European Disability Forum: How can accessibility become a reality for all people in Europe?
Over 100 people took part in the European conference ‘The European Accessibility Act – Making full accessibility reality’. The conference took place on 6-7 October 2017 in Estonia hosted by the Estonian Chamber of Disabled People, as part of the Estonian Presidency of the European Union (EU). Persons with disabilities from across Europe and from various local communities in Estonia, representatives of the Estonian government, EU policy makers and the industry were brought together to discuss the content of European Accessibility Act and what it means in practice for people in Europe.
The discussion took place just a few weeks after the European Parliament’s crucial vote on the Accessibility Act, which is a proposal for an EU law, aiming at making products and services across the EU accessible for all.
People coming from different regions in Estonia explained why accessibility is important to them and what they need the most in their local communities. They also shared best practices concerning accessibility in their daily lives and they identified the biggest obstacles in making local communities more accessible to all people.
During the discussions, it became clear that accessibility is a precondition to be able to participate in society and enjoy other fundamental rights, such as the right to work, the right to education etc. However, barriers to accessibility persist in all European countries; this is why we need a strong Accessibility Act.
“In Narva, Estonia, many buildings are still dating from the Soviet era and they do not have lifts or even a ramp at the entrance to get inside the shops”, said a participant of the conference.
Even in cases that accessibility is taken into account, this is often not done consistently or not implemented correctly, as another participant underlined: “In my municipality the town hall has an accessible entrance with a ramp and a wide door but then there is no lift to move around inside the building, so I can only be at the basement and I cannot access the services I need in other floors”.
Many commenters also pointed out that while there is often some awareness about accessibility for persons with physical disabilities, such as wheelchair users, many other persons with disabilities such as deaf, blind or deafblind people are often forgotten. The situation is even harder for people with less visible disabilities such as intellectual or psychosocial disabilities.
The importance of the involvement of persons with disabilities through their representative organisations was also highlighted: no decision concerning the lives of persons with disabilities should be taken for them without them.
A good practice came from the City of Tallinn: an extensive accessibility audit was made in 2013 followed by the publication of an Action Plan in consultation with organisations of persons with disabilities in Estonia. There is also the possibility to obtain funding under a pilot project of the European Social Fund (ESF) to make existing housing accessible. This project will now hopefully be widened.
The second part of the conference focused on how the Accessibility Act and other EU legislation could help to fulfill the accessibility needs of local communities in Europe and what the way forward will be.
The negotiations of the European Parliament with the Council concerning the Accessibility Act will start soon. The European Disability Forum (EDF) and its members will campaign to make sure that governments in Europe understand the necessity of adopting a strong Accessibility Act.
“We still have some countries in the EU who say that people with disabilities are too expensive for them. Do we see the Accessibility Act as an opportunity for all citizens or just as a burden we would like to throw out as soon as possible?”, said EDF Secretary, Gunta Anca. She added: “In the past, people thought electricity was expensive and unneeded. I am sure that in the future accessibility and Design For All will be an intrinsic part of our everyday life, like it happened with electricity”.
Helena Pall from the Estonia’s Permanent Representation to EU currently holding the Presidency of the Council, stated: “We are aiming to finalize the Council’s position on the Accessibility Act by the end of our presidency”. She also underlined that accessibility is a question of will and awareness and not so much about cost and concluded: “Setting accessibility requirements is a win-win situation for all. Having a Universal Design makes life easier for everyone”.
EDF President, Yannis Vardakastanis, said that governments should support a strong Accessibility Act at the negotiations of the Council: “They cannot say they support accessibility when they talk in their countries, and act differently when they vote at the Council”. EDF President also emphasized that accessibility is a benefit for society and businesses: “They will get back what they invest by reaching more consumers and making their products and services accessible to them. Accessibility is not only a human rights issue and a matter of common sense; it is also a business case”.