Discrimination in the EU: a common thing for disabled people

The number of disabled people at risk of social exclusion or poverty was almost as that of non-disabled people in 2013. Almost a third of EU-residents with special needs , a recent Eurostat report stresses. “We think it’s even worse”, European Disability Forum (EDF) underlines.

The report was published on the occasion of the International Day of Persons with Disabilities just a week ago, concerning numbers of all member states but Croatia. The gap existing between non-disabled and disabled persons was quite large. While just over 20% of the non-disabled people was at-risk of poverty or social exclusion, this share stood at almost 30% for disabled persons.

The report only concerns the situation of disabled people aged 16 to 64 years old living independently. Those living in residential institutions have not been conducted. “That immediately is one of the report’s biggest weaknesses, because a lot of disabled people are institutionalized. But of course the report does tell us something. Something important,” Simona Giarratano stresses, social policy officer at EDF.

Inaccessibility of public space: check.

It, for instance, tells us that there’s a lot of discrimination towards disabled people, and that even in rich countries, leading in independent living, problems have arisen. “National governments of rich countries were afraid of the crisis, therefore they haven’t done anything to enhance the lives of disabled people,” Giarratano sighs.

Around 44 million people aged 15 to 64 in the European Union have reported a disability, often preventing them from taking part fully in society and the economy. This is also what social exclusion means: regular discrimination and barriers that disadvantage the situation of a group of people, excluding them from employment, health care and democratic participation.

Giarratano: “We hear from organizations in the member states that there are a lot of complaints about cuts on personal assistance, mobility support and the allowance of disabilities, which means that receiving benefits has been restricted. Across Europe, the situation of disabled people is aggravating.”

Disability, not just a national affair
Although social policy is not a EU affair and is subject to the principle of subsidiarity, the Commission is actively trying to strengthen their situation and strives to eradicate social exclusion and discrimination. To accomplish this, they have constructed the European Disability Strategy 2010 – 2020. This emphasizes that persons with disabilities have the right to participate fully and equally in a barrier-free society and economy.

“The EU has to act now. The bearings of disabled people are getting alarming. The EU should give more priority to the 2020 strategy, instead of fully focussing on digits and macro economy,” Giarratano says. Besides that, they should develop as social protection system with core elements focusing on minimum wages and social security, giving member states the obligation to decide on national details and fair implementation.

By ratifying the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) in 2010, the EU and its member states have committed themselves to create a barrier-free Europe. Even though the EU countries have the main responsibilities, EU action is needed to complement national efforts. Therefore the strategy is totally in line with what’s in the convention. The strategy is committing the Commission to empowerment of people with disabilities to enjoy their full rights, and to removing everyday barriers in life.

“The EU now has to promote these problems, and oblige countries to make legislation that is in full compliance with the strategy and the UN convention. The EU has always proclaimed it is a social place, but clearly it’s not. The disabled are excluded and discriminated,” Giarratano concludes.

Even bigger were the internal fluctuations in member states, where huge gaps were reported between disabled and non-disabled people. The two most interesting cases are Greece, where the risk of social exclusion for both groups is almost the same, and Bulgaria, where the biggest gap in terms of percentages was found. Two ANED (Academic Network of European Disability Networks) country experts tell InEurope about how disabled people experience life and social exclusion in their member state and what the EU should do. 

Eleni Strati (Greece)

In 2013 36.8% of the disabled people older than 16 years living independently was at risk of social exclusion or poverty in Greece. This number was only 2.3% higher than the risk for non-disabled people. According to the report, this makes Greece the country with the least discrimination towards disabled people. Eleni Strati, country expert for Greece at ANED, explains what these numbers tell us.

“Social exclusion in Greece has since the crisis been a big risk for groups that before had never been excluded from anything. The rich are becoming even richer, while the normal people are becoming poorer. The government has always said that it would protect vulnerable citizens – such as disabled people – against austerity measures.”

“They would do things in a fair way. And well, they actually did. In this context, the government has not lowered the pension and benefits of disabled people, and has even kept some tax relief measures. Disabled people have been protected to a certain extent.”

“But, don’t let these numbers fool you. It’s still almost 37% that is at risk of social exclusion, and that’s a lot. Things do have gotten worse for disabled people to say the least. The eligibility criteria to be certified as being disabled have been severely restricted. If you add the well-known Greek bureaucracy to that, one can imagine that the situation of disabled people deteriorates, as a lot of them do not receive benefits.”

“There’s not any policy that promotes the rights of disabled people in Greece but the social security policy. Cuts in healthcare – physiotherapy and rehabilitation services – have been made. In other aspects disabled people experience discrimination. The public transport is not accessible neither are the cities built for them to explore. The biggest task now is to mainstream disability, which should result in them exercising their rights in the common society. The attitude towards disabled people in Greece is ignorant and stereotyping. A lot of people still think that they are poor little persons. Wrong empathy.”

“In the end, the EU has done a lot to stand up for the rights of the disabled. It urges member states to make use of the structural funds to strive for social inclusion and it provides guidance. Besides that, it can recommend member states to change legislation when it’s not in line with the norms and values in the UN convention. Now it is our responsibility to take advantage of the funds and learn from the EU’s good practice.”


Teodor Mladenov (Bulgaria)

Bulgaria comes last with a gap of 19.6% between the amount of disabled people at risk of social exclusion (63.7%) and non-disabled people (44.1%). Although disabled people living in institutions have not been conducted for this report, Teodor Mladenov (ANED) stresses that their lives are often the worst. He therefore also touches upon this topic.

“Well, where shall I start? In Bulgaria, a lot of things are lacking behind. Logically though, as it is the poorest EU member state. In 2008 austerity measures in the country intensified, which immediately affected social security. Cuts in social support are a key topic, so is the institutionalisation of disabled people. They are pushed into those big old buildings everyone knows from the television, as they don’t have the means to live independently and affordable social housing is lacking. In those institutions you don’t have any control over your life.”

“Money Bulgaria receives from the European funds should be used for so called community-based services with good personal assistance. This means that disabled people can live independently in a place and neighbourhood they like, instead of being isolated from society in a deprived institution. They then should be given the right to define the tasks of the personal assistant and have the control over hiring and firing them. That should not be left to social workers.”

“This is where the EU could come in handy, although it has limited powers with regard to influencing the social policy of a member state directly. The Commission should impose stricter rules for the use of structural finds [European Social Fund], preventing their utilisation for building new institutions. They should also put more pressure on the implementation of laws that are in line with the UN Convention.”

“Another thing that is fundamentally wrong in Bulgaria, is that disabled people are approached from a medical point of view. Disability is understood as a bodily problem, instead of a social one. The UN defines it as something that occurs between the interaction of individual impairments and the barriers in the environment that prevent them from participating in social life. With Bulgaria focusing more on a medical policy, the whole understanding of what equality for disabled people actually means is incorrect. Most of the environment and infrastructure is therefore inaccessible for disabled people.”

“The disability benefits are insufficient as well. It’s not enough to live from and does not provide equal opportunities. It’s a choice: either living independently, without money and someone taking care of you, or in an institution.”

“Disability is just often marginalized in Bulgaria, like it is some sort of personal tragedy. The stigma is that they are deficient and incompetent. The social costs to market liberalization and liberal democracy is huge, and disabled people are suffering. Bulgarians expected that everything would get better after joining the EU. It was a collective dream. But very soon it has become clear things don’t work that way. I’m pessimistic.”




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