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European Commissioner responsible for Employment and Social Affairs
European Day of People with Disabilities
7th European Disabled Day
Bâtiment Charlemagne- Brussels, 3 december 1999
It is a great pleasure to join all of you in celebrating the 7th European Day of Disabled People. Human dignity, respect and the protection of the individual are fundamental principles of our societies. Violence against people with disabilities - the theme of this year's European Day - needs not only to be made visible, but to be fought against with all means at our disposal. Human rights are universal and include in no small measure the right to be free from violence and self-determination. The testimonies we are about to hear today are grim reminders that the rights of people with disabilities are not considered as self-evident as they should be.
Violence confirms, in the most forcible way, the exclusion and discrimination which people with disabilities continue to suffer. We need to change this unacceptable situation. To do so requires legal approaches. It requires practical measures to address the realities of disability and social barriers. And it requires changes in the way people with disabilities perceive themselves and are perceived by society at large.
For this to happen, all actors and all levels need to be mobilised. And I intend to play my full part in it, as Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities. Although there is no regular statistical reporting, sporadic evidence suggests that the proportion of disabled people in employment is substantially lower than for other people. Britain, for example, reports that unemployment rates for people with disabilities are twice as high as those for non-disabled people. Removing the barriers to access in employment for people with disabilities and in the social field means that we need to create momentum and develop concrete policy actions. I intend to do that in the form of an action plan, designed to enable, engage and empower people with disabilities.
This action plan consists of 5 major, and interdependent initiatives forming an integrated whole.
Firstly a directive to combat discrimination, which concerns a subject central to my agenda: citizenship.
Legislation plays a fundamental role in defining citizenship including equality of opportunity of people with disabilities.
I want to implement, as soon as possible, this new provision in the form of a framework Directive protecting, not least, the rights of people with disabilities in employment and in the workplace.
The Directive will lay down general principles for the prohibition of discrimination, allowing Member States freedom to implement them in accordance with existing national institutional and legal arrangements. These principles will provide a common minimum level of protection, with agreed definitions of direct and indirect discrimination and provisions on the right of redress for victims.
I believe this will be a groundbreaking initiative.
Let me now turn to the action programme to fight discrimination
We all agree that legal provisions are essential, but they are not sufficient to meet the objectives we have for the full participation of disabled people in political, economic and social life.
This is why we need more than a European legal instrument. Information, education and awareness policies remain essential for effective action at all levels of government. And they remain essential for the disability community in their efforts to break the circle of ignorance and prejudice.
That is the reason why, together with the Directive, I am proposing a comprehensive action programme to combat discrimination. The programme would serve as a platform, a catalyst, and a guide to sharing knowledge, information, and best practice, Union-wide.
To achieve this, the programme will involve wide participation, including governments, social and political institutions, trade unions and employer organisations, and many other types of non-governmental organisations. It would aim to promote the high degree of 'ownership' and participation essential to enable effective implementation of the anti-discrimination Directive. And to adapt it to the circumstances of each Member State.
It is also crucial to listen to civil society, to learn from it, and to work with it, if we are to make our efforts effective. Non-governmental organisations should be involved in the whole process, so that there can be a sustained commitment and long-term involvement in strategy formulation.
The action programme should, then, recognise the extraordinary demands that participation and advocacy place on disability organisations.
Community initiative to promote equal access to labour market
The third element of the overall strategy is 'EQUAL': a new Community initiative to promote new means of combating all forms of discrimination and inequalities related to the labour market.
EQUAL is an important component of the European employment strategy. Why? Because improving opportunities for people with disabilities is a win-win situation for everyone. For people with disabilities, it means inclusion, freedom, and empowerment. For enterprises, it means more customers, higher profits, and additional qualified workers. For the exchequer, it means millions more people contributing to the system, and fewer people dependent on it.
But, achieving the objective of equal opportunity in work is not only a matter of legislation, attitudes and practice in the workplace i tself. It also depends on access to important components of work: skills training, accessible communications and information systems, accessible premises, accessible transport and so on.
