I’m breaking my self imposed ban on blogging during maternity leave (which I enjoy thanks to the EU) to cross-post this article by Anna Lawson (Professor of Law and Director of the Centre for Disability Studies, University of Leeds); Gerard Quinn (Professor of Law and Director of the Centre for Disability Law and Policy, NUI Galway); and Hywel Ceri Jones (former co-chair of the European Consortium of Foundations on Disability Rights) – written in their personal capacities and not to represent the views of their organisations.  I firmly support these views.

The lives of UK disabled people and their families have been improved through our membership of the EU. Many positive changes in our laws and policies over the past 15 years result from European initiatives. Leaving the EU would put these advances at risk. EU law would no longer prevent UK Governments from rolling them back – nor from rolling back other disability rights measures currently set out in both UK and EU law. Leaving the EU would also mean that UK disabled people would not enjoy the potential benefit of exciting new EU proposals. And it would jeopardise much needed financial support for UK disabled people from EU Structural and Investment Funds – which have just been changed to place more emphasis on anti-poverty and social inclusion measures.

The number of people to whom disability rights issues are relevant is staggering. According to official statistics, there are “over 11 million people with a limiting long term illness, impairment or disability” in Great Britain – and still more in the UK as a whole. The link between disability and poverty is well known. In recent weeks, the impact of austerity measures on the lives of disabled people has taken political centre-stage. To date, however, the debate has not taken into account the EU’s positive role in supporting disabled people to lead fulfilling lives with opportunities equal to those of others.

The real added-value of EU membership to UK disabled people began in the mid-1990s with a dramatic shift of emphasis in EU disability policy away from charity and welfare toward equality and human rights. This soon led to the Employment Equality Directive 2000 – which requires all EU countries to prohibit disability discrimination in employment. This has dramatically strengthened UK disability equality law.

The EU helped shape the UN convention on the rights of persons with disabilities – a landmark treaty which is driving change right around the world. This treaty is the only UN human rights treaty which the EU has ratified. This means that  the EU must now (within its own sphere of competence) repeal or amend EU laws and policies which do not comply with the UN treaty and harness all its financial, legislative and other tools to benefit disabled people.