On 10th and 11th November 2003, the chamber of the European parliament was used by other than the more usual group of people. 170 delegates representing the interests of people with disabilities had arrived from 28 countries - among them Brigitte Faber from the association Weibernetz, Germany. On the whole, 370 people took part in the second European Parliament of Disabled People. The invitation came from the European Disability Forum (EDF) as well as from the European Parliament.
Participants were told right at the beginning of their meeting that this extraordinary usage of the chamber is a great exception, as at other times only members of the European Parliament are allowed to sit there. This exception was meant to underline the importance of the Parliament of Disabled People to Europe. This was also stressed by members of the European Parliament who were present as well as by conference leaders from the EDF and by delegates. The realization of the equal participation by disabled people in work and society should be a main aim of European policy.
The Resolution thus consisted of political demands and aims which - after some distress in the voting process when dealing with several points - have been agreed on unanimously. In the first section of the resolution, there was a demand for the implementation of already existing EU-laws into national law, for the formulation of further rules and for the support of already existing conventions. In addition, the creation of a UN convention for people with disabilities was also demanded. In the text which followed relevant political aims were formulated for areas as diverse as transport, barrier-free buildings, education, research, bioethics, and others. A manifesto which asked candidates to the European Parliament in May 2004 to aim at Democracy for All was also agreed on unanimously. Here as well, the introduction of national anti-discrimination laws and a UN-convention were formulated. Further demands of the manifesto included stronger consideration of the needs and demands of people with disabilities by European politicians, guaranteed voting possibilities for all without barriers, and the encouragement of disabled people to stand for the European parliament.
In more than 80 three minute speeches all of the people present were given a broad overview of the differing difficulties which people with disabilities have to confront. The descriptions ranged from accounts of special problems in the various countries of the EU, to disability-related problems in the specific areas of transport, communication, education, health systems, social recognition, and demands for the EU to finance those who promote the interests of people with disabilities across the EU. Further topics addressed were barrier-free voting possibilities for the European election in 2004 and the encouragement of disabled people themselves to stand for a position in the parliament.
Although the president of the EDF, Mr. Yannis Vardakastanis, had already stressed the specific situation of women with disabilities in his opening address and accordingly underlined the need for action, it is clear that women with disabilities still have a very long way to go in European policy. This was made clear by the small amount of speeches which just touched on or had it as their main topic. Even in the resolution itself, the only sentence mentioning the special needs of women with disabilities can first be found towards the end, among demands for means of barrier-free transport, barrier-free buildings, and the elimination of large institutions for disabled people. Point 25 (of a total of 32) specifically demands consideration of the needs of women with disabilities, and the formulation of aims for strengthening the role of women in working life, in society, and in decision-making positions. But concrete ideas are missing. Additionally, protection from sexual violence, the difficulty of working while bringing up a family, or the recognition of and support for family life and child-rearing, are not mentioned, either in the resolution or elsewhere. And - although there is a demand for statistics regarding the situation of people with disabilities - a differentiation concerning gender is not implied. Such a differentiation would enable the situation of people with disabilities to on the whole be grasped better and enable the efficiency of activities and measures to be checked. Whether improvements or setbacks affect men and women with disabilities to the same extent, or if activities and measures support both sexes to the same degree, cannot be examined. But after past experience, just such differentiation would be essential for the future implementation of targeted measures for women with disabilities.
Already, in the preface of the manifesto for disabled women in Europe from February 1997 Lydia Zijdel states that "For too long the focus of all actors in the disability movement has been on the aspects of disability itself. In second place the person with disability came into focus. The specific needs and situations of women and girls have been neglected." (European Disability Forum, (1997): Manifesto of disabled women in Europe, Brussels, p. 5.) Six years later, the aspect of integration into working life has been added as a main focus - and consideration of the situation for women and girls with disabilities is at least mentioned as one aim. Although this is an improvement, the simple mentioning of the special needs of a group of people is not enough. Were that the case, the whole resolution could be reduced to the one sentence, namely that the special needs of people with disabilities must be considered. Women and girls with disabilities need sufficient protection from sexual violence, they need the possibility to ask for assistance according to their gender, they need - analogous to support in working life - support for family life and child-rearing. And this has to be stated as such.
From the reports of the different states of the community, it became obvious that the situations of people with disabilities differ greatly across Europe. But the high number of participants, as well as the unanimous vote for the resolution and manifesto, has shown that there is a general willingness to establish common obligations within the EU. In addition, delegates and the members of the European Parliament agreed on the fact that the needs of people with disabilities have to be main focus in all political areas. There were many supporting statements from politicians of both sexes. The coming months will show how this will be implemented in practice. It being a success, as people with disabilities, to be not only noticed but also to be taken serious on a European level, it also became obvious that the area of women and girls with disabilities and their needs remains a fringe topic - although they are one half of all people with disabilities. There still is a great need for visible action. Better networking could be one first step…
And together with all other important contents of future conferences, I personally wish that the planned programme and times will be less strict. This would be helpful not only for people with speaking difficulties, but also for people with learning difficulties, and for deaf, and for blind people. In addition, participants would generally be less forced into passive role - and this is just the role we do not wish to have any more.
Kassel, 13th November, 2003 Brigitte Faber