These principles are relevant to every unemployed person. But they have particular relevance to people with disabilities.
To be effective, the employment strategy must be translated, not only into Member States policies but also, be implemented at a level which will generate concrete action. EQUAL will provide for that.
As you may know, the Commission adopted, in October, the draft which allows for consultation of the European Social Fund Committee and discussion within the European Parliament, with a view to final adoption by the Commission by February 2000.
The paper will give you details of schemes, selection guidelines and conditions for preparing, submitting and approving EQUAL programmes and for monitoring and evaluating them. The initiative has a budget of 2, 847 million for the period 2000-2006.
Let me stress that EQUAL will be building on some very positive lessons drawn from the current Employment-Horizon Community Initiative, where we have learned about both the kinds of projects most likely to succeed, and also how to design mechanisms to make success more likely.
Successful projects have been effective in getting people into work.
They have also helped to build co-operation between different actors and services. Local development, local partnerships and the involvement of people with disabilities are essential to most projects. They have often involved people who haven't worked together before.
By accomplishing that, the benefits of the Community Initiative on the whole employment strategy for people with disabilities will be considerably increased.
A Communication on mainstreaming disability issues
I want to turn to the space - and sometimes lack of space that disability issues occupy in EU policies overall.
The EU institutions, including the Commission, need to take a critical look at themselves. Disability issues must become the concern of all parts of our Institutions and not just of specialised units or programmes.
The anti-discrimination Directive will help here, I have no doubt.
But, in the institutions, just as much as in the wider world, we need more. With that in mind, I intend to put to the Commission College, early next year, a Communication that will review Community policies and legislation liable to affect people with disabilities. It will recommend action across the Commission spectrum.
Let me stress that I see this Communication not simply as a collection of specific objectives or measures but also as a policy tool to recast the whole Commission's approach to disability towards the principles of non-discrimination and inclusiveness.
In doing so, we will pay particular attention to the implementation of Declaration N°22 to the Final Act of the Amsterdam Treaty, which specifies that, in future, in drawing up measures under Article 95 (i.e. Internal Market rules) the Institutions of the Community must take account of the needs of people with disabilities. If we can get this new approach right, it could be the basis for a significant reorientation of policy thinking on disability issues.
I also believe that strong support from all the EU institutions and our Member States partners is central to its success. An important facet of building this momentum to develop and maintain inclusive policies is the ongoing dialogue with organisations of and for people with disabilities, in particular the European Disability Forum.
If we are to make our policies and programmes inclusive, we must also do better in addressing the difficulties people face in accessing information and in accessing programmes and opportunities.
That is why I believe that setting up a structured information tool covering all the programmes and measures at EU level of interest to disabled people would help to ensure stronger participation. The Internet offers great possibilities for this.
I am therefore delighted to inform you that a dedicated Web site has now been developed with the support of the members of the Disability Interservice Group. Its purpose is to ensure that all EU disability related information could be found quickly and easily by interested parties. It has a very user-oriented approach and it links to the home page of each DG as well as other relevant sites and publications.
A European year for people with disabilities
Finally, I would like to reply to the request for the year 2003 to be designated as "the European Year of Disabled People". All the disability organisations have been campaigning for this, under the leadership of the European Disability Forum
I am more than pleased to be able to confirm to you that I will support this request. I believe that the symbolic focus provided by a European Year could provide a catalyst for new policies, at all levels, to strengthen the human rights of people with disabilities.
Strong partnership between the Commission, the European Parliament and the Member States, as well as the disability organisations will be a prerequisite for success in this endeavour.
In conclusion, my agenda for the coming years is based on three pillars:
My goal is to mainstream disability into employment and employment creation;
To do so, I intend to make maximum use of the possibilities of information technology and the information society for the purposes of education, training, the development of appropriate skills, the improvement of communication and access to information.
And finally, people with disabilities will be at the centre of our policy. They will be active agents - crucial for the success of our policies.
I look forward to working with you towards this end. Thank you.