“The method of defining and assessing disability must change.” – interview with Vera Bonvalot about Portugal.

17 April 2018

Following the European Economic and Social Committee visit on the rights of persons with disabilities, we interviewed our Board member Vera Bonvalot. She is the Executive Director of the Portuguese National Federation for Traumatic Brain Injured (TBI) and families (Novamente) and a member of the National Observatory for Disability and Human Rights.

Question: The Permanent Study Group on Disability rights of the European Economic and Social Committee recently visited Portugal on a fact-finding mission. They were surprised by the lack of disability strategy and the level of discrimination. Can you tell us more about the Portuguese situation?

Answer The level of disability discrimination is one of the highest comparing to other European Union Member States. In my opinion, due to lack of political will and to our culture.

Portuguese public opinion generally doesn’t react to stories about persons with disability that are blocked at home (or in institutions), with no possibility for an active and participative life, because the country – its road, its facilities – is not accessible. The mindset is that since this is normal and they are not affected by it, they do not seem to care.

The National strategy for disability is something that is being promised for some years. The biggest concern is that, while the strategy might finally become reality, there is no real participation persons of all disabilities in its development. However, it’s encouraging t that the last two governments knew that this strategy is necessary and good.

Question: How can the EU – and EU policies- support Portugal in improving the rights of persons with disabilities?

Answer: The EU should create a central institution – analogous to the European court of Human Rights or the European Ombudsman - to analyse complaints from European citizens with disability regarding human rights infringements. The institution should be able to investigate, apply penalties to the countries and create media awareness. This will immediately increase the political interest of countries in respecting the human rights of persons with disabilities;

The EU should also financially support a Portuguese federation exclusive for organisations that represent persons with a disability – or that self-advocates can join directly. It should provide a budget for the starting years and have support of organisations from one or two countries where this is a successful reality, like Greece.

Question: The European Commission recently released the European Semester Country Reports. These are detailed reports that analyse not only the economic state of the countries but also fields such as the labour market, education and social policies (including the new social inclusion benefit). These reports will then origin recommendations. In your opinion, which recommendations should the EU give to Portugal regarding persons with disabilities in these fields – education, employment and social protection?

Answer: First: The method of defining and assessing disability must change. It is a medical model that attributes a “level of disability” (a percentage). It doesn’t consider the impact of disability in daily life, the willingness and ability to work, the family and personal situation. Portugal must move to a model in line with the Convention!

Second: Social protection allowance is one of the biggest problems. It doesn’t allow for persons with disability to live. They not only rely on a (incorrect) evaluation of a “level of disability” but give a little money based on the result.

Third: Inclusive education should improve in public schools: we need more budget to support teachers. And it should be mandatory in universities. We need a law that obliges universities to fully adapt their facilities and services to receive persons with disability so that they can teach every citizen;

And there must be an authority to regulate and supervise the implementation of these regulations. There is even precedent for it: Portugal has a well-respected Food and Economic Safety Authority, that has the right to inspect, fine and even close establishments that do not comply with food safety. There should be an analogous authority for the human rights of persons with disability.

Fourth: The majority of employment processes for persons with disability is still being taken care mostly by institutions for persons with disabilities. It is a problem for some groups of persons with disability: they mainly focus on solutions for persons with intellectual or learning disabilities; –they don’t look at people’s value or give them rewarding work; and the income doesn’t allow them to be financially independent. Some years ago, a university study proved that big enterprises are willing to employ people with disability, but they do not know how to do it, and are very insecure about it. In response to the study, a pilot project started - very inclusive, seems well designed –they pair students (1 with a disability, 1 without) to develop their vision for the future and what is their benefit to companies (their value proposition). At the same time, they work with recruitment companies and enterprises to study their recruitment needs. Then they bring them all together: this way the companies realise that having a disability is not part of the equation: just if they are good or not. It’s still at a starting stage but I hope for its success!

The EU should incentivise more projects like this and recommend that Portugal works toward inclusive employment.

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