(Photo provided by Chiara Gemma)
This is the third of a series of interviews with Members of the European Parliament (MEPs). In this interview, we spoke with MEP Chiara Gemma about the future EU Disability Card, inclusive education, independent living, and effective integration into the labour market for people with disabilities, but also about her involvement in listening campaigns and their importance in transforming critical issues into priorities.
Question: What are the initiatives concerning the rights of people with disabilities that you would like to see implemented in the coming years in the EU?
Inclusive education is essential to overcome barriers and create fully inclusive educational environments. It would be crucial to reform education systems to guarantee students with disabilities access to all levels of education on an equal footing with others.The EU and Member States should also fund and implement early intervention, starting with the identification and early assessment of the needs of children with disabilities and their parents. It is essential to contribute to the implementation of inclusive education systems through EU funding such as the Erasmus+, ESF plus, Invest EU, and the Recovery and Resilience Facility. These funds can support the transition to fully inclusive education, by increasing stakeholders’ capacity to test and disseminate inclusive education methodologies, investing in teachers’ development and capacity building, as well as equipping education systems with adequate tools to guarantee accessible teaching for all.
The right to independent living is enshrined in the UNCRPD. It guarantees persons with disabilities autonomy and control over their lives and provides them with the opportunity to choose where to live, how to live, and with whom.
With regard to deinstitutionalization, working on legal capacity and adapting legal systems to the UNCRPD’s objectives would be key to ensuring that people can concretely decide over their own lives.
Alternative services to institutional care and tailored solutions that reflect the changing needs of persons with disabilities should be provided. It would also be essential to direct investments towards personalised and community-based solutions. In fact, as long as funding will support segregated institutional settings, no transition will take place.
A further step would be to invest in new infrastructure and staffing, accessible social accommodations, and digital platforms, as well as fostering stakeholder cooperation to formulate more effective and participatory responses. We should also focus on the provision of assistance and accessible services at the EU level by enhancing personal assistance schemes, which have proven to be useful in enabling people with disabilities to live in the environment that best fits them and to become active participants in their communities.
Integration into the labour market is essential to live an independent life and become an integral part of society. The EU and its Member States should take appropriate measures to guarantee people with disabilities effective access to mainstream technical and vocational orientation programmes, employment, and placement services, as well as vocational and life-long training, which would facilitate the acquisition of new skills and foster inclusion and participation in society as active actors, not mere beneficiaries.
It would also be crucial to develop and strengthen personalised employment programmes for persons with disabilities – or rather life-long pathways – which would recognise individual psycho-physical and social characteristics and provide short, medium, and long-term interventions, evaluation of progress, as well as the support of qualified experts to promote effective integration and personal development. Furthermore, initiatives and projects in the EU Member States promoting the integration of persons with disabilities into open workplaces should be further encouraged and pursued.
Additionally, we call on the Member States to provide reasonable accommodation in the workplace, using digital and technical tools, to enable people with disabilities to work to their full potential. Skills upgrading and rehabilitation of the entire labour market are also necessary. Member States should also establish targets to increase employment opportunities and reduce the employment gap for people with disabilities. Finally, it would be essential to collect statistics at the EU level to monitor the employment rate of persons with disabilities, classified by gender, age, and type of disability.
Question: You regularly hold meetings with organisations of autistic people in Italy. Why do you find this useful?
Answer: The autism-centred listening campaign has been extremely useful as it allowed me to meet several associations, local communities, and experts in the field, as well as family members of persons with autism spectrum disorders (ASD), to outline and discuss the challenges they face every day. They are the voices best suited to delineate the actual needs of persons with ASD and identify key actions to obtain real changes at the national and European levels.
These constructive discussions led in turn to the creation of a new project, “Generations Aut”, the first Autism Intervention Plan (PIA) created to listen to the needs, interrogate the institutions, identify priorities and based on three key pillars, namely encounter, commitment and inclusion. A relevant event will take place on 26 October to initiate this project.
In addition to inquiring institutions, and more specifically the European Commission on issues and challenges such as the integration in the labour market for persons with ASD, and based on these contributions, we were able to identify ten priorities for action: person at the centre, family, health, legislation, citizenship, education and training, work, social protection, inclusion, research and innovation. Based on these priorities, we aim to initiate an active discussion between stakeholders and these associations and develop proposals and key actions to create a new sociality, inclusion and sustainability.
As a result, this project demonstrates how the involvement and active participation of stakeholders and representatives of people with disabilities can contribute to the development of effective policies, which respond to the needs of people with disabilities.
It is up to us MEPs and Members of the Disability Intergroup to pursue initiatives that give a voice to people with disabilities and put their needs at the centre, to involve, raise awareness, empower and ensure that no one is left behind. I strongly encourage these practices, and I will continue to undertake these initiatives to achieve an increasingly inclusive and barrier-free European Union.
Question: How do you envisage the future EU Disability Card?
Answer: The EU Disability Card is an essential instrument to achieve mutual recognition of disability status and effective access to associated benefits and services in the different Member States. There will be no real protection of fundamental rights for persons with disabilities until the mutual recognition of their status among the Member States of the European Union.
However, for the EU Disability Card to be effective, this project must be structured in such a way as to ensure a consistent involvement of service providers at the EU level, but most importantly of the actual Member States. In fact, involving service providers (at least in the public sector) should be mandatory to ensure that the range of services provided allows people with disabilities to participate fully in society, not just in a limited list of “permitted” locations.
Since this Card is rooted in the mutual recognition between the Member States, we must also recognise that the effectiveness of the initiative will be significantly limited if only a few Member States decide to join. Extending the Card to all Member States would be a significant element to guarantee the continuity of this instrument in the long term, which would be instead at great risk if its use was to remain reduced. Therefore, it will be necessary to adopt measures and incentives that encourage accession and facilitate the expansion of this initiative at the EU level.
In addition, it will be essential to ensure that the services provided through the Card are fully accessible, by eliminating obstacles such as uneven access conditions, in order to encourage people with disabilities to use the Card. The information available on the implementation of the Card will have to be comprehensive, clearly provided to people with disabilities, but above all, consistent across the Member States. These aspects will be crucial to enable people with disabilities to properly plan their activities and movement within the EU.
The use and impact of the Card should also be regularly monitored. It is essential that institutions and service providers within the Member States systematically collect data on the functioning of the Card, and a monitoring and information sharing system is coupled with this initiative.
Finally, it will be pivotal to include and consult people with disabilities and their organisations throughout the development, expansion, and implementation of the project to respond effectively to the real needs of European citizens with disabilities. We could also consider the expansion of the Card beyond the four key thematic areas – sport, culture, transport, and leisure – which must be a starting point to ultimately guarantee that people with disabilities have the same opportunities as every other EU citizen in each aspect of life. Only in this way, we will obtain a strategic tool for people with disabilities to exercise their right to free movement in a European Union without barriers, without exclusions.