Final conference of the AccessiblEU project – Shaping a youth-driven & inclusive European society

Strasbourg, France, 18 April 2023

The European Blind Union successfully enlarges its cooperation with new stakeholders in the construction of a more inclusive Europe. This is what happened last 18 April, when Francesca Sbianchi, Leader of the EBU Working Group on 2022-2025 youth activities, met the young participants of the AccessiblEU project coordinated by Jeunes Européens – France.  The aim of the project is to raise awareness about European citizenship among young people in different countries and in particular what is required to shape an inclusive Europe that better takes into consideration the specific need of persons with disabilities.

The event was held in Strasbourg, France, at the same time of the plenary meeting of the European Parliament and focussed on the EU Disability Rights Strategy that was launched in 2021. Francesca Sbianchi was invited, together with 3 Members of the European Parliament actively engaged in the EP Disability Intergroup, Katrin Langensiepen (Green – EFA), Dragoş Pîslaru (Renew Europe) and Pascal Durand (Socialists & Democrats) as well as Federico Camporesi, coordinator of the ARFIE network (European Association for research and training on integration for people with disabilities), to talk about what the actual place of disability in European politics is and what concepts should be taken into higher consideration in the implementation of the EU Disability Strategy in the next years.  Panel speakers’ reflections focussed on different items: although the EU took a crucial step forward the promotion of persons with disabilities’ rights with this Strategy, which is the first EU multi-annual policy plan to put the UNCRPD at its core, will the EU be able to implement all the Strategy objectives, will it allocate sufficient funds for this? Katrin Langensiepen MEP, a person with disability herself, highlighted the importance of self-advocacy and self-representation, because persons with disabilities are able and have to take their own responsibilities for their rights. They have to claim power and information sharing, in particular young persons with disabilities, who should take a strong stance in advocating for their rights, never letting others speak for them. In the current mandate only 6 MEPs are persons with a disability and underrepresentation at political level is a very critical point that has to be tackled at national level first.

Federico Camporesi from ARFIE said that awareness- raising and lobby must be carried out at national and European level through self-representative organisations to promote accessibility in all sectors and an adequate standard of welfare in all EU countries. The European disability card is a first, important step in this direction but it has to be supported by adequate funding to be effective, for this reason it is necessary to lobby now on the future deputies who will sit in the European Parliament from 2024.

Also the importance of the transversality of disability rights was mentioned as they have to intersect women’s and other vulnerable groups’ rights to achieve the freedom of choice in all aspects of life. Dragoş Pîslaru MEP said that transversality of rights leads to the need for mainstreaming disability in every policy, for instance in this European Year of Skills, investments should be made to support the employment of persons with disabilities through research on affordable assistive technology, as the high cost of this technology is a barrier to persons with disabilities’ employment. He said that the EU must invest in the potential of young persons with disabilities for its return in productivity.

Katrin Langensiepen added the fact that the empowerment of persons with disabilities should be increased internally within the EU institutions by widening the traineeship opportunities reserved to them and she made herself available to support this scheme.

Francesca Sbianchi, invited as a testimonial for young self-advocacy and activism in a European self-representative organisation spoke about the importance for persons with disabilities to make themselves visible, to let people know about their own potential and abilities. Unfortunately, it is still very difficult for a young person with a disability to take a fully active role in society due to lack of awareness and accessibility. For this reason it is important that the rights of persons with disabilities are supported by self-representative organisations, such as the Italian Union of the Blind and Partially Sighted, in Francesca Sbianchi’s homeland, and the European Blind Union. She also highlighted the importance of good quality education for persons with disabilities and listed a number of concrete measures to be taken to ensure that persons with disabilities reach the full development of their potential, as enshrined in Article 24 of the UNCRPD. These measures are two-fold: they involve awareness-raising activities for teachers and staff to avoid that stereotypes or prejudice undermine the correct approach towards a student with disabilities, as well as practical solutions, such as the provision of accessible information, including digital platforms, and study materials; the availability of a tutor expert in special needs education, also resorting to external expertise from self-representative organisations; the creation of an office for accessible studies in each faculty where students with disabilities can be assisted by experts in the various study fields and where they can get training in assistive technology for study purposes. Also comprehensive and seamless support during international mobilities is a very important element of good quality education for students with disabilities.

The last speech was made by Pascal Durand MEP, who launched an appeal to the young audience not to be the builders of future barriers and, with their knowledge and awareness, contribute to implement transversal strategies in their work for a more inclusive society.