by Andy Shipley, Aspire's Policy Manager

It is just over a week until the EU Referendum. I don’t think it is overstating the case to say this is indeed a once in a generation event, particularly if you are a disabled person, the family of a disabled person or a disabled person to be.  From the perspective of disability, the historic fork in the road at which we are now poised presents two very contrasting versions of the future. 

When I listen to calls for greater “sovereignty” from the Brexiteers, it seems to me that what they actually mean is greater freedom from EU regulation which, on the face of it, might sound quite appealing, until you stop to think what that actually means for disabled people.  It’s a proud fact, of course, that the UK passed landmark anti-discrimination legislation in the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) 1995,  conferring rights on disabled people regarding employment and access to goods and services without the need for European intervention.  However, only under the European Equal Treatment Directive 2000  were employment rights extended to every disabled employee, where the DDA only protected those fortunate enough to be working for organisations employing 20 people or more.

Similarly, in relation to goods and services, EU legislation has gone where the DDA and subsequent Equality Act feared to tread.  European Directives on public procurement ensure that all products and services procured by the public sector must be accessible to disabled people, which not only ensures public sector products and services are accessible, it enables the power of bulk purchasing to influence suppliers to incorporate accessibility into increasingly more of the service and products they offer. The European Accessibility Act will extend duties for products such as smart phones, e-readers and station ticket machines, to be designed to be accessible to all, an area that the DDA and Equality Act steered very clear of. 

In the field of transport, EU regulation has gone far beyond where domestic legislation could reach.  For disabled people wishing to travel by air or sea, EU regulations place clear duties on operators to make reasonable adjustments to enable “persons with restricted mobility” (PRM) to have equal access to the service, and for staff to undergo disability awareness training.  By 2017, all buses in the UK must be accessible, a duty wholly driven by the European Public Service Vehicle Accessibility Regulation 2000.  Although the duties requiring railway rolling stock to be accessible originated in the DDA, they have been extended and improved by European Rail Interoperability Regulations.  And this demonstrates perhaps the most important point to recognise about these EU Regulations, that they are not centrally imposed dictates from Brussels, but are the culmination of dedicated and concerted negotiation from disabled people and their organisations across Europe. 

In most cases the standards and requirements these regulations contain build upon the principles and values that have informed the development of UK Equality legislation. It is this inconvenient truth that the pro-sovereignty camp would seek to conceal.  For the construction of the more competitive Britain, free from “burdensome Brussels bureaucracy”, depends upon the demolition of these hard won legal rights and protection.  It might be argued that the introduction of the DDA demonstrates that Britain is a Bastian of equal rights for disabled people, and whatever happens on 23 June, their rights will be secure, but it’s worth remembering, in 2011, as part of its “red tape challenge”, the Coalition Government proposed the abolition of the Equality Act. Whilst this wasn’t progressed further under the Conservative – Lib Dem administration, a post Brexit Government dedicated to deregulation may well see Disability Rights as just another burden on business.

And the Turkey question? Well, if they had the choice I’m 100% certain they’d never vote for Christmas.

Andy Shipley, Aspire's Policy Manager