elections, new electronic voting machines, introduced in a number of Member States, proved to be totally inaccessible and made the situation even worse. EBU believes that the European Commission should take the lead in addressing this form of discrimination if blind and partially sighted people are ever to become full and responsible citizens of Europe. One possible way forward could be for the Commission to give European standardisation bodies a mandate to work on this issue, in consultation with disability organisations. 5. Conclusions. EBU welcomes the Commission Green Paper on equality and non-discrimination in an enlarged European Union and feels moved to respond to it in a very clear and unambiguous way. EBU would like to stress the need for both legislative initiatives and positive action in order to bring about real change in the lives of persons with disabilities in Europe. We would like the outcome of this consultation exercise to result in a revival of interest and in a real commitment on the part of all decision makers about the need for further anti- discrimination legislation, in particular for persons with disabilities in respect of their social inclusion and access to goods and services. Furthermore, EBU has the feeling that the fight against discrimination is no longer among the political priorities of the EU, as it has disappeared from the official documents of the European Institutions, which believe that there is no need for additional EU legislation to fight against discrimination. EBU, on the contrary, like the whole disability movement, believes that combating discrimination must be one of the top priorities of the European Union. This Green Paper should be considered as an opportunity to reflect and so stimulate the process of an anti-discrimination strategy. EBU is also concerned about the fact that the resources allocated to most funding of European NGOs that represent specific groups of persons with disabilities, like EBU, have been dramatically reduced in recent years. We would like to draw the attention of the European Commission to the fact that impairment specific organisations play a major role in promoting and protecting the human rights of the groups they represent through their work to combat any form of discrimination. There seems to be little consideration of their need to advocate for the interests and the concerns of their members without any interference by public authorities in their internal management. This is the way to strengthen the new concept of participatory democracy as established in the new European Constitution. This document sets out the views and proposals of blind and partially sighted persons in Europe regarding equality and non-discrimination, but also their needs and expectations relating to the very practical consequences deriving from their condition of heavily discriminated social minority group. For more general and overall issues we would like to refer to the European Disability Forum response to the Green Paper, the perspectives and content of which we fully and wholeheartedly share.
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