Developing Europe's policy skills to advance disability rights
Most Member States of the European Union (EU), and the EU itself, have ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD). However, while the Convention will mark a major advance both for disability rights and also for European business, the necessary changes to turn it from vision into reality will not happen overnight. Adopting the Convention imposes numerous legal obligations on signatories affecting many areas of daily life.
In the words of the DREAM (Disability Rights Expanding Accessible Markets) project coordinator, Professor Gerard Quinn of the Centre for Disability Law and Policy at the National University of Ireland (NUI), Galway: “EU Member States need a lot of new skills and competences to drive this forward.”
The DREAM project began in 2011 specifically to address this need by training the ‘next generation’ of disability policy researchers and entrepreneurs. Supported by funding from the Marie Curie Initial Training Network (ITN) Programme, the project recruited 14 Early Stage Researchers (ESRs) to spend three years carrying out practical research to help the EU and its Member States develop policies that would allow them to implement the necessary changes most effectively.
The researchers are hosted by one of the seven full ITN partners (NUI Galway, Maastricht University, the University of Leeds, NOVA Norwegian Social Research, the University of Iceland, Swiss Paraplegic Research and Spanish ICT company Technosite). Working towards eventual PhDs, the ESRs carry out research into specific practical areas. These include employment law and policy affecting disabled people in the private sector, the implementation and enforcement of national e-accessibility law and policy, the nature of corporate cultures and how these impact the inclusion of people with disabilities into the workforce, and the development of specific tools and indicators to monitor and measure progress on disability rights implementation.
A key driving force behind DREAM was the idea that disability rights are not only a good in themselves, but also that they help create economic opportunities for more than 80 million European citizens with disabilities and expand markets for European businesses. For this reason, researchers are also provided, as part of the programme, with placements in commercial organisations or civil society organisations such as the European Disability Forum in Brussels, Interights in London, DIGITALEUROPE in Brussels, the Mental Disability Advocacy Centre in Budapest, and the World Health Organisation. The intention is that the researchers will be able to generate policy recommendations that are well grounded in experience – for example, by understanding how e-commerce might be used more extensively and effectively to empower people with disabilities.
“The practical focus of the DREAM project and its aims,” says Professor Quinn, “made it a perfect fit with the Marie Curie ITN, both as a philosophy and as a platform. We did not want to produce PhD books that remain on the shelf. We wanted to impart skills to people to become real agents of change and to perform useful roles in the future. That might be within governments, but it could also be in civil society or in commercial organisations,” adds Professor Quinn.
The DREAM project focuses on three main research themes. The first of these, under the heading ‘Core Rights’, deals with the issues of empowerment, participation and social inclusion. “It is about re-imagining the model of the welfare state,” explains Professor Quinn. “Instead of warehousing people with disabilities at the edge of society, it is aimed at assisting in restoring their voice and giving them the right to live independently in the community.”
The second research theme, ‘Harnessing Market Forces’, focuses on the role of people with disabilities as market participants and ways of expanding accessible ICT markets. Researchers spend time within commercial organisations in order to experience the constraints they work under. The intention is that Europe’s future policymakers will have a better understanding of how to make change suit all parties and grow business opportunities rather than, in Professor Quinn’s words, “seeking to impose a blueprint for change and meeting predictable counterarguments”.
The third focus of DREAM’s research, ‘Sustaining Change’, concentrates on ways of embedding change for the future by addressing issues such as the monitoring mechanisms that might be used, and how to craft indicators that would allow objective assessment of the impact of changes made.
“The researchers are already developing a common instinct for where the opportunities for change may lie, and indeed they are starting to create that space themselves. It is beautiful to watch,” says Professor Quinn. “The phrase I use to sum it up is ‘policy entrepreneurship’ – developing people who can really bring about change that transforms the lives of our citizens with disabilities,” he concludes.