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Monday, 05 September 2011 12:01


Equal opportunities for people with disabilities: a European action plan (2004-2010)

Building on the momentum created and the results achieved in 2003 by the "European Year of People with Disabilities", the Commission plans to introduce a multiannual action plan through to 2010, aimed at mainstreaming disability issues in the relevant Community policies and implementing specific measures in key areas with a view to enhancing the economic and social integration of people with disabilities


Commission Communication of 30 October 2003, Equal opportunities for people with disabilities: a European action plan [COM(2003) 650 final - Not published in the Official Journal]

Commission Communication of 28 November 2005, Situation of disabled people in the enlarged European Union: The European Action Plan 2006-2007 [COM(2005) 604 final - Not published in the Official Journal]


The proposed action plan, covering the period from 2004 to 2010, seeks to set out a sustainable and operational approach to disability issues in the enlarged Europe. It has three central objectives:

  • to implement fully the Directive on equal treatment in employment and occupation;
  • to reinforce mainstreaming of disability issues in the relevant Community policies;
  • to improve accessibility for all.


The overall Community approach: objectives and means

The European Union's commitment towards its disabled citizens goes hand in hand with an approach to disability based not on the concept of passive assistance but on the idea of integration and active participation in economic and social life. The main purpose of the action plan is therefore to recognise and protect the rights of people with disabilities. Steps in this direction have already been taken by means of the Community Directive on equal treatment in employment and occupation , and through the anti-discrimination programme 2001-06 . Moreover, the Charter of Fundamental Rights specifically protects the rights of people with disabilities, and its incorporation into the future Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe will be a major advance.

In accordance with the Commission's communication of May 2000 "Towards a barrier-free Europe for people with disabilities", the environmental, technical and legal obstacles to the effective participation of people with disabilities in a knowledge-based economy and society must be removed.

Access to employment is crucial for the integration of people with disabilities. The main programmes financed by the European Social Fund, the Community initiative EQUAL and the European employment strategy are designed to facilitate this process. In addition, the modernization of social protection systems ought to help ease the transition from dependency on passive welfare benefits to incentives in the form of work-linked benefits.

Lastly, efforts to combat the marginalisation of people with disabilities encompass the European social inclusion process and the Member States' national action plans.

Facts and trends

The definitions and criteria applying to disability are currently laid down in national legislation and differ from one Member State to another.

According to the results of surveys carried out in 2001 at EU level, 14.5% of the population of the 15 Member States (with the exception of Sweden) of working age (16 to 64) reported some form of disability. In the case of the ten new acceding States, this percentage amounts to 25%.
These results also highlight the fact that there is a correlation between ageing and disability. Owing to the ageing of the population and improvements in health care, the number of people with disabilities in the European Union is increasing and will continue to do so. A further point to note is that only 42% of people with disabilities are employed (compared to almost 65% of non-disabled people), and 52% of people with disabilities are economically inactive (compared to 28% of non-disabled people). The conclusion to be drawn is that people with disabilities, while experiencing difficulties in finding work, are a source of untapped potential for the development of economic growth.

Main Community-level achievements

In November 2000, the Council adopted Directive 2000/78/EC prohibiting all discrimination, whether direct or indirect, based on religion or belief, disability, age or sexual orientation, as regards access to employment. Where disability is concerned, this Directive recognises that the failure to provide "reasonable accommodation" in the workplace can constitute discrimination.

The Community action programme to combat discrimination (2001-06) aims to support the Member States in their fight against discrimination, including disability-related aspects. It allows the Commission to finance various activities: campaigns, studies, networking and partnerships, support for non-governmental organisations (NGOs), etc.

The Commission supports international efforts geared to ensuring that fundamental rights are enjoyed fully and equally by people with disabilities. The Commission thus backs the United Nations Convention for promoting and protecting the rights of people with disabilities (see communication entitled " Towards a United Nations legally binding instrument to promote and protect the rights and dignity of persons with disabilities ").

With a view to facilitating the free movement of people with disabilities, the Commission has already undertaken to reduce the number of disability benefits that are not exportable from one Member State to another (proposed amendment of Regulation (EEC) No 1408/71 on social security schemes).

The impulse given by the European Year of People with Disabilities 2003

The European Year gave people with disabilities a unique opportunity, at national, regional and local levels, to highlight issues of concern to them, to help identify policy priorities and to provide encouragement for specific measures. Thousands of events, conferences and debates were organised in order to promote the rights of people with disabilities so that they might play a full part in economic and social life, and to raise awareness of the barriers they face daily in society.

