Speech by Commissioner Dalli at the Disability Intergroup of the European Parliament

Honourable Members,

Persons with disabilities, as well as older persons, are experiencing extremely difficult situations in residential care. Many others have lost their lives due to this devastating pandemic.

Health and social workers keep on working with total dedication under extremely demanding circumstances. The EU’s implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities has been put to the test and becomes even more relevant in this crisis situation.

It is essential that the EU and its Member States continue to respect the commitments undertaken when ratifying the UN Convention, notably the right to the accessibility of the highest attainable standard of health without discrimination on the basis of disability.

At the top of the agenda for the European Commission is safeguarding the health and well-being of citizens. We have reacted quickly and put in place several measures in the area of health policy to tackle the current crisis. This includes ensuring sufficient medical supplies and protective equipment.

Thus, the Commission launched four calls for tender to ensure equipment for Member States. It also published guidance on how to use the flexibilities under the EU public procurement framework. Furthermore, the relevant harmonised standards are freely available to companies with the aim to manufacture personal protective equipment of required high quality.

To facilitate the identification of available supplies and match them with Member States demands, the Commission has also put in place a ‘Clearing house for medical equipment’. Moreover, the Commission approved temporarily waiving customs duties and VAT on the import of medical devices and protective equipment from third countries.

All of these supplies and equipment are commodities like any other – and they need to be paid for. The European Commission has come forward to help ease the financial burden this crisis is causing.

At the beginning of April, the Commission launched the EU Solidarity for Health Initiative to support the healthcare systems of Member States. It provides EUR 6 billion for purchasing emergency support.

The Commission carried out an in-depth analysis of the EU funds, including remaining European Structural and Investment Funds. The Coronavirus Response Investment Initiative (CRII) package(s) of measures provides the Member States with more flexibility to use EU funds to counter the effects of this crisis. But all these available resources will not help if they are not properly targeted.

This can only be achieved with effective and inclusive social protection systems. These are essential for guaranteeing an adequate standard of living for persons with disabilities. Indeed, in spite of the heavy impact on those systems by the COVID crisis, we cannot lower our standards in Europe.

Social protection and inclusion are at the core of the European Pillar of Social Rights. We must ensure that the unprecedented challenges posed by the Covid crisis are duly considered in order to make our social protection systems fit for the future.

The European Pillar of Social Rights will remain the compass for upward convergence, even more so in times of crisis. Its principles, and in particular those of its third chapter “Social protection and social inclusion”, should be at the heart of our response to social challenges in the EU.

The European Semester continues to be the main vehicle for monitoring the implementation of the European Pillar agenda. We are making make sure that Member States take into account the fact that persons with disabilities are among the groups particularly affected by COVID-19 and have access to medical and social care on equal basis with others.

Confinement measures have put enormous pressure on school communities across the EU. As the learning process is primarily taking place virtually, learners with disabilities encounter barriers which can negatively affect their learning development and results.

Lack of accessibility increases the exclusion of students with disabilities. Parents of children with disabilities, in the absence of support, are experiencing additional difficulties in finding the balance between their working commitments while supporting their children’s learning process.

I therefore urge you to continue conveying the message to governments to consider the additional burden and challenges posed on learners with disabilities and on their families.

I invite the national authorities and the relevant stakeholders to adopt measures to prevent learners with disabilities and their families having to face additional discrimination resulting from the current crisis. Remote education must also be accessible to all learners with disabilities.

Sign interpretation, live captioning, adapted learning processes or any other measures should become available in close consultation with learners with disabilities and their families.

Persons with disabilities in residential settings are of great concern. COVID-19 is hitting them more than any other group.

Social isolation measures, the risk of infection for both care professionals and persons with disabilities, together with the limited availability of protective material, create additional challenges. Those challenges can even lead to institutionalisation of persons with disabilities who were, until now, living in their communities.

I stress that persons with disabilities should not be institutionalised because of quarantine procedures beyond the minimum necessary to overcome the stage of their illness. And those who were in institutional care before COVID are fully entitled to receive the care they need.

The current situation puts enormous challenges on the provision of services to persons with disabilities in institutional care. Yesterday, together with Vice President Suica and Commissioners Kyriakides and Schmit, we discussed with support care service providers and organisations including the European Disability Forum some of those challenges.

Member States must make funding and practical solutions available to ensure that persons with disabilities are not negatively affected by the temporary loss of support networks due to illness or indirect impact of COVID-19. This includes personal assistants, family, and specific professional services.

With the ban of visits to care facilities and social distancing, persons who are already isolated are among those who are the most impacted. Nobody should be left without support and essential services including access to emergency and intensive care.

We must ensure that no one is left behind.

We should keep in mind that crisis and confinement measures can deteriorate mental health and generate fear and anxiety. Therefore, we should invest more in reaching out.

We should not forget that solidarity and community support are important for all, but in particular for the most vulnerable among us.

For our part in the European Commission, we are making efforts to communicate all these aspects and measures to the public in Europe. Of course, we need to make sure that our messages reach persons with disabilities.

Our website is accessible as are the documents and published messages. Furthermore, we have increased the number of video messages with subtitles and sign language interpretation.

My aim is to have our communications accessible from the start and thus avoid making them accessible at a later stage.

This is an obligation for all EU institutions!

We are also passing the message to the Member States. In our recommendation on mobile applications, accessibility for persons with disabilities is clearly included. I have written to all Equality ministers in MSs highlighting issues concerning - among others - people with disabilities and old people.

We are now following up with every Member State.

We have to learn from the dramatic experience that this crisis brought to the EU. And we have to apply what we have learnt.

The new, strengthened European Disability Strategy that underpins our implementation of the UN Convention is currently under preparation. It will take into account the challenges arising from the COVID crisis and its devastating economic and social consequences.

We must avoid a deterioration of social networks and prevent further inequalities for persons with disabilities. To this end, I will keep my commitment to continue to be in contact with organisations representing persons with disabilities to identify complementary concrete measures the EU can take for a collective and social response to the coronavirus.

We will continue to consult all relevant stakeholders in order to ensure comprehensive and effective EU action in the field of disability. In the current circumstances, it is of the essence that we put in place a solid framework for the coming years to ensure that no one is left behind.

Thank you.