Friday 22. October 2021
#140 July-August 2011


The EU and protection of the dignity of every disabled person


According to official EU information, one person out of six in the European Union has a disability ranging from mild to severe, thus being prevented from taking part fully in society and the economy because of environmental and attitudinal barriers. The European Union could contribute to significantly improving the lives of disabled people.


After completing the ratification procedure in December 2010, the European Union became a formal party to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The EU will now have to ensure, within the limits of its responsibilities, that all of its legislation, policies and programmes comply with the Convention. This creates an opportune context for a broader reflection on a number of different aspects related to disability.


A genuine protection of human dignity

As is the case for EU actions in other relevant areas, there is a need for a balanced, rightful and non-instrumental use of the concept of human dignity. This is because – which also applies to the situation of many disabled human beings – the right to life from conception until natural death is questioned by certain actors; in most cases in the name of the concept of ‘quality of life’. The consequence is a denial of the equal worth the disabled possess compared with those who are not affected by disabilities.


Parenthood and disability

When the issue of disability is tackled, the rights of parents of disabled people should also be taken into account. It is crucial that both society and the legislature acknowledge their efforts (e.g. by adopting measures concerning leave from work, pension rights).


Not just a ‘human rights issue’

An approach based strictly on human rights may not always have positive implications. One should not underestimate the role of charity. Charitable institutions, non-profit and Church-run entities have a paramount contribution to make in situations where the State may or may not be up to the challenge. This calls for structural, fiscal and non-fiscal, policies that enable these subjects to plan and carry out their activities in a continuous and not in an episodic way. As for EU funding in the area of non-discrimination, it should include a strong focus on disability, taking into full account its specific nature.


Disability and the pro-abortion agenda

The UN Convention at issue is the only international human rights instrument incorporating the terminology of ‘sexual and reproductive health’. It is essential that in complying with the text, the EU institutions do not give the impression of supporting positions which see this ambiguous expression as including abortion services; or even use it to suggest the existence of an imaginary general right to abortion. This would also fall outside the scope of EU competence. A correct interpretation would emphasise that the provision of health services should not entail any discrimination against disabled people.


Non-discrimination and the instrumentalisation of disability

Only by looking at things through the lens of ideology can one compare disability with certain other grounds for discrimination. The specific ground of disability was inserted in the 2008 draft ‘horizontal’ equal treatment Directive along with grounds of age, sexual orientation, religion or belief. There is the impression that one of the reasons for the Commission decision to include this option was so that the non-controversial aim of protecting the disabled could increase the chances of adoption of a text that would otherwise have proved controversial with regard to some of the other grounds. While an EU legal text exclusively focused on disability would be the most appropriate solution, the Commission’s resistance is probably based on fears that the same approach would have to be adopted for every other ground, including those for which a proposal would result in being too sensitive to ever become EU law. The time has now come to realise that a matter like disability has to be taken seriously and cannot be instrumentalised for any other purpose.


The need for a new disability-centered approach

Disability is not merely a ‘non-discrimination issue’. It is not by chance that the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights touches upon it under two distinct provisions: Article 21 (Non-discrimination) and Article 26 (Integration of persons with disabilities). While the ‘horizontal directive’ on non-discrimination is floundering in the Council, now is the right moment to acknowledge the failure of this project and come up with a new legislative package, covering disability in all its facets: non-discrimination certainly, but also other aspects on which the EU has scope for action. There are clear and positive reasons why the Commission should support this approach, taking into consideration the constructive attitude that emerged in the Council when the disability-related provisions in the draft non-discrimination directive were discussed.


Alessandro Calcagno



The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities foresees rights for disabled people in areas such as education, health, work and employment, social protection, participation in cultural life, recreation, leisure and sport. According to its Article 1(2), persons with disabilities include those who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments which in interaction with various barriers may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others.


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