Editorial, /

For over a decade now, the 3rd of December, the “International Day of Disabled Persons” has served as a reminder of the challenges on the way towards full integration of persons with disabilities, in a political as well as social and economic context. The Day also offers an opportunity to consider progress in terms of political participation, socio-economic integration, access to treatments and assistive technologies as well as general awareness of disability issues.

According to the European Commission, approximately 38 million people in Europe today have a disability, representing some 10% of the total EU population. Among the working-age population (those aged between 16 and 64) in the EU, 16.4% – one in every six – report a long standing health problem or disability. Moreover, labour force participation is particularly low for the severely disabled persons: 78% of the very severely disabled, and 49% of the severely disabled persons in the EU were inactive in 2002, against 27% for the non-disabled. Yet, the European Commission estimates that between 2 and 3.5 million people with disabilities could be (re)-integrated into the EU workforce.

As these figures clearly demonstrate, the inclusion of people with disabilities is an issue of concern for the whole of society. Health First Europe (HFE) agrees with the European Commission that eliminating barriers to the labour market and providing disabled persons with equal opportunities has an important untapped potential for economic growth. HFE calls on EU Member States to support the European Commission in creating the necessary conditions for equal participation, referring in particular to the UN’s Standard Rules on Equalization of Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities that offer guidelines for a broad, inclusive policy agenda. According to these Standard Rules, necessary preconditions of equal participation require awareness-raising in society, the provision of effective medical care and of rehabilitation services and the development and supply of support services, including assistive devices.

Health First Europe (HFE) generally shares and welcomes the European Commission’s participative approach to dealing with disability issues taken in its 2003 Action Plan, published at the close of the European Year of People with Disabilities . With the view of providing a framework for the mainstreaming of disability rights and issues into relevant Community policies in an enlarged Europe, the European Commission proposes an action plan that foresees the involvement of stakeholders and focuses on employment as a critical factor for social inclusion. HFE warns that major disparities still exist between Member States and even within individual Member States and urges European policymakers to continue their co-operation to ensure broad public awareness of disability issues, the consideration of disability requirements in the development of products and services and equitable access for each European citizen to the best treatment appropriate to his or her medical condition.

“We agree with the vast majority of Europeans who think that more should be done to integrate people with disabilities into society. It is the responsibility of each of our governments to ensure that persons with disabilities may exercise the same rights and obligations as others and it is the task of the European Commission to provide the necessary regulatory framework. Equitable and timely access to treatments and appropriate technologies certainly can reduce or prevent disabilities and help people with disabilities to live and work on an equal footing with the non-disabled. But full integration of disabled persons in every aspect of social, economic, political and cultural life is only possible through a change in attitudes, consultation with disabled persons’ organisations and putting in place stronger anti-discrimination legislation”, said Imelda Read, Honorary Chairperson of Health First Europe.