The EU Disability Card – History and Background

By Antoine Fobe, EBU Head of Campaigning

In February 2016, the European Commission launched a pilot project of an EU Disability Card. The aim of the project is to help people with disabilities travel more easily between EU countries, by developing a voluntary system of mutual recognition of disability status and some associated benefits based on an EU Disability Card – hereafter the “Card”.  The Card ensures equal access to benefits across borders for people with disabilities, mainly in the areas of culture, leisure, sport and transport. The card is mutually recognised between those EU countries that participate in the project, on a voluntary basis. In October 2017, eight EU Member States had joined the pilot project: Belgium, Cyprus, Estonia, Finland, Italy, Malta, Romania and Slovenia.

The Card does not harmonise national eligibility criteria or rules. Member States retain their discretion to decide who is eligible to receive the Card, using the national definition of disability, and to determine the issuing procedure. In order to get a Card, you need to have a recognised disability status in one of the participating Member States; and it is for the government agency responsible for disability in your home country or region to deliver you the Card. Specific web portals have been developed for each of the eight participating countries, to inform and guide concerned citizens. See the relevant section of the website of the European Commission’s Directorate General for Employment and Social Affairs.

Even within the limited geographical scope of eight of the 27 EU Member States, most of which relatively small in size and population, the Card’s practical interest is limited by the following facts:

  • Its material scope may vary from participating countries, with one country only looking at culture and sports for instance, whereas another country may also cover transport, or possibly even the purchase of some products; and
  • The concerned service providers – those with which one is seeking to have one’s disability status recognised, e.g. a museum or transport company – in each participating country are free to join the EU Disability Card system as partners, or not.

This means that the Card may have interest for a given service in one participating country but not in another, and one needs to find out in advance, country per country and per type of service. Moreover, the advantages offered for card holders for a determined service may vary from one participating country to another, and evolve in time. The dedicated national portals provide information ahead of a planned trip or stay in another EU country, but they are not always sufficiently up-to-date.

Besides, when joining the system, participating countries can choose between 2 versions of the Card, i.e. with or without the letter A in the right-hand corner. Only letter A cards also grant reductions and other benefits to the personal assistants of the Card holder. This leads to confusion where a letter A card holder travels to a country which releases cards without the letter A, or vice versa.

More importantly, the pilot project is disappointing for mobile citizens with disabilities, but also interesting from a policy-making perspective, in that it highlights the current gaps in EU law through what the Card does NOT do. We already said that it does not bring harmonisation of the national rules on disability status or on eligibility to benefits – and we don’t argue with that. What is more problematic and frankly disappointing for citizens with disabilities, is that:

  • The Card only proves that one has a recognized disability status in one’s country of origin, and it does not entitle you to have your disability status recognised in the host country; and
  • The Card does not either, by itself, entitle you to the same reductions or benefits as nationals of the host country, since the participation of service providers in a participating country is on a voluntary basis.

If only because of these important limitations, the Card, as it stands in the pilot project, only has a very limited impact toward improving the freedom of movement of persons with disabilities in the EU.

Well aware of the limitations, the European Commission has started in 2019 to assess the pilot project. External consultants were entrusted with the task of delivering an assessment study with the aim to provide a comprehensive and concise review, analysis and assessment of the implementation of the pilot project, to facilitate the possible wider implementation of the Card in the EU.

In its Communication of 3 March 2021 on an EU Disability Rights Strategy for 2021-2030, the European Commission announced that, by the end of 2023, it will propose an EU-wide Disability Card, as an instrument of mutual recognition of the disability status, building on the experience of the ongoing pilot project as well as on that of the European parking card for persons with disabilities.