For many, accessibility is not an issue they face daily. However, people with disabilities are consistently made vulnerable by structures and systems that lead to exclusion. May 20 was Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD), an initiative that promotes the societal inclusion of persons with disabilities with a specific focus on digital accessibility. ESN’s recent report on the Impact of Covid-19 on Europe’s Social Services found that the pandemic has exacerbated the inequalities of people with disabilities and has gravely impacted their access to social services. In light of these developments, GAAD, now in its 10th year, offers an opportune moment to look at the current state of accessibility.

Achieving digital accessibility

Implemented in 2016, the most comprehensive online accessibility effort from the EU has been the Web Accessibility Directive, which introduced minimum accessibility standards for the websites and mobile apps of public services. This was followed up by the European Commission (EC) with an Expert Group to support the implementation of the Directive and exchange best practice.

In 2014-2018, ESN’s Working Group on Disability explored the potential for technology to promote the inclusion of people with disabilities. Making technology easier to use and understand is a fundamental part of accessing services and being included in society.

In ESN’s recent report on the impact of Covid-19, we documented that a major challenge was the lack of material in sign language or easy to read documents when large amounts of new information were constantly being produced and rapidly distributed. This highlights again the need for ensuring access to information and services to all population groups, which was echoed in a recent Eurofound report on ‘Disability and labour market integration’.

Taking action on wider issues of accessibility

Disability policies are primarily the remit of national governments. However, as a signee of the UN Conventions on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD), the EU has developed legislation and initiatives to catalyse the implementation and monitor the individual progress of Member States.

By the end of this year, the EC intends to establish the Disability Platform, bringing together relevant authorities responsible for incorporating UNCRPD into national law, organisations of persons with disabilities and the Commission to enhance cooperation and exchange implementing the strategy.

In March, the EC renewed its 10-year Disability Strategy, which sets out initiatives aimed at removing barriers to society for people with disabilities around three themes: EU rights, non-discrimination and equal opportunities, and independent living and autonomy.

In our Working Group on Disability, ESN addressed similar themes: practice on independent living, integration of services, labour market inclusion, user involvement and service evaluation. In 2017, this was followed up with a toolkit on independent living and social inclusion for people with disabilities.

Key recommendations from the toolkit included:

  • improve accessibility of workplaces from physical adaptations to flexible recruitment processes;
  • design measures to overcome barriers to services accessibility, such as health services and transport;
  • introduce assistive technologies, new communication methods and monitoring technology that can promote greater independence for people with disabilities.

The EC will issue guidance to Member States on independent living and inclusion in the community by 2023.

In another move aimed at improving inclusion and accessibility, the EC will work with Member States to introduce a European quality framework of social services of excellence. It is yet to be seen how this will relate to the current quality social services framework. At ESN, we highlight the importance of revisiting the quality social services framework before embarking on a new framework, which may lead to fragmentation in policy initiatives.

Prioritising Human Rights for People with Disabilities

Accessibility is the key to fundamental freedoms and rights such as work, education, public services, and leisure. Unfortunately, with barriers to access information and essential services, these rights are not fully enjoyed by all populations groups. As such, the diverse initiatives as part of the EC Disability strategy are most welcome.

People with disabilities have disproportionately faced the social consequences of the Covid-19 crisis. The EU Recovery and Resilience Facility provides an opportunity that has not yet been seized to ensure that the needs of people with disabilities are acknowledged and provided for.

Working together with public social services at regional and local levels, ESN is working towards the effective social inclusion of persons with disabilities. In pursuit of this objective, ESN is currently running working groups on Integrated Care and Support, Digitalisation of Social Services, the Role of Social Services in the Implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals, and the use of EU funds for social services.