24-25 November: European Day of Persons with Disabilities conference is organised by the European Commission and European Disability Forum


On 24 and 25 November 2022, the European Commission hosted the European Day of Person with Disabilities conference, co-organised with the European Disability Forum (EDF). It took place at the Commission's Charlemagne Building in Brussels, Belgium, and was attended by partner organisations of EDF, organisations from across Europe representing people with disabilities, and disability advocates, many of whom were people with disabilities themselves. Among their number were Chris Roberts, Chairperson of the European Working Group of People with Dementia (EWGPWD), Kevin Quaid, Vice-Chairperson of the EWGPWD and Helen Rochford-Brennan, former Chairperson of the EWGPWD, together with their respective supporters, Jayne Goodrick, Helena Quaid and Carmel Geoghegan. Representatives of Alzheimer Europe were also in attendance, alongside them.
At the opening session, Alison Crabb, Disability and Inclusion Head of Unit at the European Commission welcomed delegates and speakers to the conference, followed by Helena Dalli, European Commissioner for Equality, who highlighted the persistent disability employment gap (23% last year), and noted that the Commission had adopted the EU Disability Rights Strategy, in line with the European Pillar of Social Rights and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD), and that its Disability Employment Package will help reduce this employment gap. Everybody has the right to live independently, she stressed. She also stated that one in three people with disabilities are at risk of poverty and that it is vital that we all support persons with disabilities fleeing the war in Ukraine, in any way we can. Commissioner Dalli also made mention of the upcoming EU Disability Card, for which the Commission launched a call for evidence, with a deadline of 21 December 2022. You can find out more and give feedback, here:
The next speaker at the opening session was Ioannis Vardakastanis, President of the European Disability Forum, who stressed that "in times of crisis, persons with disabilities are the first to be left behind and have their basic rights neglected" and thanked EDF's members for working tirelessly to support persons with disabilities affected by the war in Ukraine. He also highlighted that persons with disabilities were disproportionately affected by the pandemic and now they are being disproportionately affected by the Cost of Living Crisis. "We urgently call on the EU to take swift action to address this dramatic situation", he said. Finally, he noted that "It is crucial to mainstream disability rights, strong legislation to tackle violence against women with disabilities and create strong legislation for accessibility, including the AccessibleEU Centre and the EU Disability Card.
The final speaker at the opening was Martina Štěpánková, Deputy Minister of Labour and Social Affairs, Czechia, who reaffirmed the commitment of the Czech Presidency of the Council of the European Union to the EU Disability Rights Strategy and to the Disability Employment Package. She echoed Commissioner Dalli's comments on employment issues: "Persons with disabilities are more likely to fall into inactivity or long-term unemployment. When employed, they work often in sheltered employment, rather than in the open labour market, or in less paid and less secure jobs", she said.
The event had three main sessions, focusing on "Young people with disabilities", "Global instruments to protect the rights of person with disabilities" and "Violence against persons with disabilities" respectively. The event also included the EU Access City Award, which was announced during a special session at the end of the conference.
Session one, "Young people with disabilities", was moderated by Jakob Rosin, President of the Estonian Blind Union, and included speeches by Tamara Byrne, member of the EDF Youth Committee and self-advocate, Panagiotis Chatzimichail, Board member of the European Youth Forum, Sarah Talbi, Belgian national champion of the European Commission's communication campaign on the Disability Rights Strategy, and Lucia Alonso, Erasmus+ beneficiary. They discussed rights (including the right to vote), inclusion, accessibility, assistance in education, intersectionality, and distancing from the medical model.