In addition to the transposal of the Community Directive establishing a general framework for equal treatment in employment and occupation, new policy developments that have been announced are currently being implemented in the Member States. In Denmark, for example, an action plan on disability is to be funded with the aim of creating 800 to 1200 new accommodation facilities for people with disabilities over the next two years, while in Germany a new law on equal treatment for people with disabilities has been implemented in tandem with earlier framework legislation.

At both Member State and Community level, this European Year has provided a springboard for the launch of new policy measures and for moving forward with a number of key initiatives.

Strategic objectives for the future

The Commission's major goal in the years to come will be to boost equal opportunities for people with disabilities in such a way as to create a lasting dynamic for their full inclusion in society. To this end, the Commission will seek to achieve three complementary and mutually supportive operational objectives:

  • full application of the Equal Treatment in Employment and Occupation Directive , and launch of the debate on the future strategy to combat discrimination;
  • successful mainstreaming of disability issues in relevant Community policies within existing processes (European strategies for employment and social inclusion, etc.);
  • greater accessibility to goods, services and the built environment.

In order to attain these operational objectives, the Commission will develop a rolling multiannual action plan scheduled to run until 2010. The successive stages of this action plan will be defined and supported by a biennial report examining the overall situation of people with disabilities, which will serve as a basis for setting new priorities in subsequent phases of the action plan.

First phase of the action plan (2004-2005)

The first phase of this action plan, covering a two-year period (2004-05), will concentrate on creating the conditions necessary to promote the employment of people with disabilities, granting them appropriate autonomy in this regard.

The priority action areas come under four headings: access to, and remaining in, employment; lifelong learning; harnessing the potential of new technologies; and accessibility to the public built environment.

Access to, and remaining in, employment

Directive 2000/78/EC requires certain Member States to alter their existing rules considerably. It has huge implications for employers - public and private - and their employment practices as regards people with disabilities. Effective application of this Directive depends on the key players being made aware of their duties and responsibilities. This is why the Commission launched, in June 2003, an information campaign in all the Member States to inform employers and employees of their new rights in the workplace.

As part of the European Year of People with Disabilities, the Ministers of Social Affairs and Employment adopted, in July 2003, a resolution on promoting the employment and social integration of people with disabilities. This resolution calls on the Member States, the Commission and the social partners to continue to work towards removing barriers to the integration and participation of people with disabilities in the labour market.

The main European Social Fund programmes and the Community initiative EQUAL finance a wide range of measures aimed at integrating people with disabilities into the labour market, while taking innovative approaches to specific aspects of such integration.

The Commission has also taken action in the field of competition policy with the adoption, in November 2002, of a Regulation on State aid for employment , allowing the Member States to finance up to 60% of annual wage costs and social security contributions when companies recruit disabled workers. Aid may also be granted to compensate for reduced productivity or to adapt premises.

As regards health and safety at work, Directive 89/654/EC concerning minimum safety and health requirements for the workplace provides that "workplaces must be accommodated to take account, where required, of the needs of disabled workers".

With a view to ensuring that the needs of people with disabilities are more properly taken into account, the Commission must act in the following areas :

  • raise the Member States' awareness about implementing Directive 2000/78/EC (equal treatment in employment and occupation);
  • incorporate the needs of people with disabilities more effectively into the European employment strategy and measures financed by the European Social Fund;
  • promote social dialogue in the disability arena;
  • make companies more aware of disabilty-related issues, particularly in the context of corporate social responsibility;
  • take the needs of people with disabilities more fully into account in the health and safety spheres.

Lifelong learning

The use of modern information and communication technologies (ICT) providing on-line instruction or "eLearning" can be one way of overcoming the barriers to education, training and learning on a lifelong basis that are faced by people with disabilities. The Commission's proposed eLearning programme therefore refers expressly to the needs of people with disabilities, as do the action plans on language learning and linguistic diversity , and on skills and mobility .

The Commission will have to pursue various lines of action in the fields of education, training and youth:

  • give high priority to promoting exchanges of good practice and identifying factors of success (or failure) in relation to the integration of people with disabilities, in connection with the implementation of the work programme on the objectives of education and training syatems;
  • pay particular attention, in terms of the design and implementation of the future eLearning action programme (2004-06), to the special needs of people with disabilities;
  • include people with disabilities as a target group in the PLOTEUS information system;
  • pay particular attention to projects involving people with disabilities in the Socrates , Leonardo and Youth programmes;
  • monitor the e-accessibility of websites and media products for lifelong learning.

On the research front, the Commission will disseminate and exploit the results of studies forming part of the Sixth Framework Research Programme (6FP) (Priority 7 " Citizens and governance in a knowledge-based society ").

