Reply from EU commissioner Helena Dalli to our letter on COVID

Dear Mr Vardakastanis,

Thank you for your letter of 13 March. This is an unprecedented situation both in Europe as well as globally, and it puts a particular onus on us to support the more vulnerable in our society, including persons with disabilities.

The COVID-19 pandemic is indeed particularly harmful to those who are most vulnerable from a health point of view. Social isolation measures, the risk of infection for both care professionals and persons with disabilities, together with the limited availability of protective material create additional challenges.

I assure you of my utmost concern regarding the current situation of persons with disabilities. The EU’s implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities is one of my responsibilities as Commissioner for Equality.

This is obviously relevant to a large range of policy areas. I have and will continue to underline to my Commissioner colleagues that specific actions responding to the crisis should take the needs of persons with disabilities into account. Your recommendations are of specific relevance in many cases.

To address persons with disabilities at the national level, my services will share your recommendations with the Member States’ authorities responsible for disabilities. It may also be possible to address these issues in the framework of the European Semester and to encourage Member States to use the European Structural and Investment Funds (ESIF) to provide the necessary support.

The Commission has also already put in place a number of initiatives to extend and redirect the use of EU funds for this purpose. The Commission proposed a first COVID-19 Response Investment Initiative to promote investments by mobilising available cash reserves in the ESIF. Investment will rapidly reach more than €37 billion. This initiative includes two key elements: providing liquidity by allowing Member States to keep advance payments they would have normally needed to return this year (€8 billion), and adding significant flexibility to allow Member States to re-orient their funds swiftly towards COVID-19-related measures.

It is of particular importance that persons with disabilities or older persons should be able to benefit from quality, affordable, available and accessible social services. Measures should be taken to ensure that social distancing and self-isolation will not affect the continuity of these services for the most vulnerable. The Commission has already mobilised the European Social Fund and the Fund for European Aid to the Most Deprived to provide support for the most vulnerable and to help maintain these services.

As underlined in a letter that I recently addressed together with Commissioners Kyriakides and Schmit to Member State ministers, no one requiring healthcare attention due to COVID-19 should be deprioritised on the basis of their disability or age. Persons with disabilities depend on carers and personal assistants, some at home, some in residential settings. Ensuring continuity with an increased health protective approach of those services should be a priority.

In times of crisis, everyone’s needs must be considered and taken into account. The Commission is meeting twice weekly with EU Health Ministers to share information and find common solutions to reduce the stress on health and social systems.

Including persons with disabilities in the decision-planning is crucial and an obligation for both the EU and its Member States according to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities provisions. However, it is up to the Member States to organise themselves in order to ensure and respect this obligation. I am asking my Commissioner colleagues in charge of those meetings to remind Member States of this obligation and I am also exploring with them the possibility of organising an exchange with organisations of persons with disabilities.

I shall share with you, in annex, more detailed information on other important measures undertaken by the Commission in relation to persons with disabilities.

I hope these various elements will give you a comprehensive overview of the different actions being undertaken by the Commission to deal with the COVID-19 crisis. I also hope that this overview will show how determined we are to take into account the specific needs of persons with disabilities and vulnerable people, keeping at heart our commitment to respect and implement the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities to work towards a Union of equality.

I thank you once again for your contribution.

Specific measures under disability inclusive response to COVID-19:

European Social Fund (ESF) and Fund for European Aid to the Most Deprived (FEAD)

As regard the ESF support to the COVID-19 crisis, the actions taken by Member States across the Union aim at: supporting the healthcare system by purchasing the necessary healthcare equipment, including protective material for healthcare workers; recruiting additional staff for more and extended healthcare services; and communication and information to the public. In addition, the ESF can help in protecting employment levels and at the same time delay the spread of the virus. This includes in particular short-time work schemes or allowances for parents who cannot work, as they have to take care of their children, whose schools are now closed.

Moreover, both the ESF and the FEAD can help social workers and NGOs to adapt their work to this emergency. For instance, the FEAD can already be used to purchase material to help avoid the transmission of the virus (e.g. protective gloves, disinfection devices, protective shields) and any other measures needed for the proper delivery of assistance in a healthy and safe environment. Lastly, partner organisations active in the delivery of food or basic material assistance can benefit from these protective measures, either under the FEAD – in spite of its limited budget – or under the ESF.

The Commission is collecting information on measures undertaken by Member States to respond to the COVID-19 crisis, including, in some cases, on pensions and benefits for persons with disabilities.

European Semester

The health and wellbeing of Europeans are top priority. We aim at strengthened income support and broad access to essential and social services for those in the most vulnerable situations, including persons with disabilities, in line with the principles of the European Pillar of Social Rights.

Accessibility of information

Web accessibility allows persons with disabilities to perceive, understand, navigate and interact on the internet and to use mobile applications to access such information. Public sector websites in particular, are disseminating critical information, including quarantine and confinement rules and information about the support systems put in place to help all citizens during this public health emergency.

The Web Accessibility Directive (EU) 2016/2102 ensures that persons with disabilities have better access to the websites and mobile apps of public services. The Directive provides that public sector websites published after 23 September 2018 had to be accessible by 23 September 2019, all public sector websites have to be accessible by 23 September this year and public sector mobile apps by 23 June 2021.

During the COVID-19 crisis, the Commission continues working to ensure that the Directive is duly implemented, by checking transposition and facilitating cooperation among Member States. We are also starting preparations for the review of the Directive in the course of which we will consult the relevant stakeholders, including the European Disability Forum. EDF’s feedback on how the Directive could contribute to a more inclusive crisis response for persons with disabilities is most welcome.

The revised Audio-visual Media Services Directive (AVMSD) considerably strengthens the provisions on accessibility. It obliges Member States to ensure that information on emergencies, such as today’s pandemic, is available to the public through audio-visual media services in a manner that is accessible to persons with disabilities.

Obligation of carriers and terminal managing bodies to pay particular attention to the needs of persons with disabilities and reduced mobility in case of transport disruptions

EU regulations on air, rail and waterborne passenger rights oblige carriers to pay particular attention to the needs of persons with reduced mobility and anyone accompanying them when providing assistance in case of a cancellation or long delay by providing refreshments, meals and accommodation. In the bus and coach passenger rights regulation this is not an obligation, but there is a clear recommendation to bus and coach companies to make arrangements for such assistance.

On 18 March 2020, the Commission adopted interpretative guidelines on passenger rights in situations of mass cancellation of transport services because of the current crisis. These guidelines are relevant for all passengers, including for persons with disabilities and persons with reduced mobility.

Obligation of carriers and terminal managing bodies to assist passengers with disabilities and reduced mobility to enable them to travel by air, rail, waterborne, and bus and coach transport

The Commission services have been made aware that certain carriers, which continue to operate their services despite COVID-19, deny or restrict special assistance to passengers with disabilities and reduced mobility, the provision of which would be necessary to enable them to travel. They argue that such steps are necessary in order to protect their staff and the passengers concerned

Yours sincerely,