Removing barriers

19 April 2021

How can people with disabilities enjoy an independent life, with access to everything they need to make full use of their potential? This question is discussed on a high-level conference on the European Strategy for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, organised as part of the Portuguese Presidency of the Council of the European Union this Monday and Tuesday. Taking part in the conference are European and civil society institutions, politicians with responsibilities for the area, and persons with disabilities. Anna Lisa Boni, Secretary General of Eurocities, chairs a thematic session on Accessibility, with a focus on the role of cities. Here are her opening remarks:

I am extremely honoured to be here with you all and have the opportunity to open and moderate this session on accessibility. Thank you for inviting me, as secretary general of Eurocities, the most important network of big cities in Europe that works on urban challenges and solutions through a broad city to city cooperation and constant dialogue with the European institutions on how to improve the quality of life for all citizens, including those experiencing some form of disability. So, making sure that people with disabilities stop facing persistent challenges accessing services, local infrastructure, quality education, the labour market, that they can participate in public and cultural life and promote their inclusion in general is a key priority for cities.

That is why cities welcome the new EU strategy on the rights of people with disabilities 2021-2030. And we welcome its synergies with the European Pillar of Social Rights, the UN Sustainable Development Goals, and its reflecting on the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Cities are essential for the delivery of the social pillar and the new EU strategy, because as the closest level to citizens and communities, they need to translate European and international commitments, such as the UN convention on the rights of persons with disabilities, into concrete realities, with tangible impact on improving people’s lives.

Inclusion needs investments

Thanks to an Easi grant, since 2019, Eurocities has been running a campaign to engage city leaders to commit to putting the principles of the European Pillar of Social Rights into action by taking tangible local measures backed by specific budgetary commitments. Many of our cities have to date signed pledges to demonstrate a strong commitment to continue investing in the inclusion of people with disabilities. For example, Lyon is dedicating €2.8 million in 2021-2024 to support projects to develop inclusive housing to prevent isolation of the elderly and people with disabilities. Or Stuttgart, where the city is investing over €3 million a year into measures for the inclusion of people with disabilities. And there are so many more…

At the end of last year, in full pandemic times, we released a report based on a survey with our members. The report provides a general overview of the challenges faced by cities in this field and the actions taken to face them through detailed accounts of city practices.

As the report shows, cities develop local strategies for the inclusion of people with disabilities and mainstream disability across different policy areas covered by the European Strategy on the rights of persons with disabilities such as education, employment and the right to independent living. Accessibility – both to the built environment and to information – is an essential feature for our cities and this is constantly being developed. The Covid-19 pandemic has amplified pre-existing inequalities for people living with a form of disability. Being the closest level to citizens, cities need to make sure that critical health information is accessible and reaches people with disabilities, for example through online information with sign language, by reinforcing work with community care organisations and by removing barriers to testing and vaccination.

Universal design, access for all

As regards urban planning decisions, many cities put universal design at the centre of action and incorporate a disability sensitive perspective to ensure accessibility to public life and the built environment. Throughout the last decade, many cities reinforced work with schools of architecture and design in this field, introduced special accessibility labels – for instance in the area of rental housing – and rolled-out open data platforms to improve accessibility information for citizens. Cities are also using tools such as public procurement to mainstream accessibility in their local purchasing strategies.

Having said that, a lot of challenges remain to make European cities truly accessible for all. For example, our members highlighted persisting gaps in accessibility of built environment, in particular in the areas of accessible housing, transport, the preservation of cultural heritage and the accessibility of private buildings, such as shops and restaurants.

Based on the survey findings that covered all key areas of the new European strategy on the rights of persons with disabilities, we propose recommendations to boost the inclusion of people with disabilities at local level in the EU. Let me just share a few with you:

  • Collaboration with the private sector should be strengthened, by establishing a ‘European Compact’ to bring private companies on board to implement the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
  • Cities need more dedicated funding streams and specific calls for the inclusion of people with disabilities. Investments are also needed in research and innovation, with a focus on digitisation and assistive technologies.
  • The EU should issue guidelines for universal design and a common framework for quality community-based services and it should foster the use of open data platforms.
  • To advance the transition to independent living, investment in social infrastructure and local services should be upscaled, as should outreach and community-centred care.
  • Reforms and investments should be put forward to make labour markets more inclusive and skills training more accessible. The EU initiative on minimum income should promote enabling schemes that improve the compatibility between disability benefits and active labour market integration policies.
  • Supportive solutions and professional pathways for carers need to be developed, for example by developing an EU-wide qualification programme.
  • Cooperation between EU, national, regional and local levels should be strengthened to support an enabling governance framework for a coherent implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, create ownership and foster common learnings.

Globally, just to say our cities are totally committed and many of the Access City Award winners come from our network: Warsaw (2020 winner), Ljubljana, Lyon (2019), and a special mention for Poznan and Florence in 2021 – and we exchange good practices between award winners and candidate cities as part of our Eurocities mutual learning activity.

With our dedicated working group Barrier Free Cities, we also work with the European Commission and support European standards on accessibility requirements, for instance in the framework of the European Accessibility Act. Last, but not least, as a strategic partner to the New European Bauhaus, we promote accessibility and social inclusion together with our cities in the current co-design phase of the initiative.

You can find the report ‘A new decade of making cities disability-inclusive’ here

Photo: Rasmus Gerdin on Unsplash