You have rights! Considering everything disabled people have to endure, it might not always seem like it, but you really do.
That means society has a legal obligation to treat you properly. And if you’re put through a bad experience, you can hold the offending party to account whether you’ve been denied work, a product or a service by an organisation. But of course, you have to know what your rights are in order to stand up for them. So here’s our overview of some major wins for disabled people in Europe:
A Brief History of Disability Discrimination Law:
- The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (this has been replaced by later laws in the UK);
- Article 13 of the European Treaty 1999 (this holds across the EU);
- The Disability Discrimination Act 2005 (this applies only to Northern Ireland);
- The Equality Act 2010 (this is just for the UK).
To bring this about, there were many test cases, and a lot of campaigning. Yet after a huge effort, Europe got its equality legislation.
Article 13 of the European Treaty 1999
This ruling set the standard for EU countries. It permits the European Council to:
“take appropriate action to combat discrimination based on sex, racial or ethnic origin, religion or belief, disability, age and sexual discrimination”.
The Charter of Fundamental Rights has further reinforced it. This ruling prohibits discrimination against disabled people throughout the EU, but it isn’t part of a country’s penal system. Also different countries implement Article 13 in different ways. Yet the European ruling is still a benchmark of protection, and the original signatories had to enact anti-discrimination laws by December 2003. Putting similar laws in place is a condition for joining the EU.
Two Important Parts of the Ruling:
1. ‘Reasonable Accommodations’
The resulting laws require organisations to make ‘reasonable accommodations’ for disabled people’s needs. That applies if a disabled person wants to buy a product, use a service, enter education, or employment. ‘Reasonable accommodations’ might include:
- Installing a ramp;
- Allowing flexible working hours;
- Providing specialist computer software.
Yet it wouldn’t extend to something excessively costly for the organisation. For instance, no organisation would be expected to completely remodel a building, but even small changes can make a huge difference to disabled people.
2. ‘The Social Model of Disability’
The EU ruling uses the ‘social model of disability’. It’s a radical way of thinking which promotes equality, and it might also give you a new perspective on your own life. That’s because the social model of disability is inherently empowering. The opposite concept is the medical model, which has been destructive for disabled people in so many ways:
- The medical model of disability holds that disabled people are primarily limited by their conditions. According to this way of thinking, someone’s condition dictates what they can do, and so a wheelchair user cannot access a building with a stairway entrance because they use a wheelchair.
- The social model of disability takes the view that people with impairments are held back by social barriers. With this view, a wheelchair user cannot access a building with a stairway entrance because of bad building design, when the entrance could easily use a ramp instead. Whether or not a society is accessible is dependent on its values, which are changeable, and so disability is socially determined.
The social model shows how important it is to get out into society. Be visible, and do all the things that you want to. If there’s ever a barrier, use formal processes to challenge it until conditions change. It makes it OK to be difficult because you’re making social progress happen.
The UK’s Equality Act 2010
This law protects members of protected groups, including disabled people, from discrimination and unfair treatment. It protects disabled people in the UK against discrimination from:
- service providers (e.g. banks and shops);
- health care providers (e.g. hospitals and care homes);
- landlords, including social landlords such as local authorities and housing associations;
- education providers (e.g. schools and universities);
- transport providers (e.g. train companies and taxis);
- public bodies (e.g. the government and local authorities).
It also includes requirements for service providers to make ‘reasonable adjustments’.
However this is a civil law and not part of the penal code. That means that if you have the money or have legal aid, you can take an offending party to a civil court. Winning would result in a cash settlement. Yet, the police won’t arrest anyone, the State won’t prosecute them on your behalf either, and no-one will go to jail. This is why more legislation with bigger teeth is needed.
Room for Improvement
The above legislation is great. But it doesn’t go far enough, and it’s even being eroded or ignored in certain parts of Europe. How often have you or someone who you know:
- Found it hard to find work because of employers’ attitudes to disability?;
- Been unable to enter a shop premises?;
- Been unable to buy an item or service?;
- Been unable to use a product or service because of poor design?;
- Been denied appropriate education?;
- Been denied legal justice because e.g. your country doesn’t provide legal aid for disability discrimination?;
- Been exploited as ‘free’ (slave) labour?;
- Been subject to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, like being forced to wet yourself because of a lack of disabled toilets on public transport;
- Been insulted because of your disability, or physically attacked?
The list of possible abuses goes on. However the UN’s Charter on the Rights of Disabled Persons has a comprehensive list of all of your rights as a disabled person, and every European country, in or out of the EU, is a signatory. You can use it to hold your politicians to account. Also you may want to ask your representatives for a ‘New Disability Discrimination Act for Today’.
What’s really needed is a disability law that’s part of the criminal code. Because of the patchy way that disability law is being enacted throughout Europe, it’s only going to come about through activism at a national level. So take a moment now to find your country’s disability rights organisations. You could:
- Work for them;
- Volunteer with them;
- Join their campaigns.
It all helps to move society forward, and improve our standards of living.
Useful Resources for Fighting Discrimination
- Disability Wales has created a number of excellent guides to disabled people’s rights, and how to handle hate crime;
- Disability Rights UK has useful resources from independent living to finding work;
- The European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights has a great page where it notes how it’s trying to improve equality across the EU.