The Malta Independent 4 December 2021, Saturday

Committed to ensuring a barrier-free and inclusive Europe for all

Sunday, 24 October 2021, 10:00 Last update: about 2 months ago

Alex Agius Saliba

As an MEP, it is my duty to work on a number of different committees in the European Parliament, always with the intention of improving the lives of European citizens in any way I can. One such case is the Committee on Petitions which allows all Europeans to share their concerns and challenges directly with MEPs when it comes to violations of citizens' rights that affect them directly and falls within the Union's fields of activity.

The right to petition is one of the fundamental rights of all European citizens and residents. Petitions allow Parliament, through this committee, to conduct an ongoing reality check on the way to measure the extent to which the European institutions are responding to concerns. The Committee on Petitions plays a crucial role as a bridge between EU citizens, Parliament, and other EU Institutions.


Over the years, the Petitions committee has received many important petitions on protection of persons with disabilities in the EU. The petitioners raised obstacles that persons with disabilities face in various fields, such as access to public transport, built environment, use of sign languages, financing or access to education and vocational training. Such petitions give us a clear message that it is time for the EU to act.

There are approximately 87 million persons with disabilities in the EU. Their situation may vary from one Member State to another, but they are generally more likely to be exposed to social exclusion, poverty, illness, and unemployment. Despite of all our common agreed values and treaties, people with disabilities continue to face multiple obstacles and discrimination in everyday life, which prevent them from enjoying EU fundamental freedoms and rights.

To address these realities, I have worked for the past year on a report entitled "The Protection of Persons with Disabilities through Petitions: Lessons Learnt" which highlights the examined petitions that we have received and the actions we must now take to tackle these issues. My report has been approved with overwhelming majority by the Parliament which shows an acceptance and a clear commitment of the challenges that we must tackle.

This report is very timely, considering the recent launch of the new disability strategy 2021 - 2030 by the European Commission. The New Disability Strategy aims to improve the lives of persons with disabilities in a barrier-free Europe and to promote social and economic inclusion and participation of persons with disabilities in society, free from discrimination and in full respect of their rights on equal basis with others.

Currently, European citizens have numerous barriers which create obstacles for persons with disabilities when moving to another Member State for work, study or any another reason. At the core of this issue is the fact that currently, there is no mutual recognition of the disability status between EU Member States. The new Strategy proposes an EU-wide Disability Card by end of 2023 to scale up the pilot project of the European Disability Card. The European Disability Card will be a very important instrument to help persons with disabilities to exercise their right to free movement in a barrier-free Europe. It is why I have stressed in my report that the European Disability Card should be mandatory in all Member States.

The report is also calling on all Member States that have not yet ratified the Optional Protocol to the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities to do so without further delay. The Optional Protocol provides EU citizens with a forum to communicate alleged violations of the provisions of the convention by a State Party and allows the CRPD Committee to initiate confidential inquiries when they receive information indicating that a State Party has committed a grave or systematic violation.

It is also crucial that the Committee on Petitions and the European Parliament leads by example by completing the work started in 2016 which showed that the tabling of petitions is not currently accessible to all. The report calls for the project on sign language to be completed in the shortest time possible to allow for the tabling of petitions in international and national sign languages used in the EU and thus make the fundamental right to petition also accessible for all sign language users.

My report also focused on barriers that children with disabilities encounter when it comes to inclusive education. Children with intellectual disabilities are still facing many obstacles when it comes to fulfilling their educational path. In this respect the European Commission should strengthen the role of the Child Guarantee in ensuring inclusion of children with disabilities and Member States should increase their educational systems' capacity to provide high-quality inclusive education for all learners.

Thus, it was very positive to see that in its Budget for 2022, the Maltese Government has included measures focusing on this regard, including substantial increases in allowances for children with a physical or mental disability and more investment in autism units, braille machines and occupational therapy in schools.

The European Commission has proposed the creation of the "AccessibleEU" resource centre by 2022. However, the creation of an EU Access Board would strengthen its power and give EU institutions and Member States specialist information on accessibility based on scientific evidence and input from the most vulnerable groups. The report also highlights the importance of prioritising the appointment of persons with disabilities to the role of disability coordinators.

Shamefully the EU has not yet adopted an Antidiscrimination Directive that has been blocked for over a decade at the European Council. My report urges the Commission to present an alternate solution so we can move forward in tackling discrimination across the EU as soon as possible.

Persons with disability have the same rights as persons without disability and it is our duty to respond to our citizens' concerns and to improve the lives of persons with disabilities in a barrier-free Europe. We must promote social and economic inclusion and participation of persons with disabilities in society, free from discrimination and in full respect of their rights on an equal basis with others. We must act now.

Alex Agius Saliba is a member of the European Parliament

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