Harnessing the potential of new technologies

Technological developments, particularly in the ICT field, offer considerable opportunities to help people with disabilities overcome their functional limitations and thus avoid exclusion in a digital sense.

Activities relating to accessibility, under the e-Europe 2002 action plan, gave some good results and ought to be followed up. Further to the W3C/WAI initiative, the Member States have adopted accessibility guidelines for public websites. The Council also adopted a resolution on e-accessibility in December 2002.

The eEurope 2005 action plan will seek to ensure that people with disabilities and other disadvantaged groups can participate in and have equal access to major innovations in on-line public services, covering e-government, e-learning and e-health, and also to create a dynamic, accessible e-business environment.

On a deeper level, the Commission ought to take action in the following areas:

  • setting-up of an international dialogue on accessibility-related concerns and guidelines;
  • incorporation of accessibility criteria for ICT in public procurement contracts and public e-services;
  • encouragement for the "design for all" concept, assistive technologies and e-accessibility standards;
  • drafting of a report on web accessibility focusing on follow-up and implementation of the WAI guidelines for public websites;
  • reinforcement of the budget allocated to research in respect of barrier-free technologies and "empowering" technologies.

Accessibility to the public built environment

The design and construction of buildings in compliance with the principle of universal design ("design-for-all") ought to be stepped up so that people with disabilities are guaranteed better and effective access to the workplace.

The availability of accessible cultural and leisure facilities is also essential for improving the quality of life of people with disabilities. The Council recognised this in its resolution of 6 May 2003 on accessibility of cultural infrastructure and cultural activities for people with disabilities. Likewise, in its resolution of 21 May 2002 on the future of European tourism, the Council called on the Commission, the Member States and other interested parties to step up their efforts to facilitate accessibility to tourist sites for people with disabilities.

Moreover, in its White Paper entitled " European transport policy for 2010: time to decide ", the Commission advocates greater use of accessible public transport.

The Commission ought to take further action in the following areas:

  • promotion of European standards in relation to all aspects of the built environment, including the planning, design, construction and use of buildings;
  • promotion of better education on accessibility issues in schools and among professionals;
  • incorporation of accessibility provisions in public procurement policies, taking this dimension into account also in the allocation of the Structural Funds;
  • encouragement for the development of studies into the accessibility of tourist sites and infrastructure, and of urban transport systems.

Second phase of the action plan (2006-2007)

The second phase of the action plan, covering a two-year period (2006-07), will focus on active inclusion and autonomy (right of persons with disabilities to benefit from measures designed to ensure their independence, social and occupational integration and participation in the life of the community). It proposes four priorities:

  • Encouraging activity
  • Promoting access to quality support and care services
  • Fostering accessibility of goods and services for all
  • Increasing the EU's analytical capacity


Improving executive capacity

The Commission's Inter-service Group dealing with disability issues is responsible for advancing the action plan and monitoring the mainstreaming activities of the various Commission departments. It also has to give a progress report to the Equal Opportunities Group of Commissioners.

The European High-Level Group for matters relating to disability (expert group chaired by the Commission, bringing together specialists from the Member States) has the task of developing greater interaction between national policies.

The Union will step up its cooperation with organisations such as the United Nations, the Council of Europe, the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work , the European Standards Organisations (e.g. CEN), the European Special Needs Education Agency and the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions , so as to build mutually rewarding relationships and to benefit from their expertise and their think-tank work.

Strengthening governance

The Commission proposes to enhance its cooperation with the representatives of associations for people with disabilities, in particular with the European Disability Forum. It also wants the High-Level Group to conduct exchanges of views more frequently with civil society. The social partners should, moreover, be invited to make a full contribution to the promotion of equality for people with disabilities.

The Commission will encourage inter-institutional cooperation amongst EU institutions and bodies, in particular with the European Parliament's Committee on Employment and Social Affairs and its Disability Intergroup.

Commission report on the situation of people with disabilities

The Commission's report on people with disabilities should draw specific attention to the efforts made under Community policies to promote equal opportunities for people with disabilities. Key contributions from the Member States will set out their achievements, particularly as regards mainstreaming disability issues in all relevant national policies. The Commission is to compile public reports every two years, in line with a structure established with the Member States and representatives of people with disabilities.

The Commission intends to carry out an initial evaluation of the action plan in 2008.


Council Decision 2001/903/EC of 3 December 2001 on the European Year of People with Disabilities 2003 [Official Journal L 335 of 19.02.01].

Last updated: 17.01.2006


Promotion and protection of the rights and dignity of persons with disabilities at international level

The European Commission expresses its support for the adoption of a legally binding instrument to promote and protect the rights and dignity of persons with disabilities. The Commission announces its intention to participate actively in the preparation of this instrument.