After lunch, the second session of the programme was moderated by Inmaculada Placencia Porrero, Senior Expert in Disability and Inclusion at the European Commission, and focused on "Global instruments to protect the rights of person with disabilities". Speakers were: Katarina Ivankovic-Knezevic, Director for Social Rights and Inclusion at the European Commission, Gerard Quinn, UN Special Rapporteur on Disability, Jorge Araya from the Secretariat of the UNCRPD Committee, Marine Uldry, Senior Human Rights Officer at EDF, Patricia Otvos, Adviser to the Commissioner for Human Rights at the Council of Europe and Giuseppe Palmisano, General Rapporteur and former President of the European Committee of Social Rights at the Council of Europe. Some of the instruments discussed were the EU Disability Rights Strategy, the European Pillar of Social Rights and the UNCRPD. Speakers highlighted that people with disabilities should be included in tackling big challenges such as armed conflict and climate change, that European civil society is doing great work, but that there is still much work to be done for the EU's internal services to fully move away from the medical model, that alternative reports from civil society are hugely important in order to ensure the UNCRPD Committee has a full view of the issues, to allow it to carry out reviews (for example, its review of the European Union (EU) implementation of the UNCRPD). Marine Uldry said that "EDF strives to ensure the EU is protecting persons with disabilities in all their diversity - including ethnic, racial, gender, sexual orientation and types of disability" and noted that EDF is happy that the UN Treaty Bodies' Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities had taken note of many of the issues it had brought to their attention. She also stated that "EDF is closely following the Disability Employment Package of the European Commission. We will keep monitoring this issue."
During the questions and discussion session, after the presentations, both Chris Roberts and Helen Rochford-Brennan spoke to the panel. Chris Roberts commented on the importance, if organisations or individuals are unsure of a person's needs, of simply asking (and not assuming). "People affected by dementia feel that society treats them very differently to people with other health conditions or disabilities, which significantly impacts on our ability to participate in our communities", he said. "This will continue unless we all take action to ensure people with dementia can access the legal protections and rights that we are entitled to, such as found in the UNCRPD. We must not be left behind!" He also spoke about the importance of keeping in mind that not all disabilities are visible and wondered what strategies could be used to overcome the daily obstacle of “not looking like you have a disability".
Helen Rochford-Brennan raised the issue of countries like Ireland not having signed or ratified the Optional Protocol to the UNCRPD, and asked the panel what could be done about it. The Optional Protocol establishes an individual complaints mechanism for the UNCRPD, similar to those of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. She also asked how we can ensure that dementia is recognised as a disability, to allow people with dementia to access their rights and to access supports, where needed.
Day two of the conference, 25 November, coincided with the International Day to End Violence Against Women. It was therefore fitting that the day began with a panel on violence against persons with disabilities. This session was chaired by Gunta Anca, Vice-President of EDF, and panellists were: Bianca Faragau, European Commission (DG JUST, D.2. Gender Equality) who discussed gender-based violence; Independent expert Claudia Mahler, who focused on the human rights of older persons; Sabine Coppens, Coordinator of "Alles over Pesten" (anti-bullying project, Flanders, Belgium), who discussed the problem of bullying at school; and Yevheniya Pavlova, Member of the Ukrainian National Assembly of Persons with Disabilities, who talked about violence against persons with disabilities in Ukraine or fleeing Ukraine, during the war. Bianca Faragau highlighted that the risk of suffering violence is higher for women, older people and other people with disabilities with intersecting identities, and that the upcoming End Violence Against Women Directive would have some measures to help tackle this.
Claudia Mahler called for action to protect older persons with disabilities, noting that deaths in residential institutions during the pandemic showed the need for change. More support is needed for older persons with disabilities, she said, and especially for those that acquire disabilities later in life.
After this third conference session, concluding remarks were made by John Patrick Clarke, Vice-President of EDF, Camilla Waltersson Grönvall, Minister for Social Services at the Ministry of Health and Social Affairs in Sweden, and by Alison Crabb. John Patrick Clarke insisted that "every day should be a day to advance the rights of persons with disabilities" and called on those present to observe a minute of silence for people with disabilities in Ukraine who have suffered in silence. Camilla Waltersson Grönvall echoed her Czech counterpart from the opening session, affirming Sweden's commitment to the EU Disability Rights Strategy; indeed, she noted, that the Swedish EU Presidency would host a seminar on this topic. Sweden will take over the rotating EU Presidency from 1 January to 30 June 2023, following Czechia's six-months. Alison Crabb stressed the importance of disability rights throughout the whole life course, mentioned national targets for education and spoke about the EU as part of the UNCRPD.
Following the close of the conference, an award ceremony was held, to announce the Access City Awards. The three winners were:
•    3rd place - Ljubljana, Slovenia
•    2nd place - Córdoba, Spain
•    1st place - Skellefteå, Sweden.
Alzheimer Europe was represented at the conference by Project Officers Daphné Lamirel and Soraya Moradi-Bachiller, and by Communications Officer Kate Boor Ellis, while Director for Projects Dianne Gove joined the event online.