Communication from the Commission to the Council and the European Parliament of 24 January 2003, "Towards a United Nations legally binding instrument to promote and protect the rights and dignity of persons with disabilities" [COM(2003) 16 final - Not published in the Official Journal]


Equal rights which are often ignored in practice

Human rights are vested in all human beings and everyone is entitled to the enjoyment of those rights without distinction of any kind.

If this principle, which is clearly established in international instruments to protect human rights, obviously applies to people with disabilities, in reality the latter do not however always benefit from the effective enjoyment of these rights.

People with disabilities are often marginalised because they develop in an environment which is unaware of the consequences of their disabilities. They encounter many physical, technical and social obstacles to the enjoyment of their rights in all regions of the world (even if this situation is more accentuated in the developing countries).

Human rights violations against disabled people generally take the form of indirect discrimination, including the creation and maintenance of barriers preventing disabled people from enjoying full social, economic and political participation in the life of their communities. Countries generally have a narrow understanding of human rights vis-à-vis disabled people and make do with abstaining from measures which have a negative impact on them.

It is necessary to ensure that people with disabilities are not discriminated against and to enable them to avail of their rights and exercise them in the same way as other persons.

Added value of a legally binding international instrument

Certain populations are particularly vulnerable to human rights violations. In order to take these particularities into account, legally binding thematic instruments have been adopted in the framework of the United Nations (racial discrimination, discrimination against women, children). These Conventions have demonstrated added value and complementarity with existing Human Rights instruments.

The preparation of such a thematic instrument concerning people with disabilities will, on the one hand, make it possible to clarify and make more visible the principle according to which people with disabilities have the same rights as the rest of humanity. On the other hand, it would make it possible to supplement the existing framework in connection with the protection of human rights.

Effective implementation of the principle of non-discrimination is essential to ensure equal treatment. The instrument should protect people with disabilities against all forms of discrimination as regards access to and enjoyment of human rights. The concept of indirect discrimination (covering situations in which an apparently neutral provision, criterion or practice puts some people at a particular disadvantage compared to others) is particularly important as regards people with disabilities. Besides, it is necessary to take into account the diversity of people with disabilities, as well as the fact that some of them can be victims of multiple discrimination.

The Commission insists on the participation of disability organisations and people with disabilities themselves in preparing decisions which concern them.

Article 13 of the Treaty establishing the European Community (EC Treaty) enables the Community to combat discrimination. Hence the Commission transmitted, together with this Communication, a recommendation to the Council in order to authorise the Commission to negotiate, on behalf of the European Community, the preparation in the framework of the United Nations of a comprehensive and integral international convention to protect and promote the rights and dignity of persons with disabilities.


Ever since the 1970's the United Nations has paid particularly attention to people with disabilities. The first instruments recognising the rights of people with disabilities, namely the Declaration on the Rights of Mentally Retarded Persons and the Declaration on the Rights of Disabled Persons, were however criticised for being based on outmoded medical and welfare models of disability. The instruments subsequently adopted, in the 1980's, have improved understanding of the general human rights conventions insofar as they relate to people with disabilities. However, there is the drawback that they are not legally binding.

Since 2002 a special committee, set up in the framework of the United Nations in the wake of its Resolution 56/168, has been examining proposals with a view to preparing a comprehensive and integral international convention to protect and promote the rights and dignity of persons with disabilities.

Community policy is in line with international action.

In its Communication on equal opportunities for people with disabilities, the European Union adopted a social approach to disability, identifying the problem in the environment which fails to adapt to people with disabilities.

The Treaty of Amsterdam introduced, in the text of the Treaty establishing the European Community, an article making it possible to combat discrimination, including discrimination on the grounds of disability (Article 13). On the basis of this article, the European Community adopted Directive 2000/78/EC establishing a general framework for equal treatment in employment and occupation .

The European Charter of Fundamental Rights reaffirms the prohibition on any discrimination on the ground of disability (Article 21) as well as the fundamental nature of the right of persons with disabilities to benefit from measures designed to ensure their independence, their social and occupational integration and participation in the life of the Community (Article 26).

The preparation of a legally binding instrument would make it possible to reinforce the coherence between the international and the Community action, with the support of the Commission.


Recommendation from the Commission to the Council of 31 January 2003 in order to authorise the Commission to participate in the negotiations of an international legally binding instrument to promote and protect the rights and dignity of persons with disabilities [SEC(2003) 116 final - Not published in the Official Journal]

Last updated: 08.04.2004

Last Updated on Wednesday, 08 February 2012 15:43

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