Disability: People fear a bonfire of their hard-won rights

For many influential figures in the disability movement, staying in the EU is not just about protecting historical gains, won and strengthened in areas like anti-discrimination law and workplace rights, but also benefiting from future progress.

The Disability Discrimination Act, which was passed by the UK parliament in 1995, was extended by an EU directive adopted five years later that required small businesses to make “reasonable adjustments” in the workplace and it added new protections against disability-related harassment.

According to the TUC, that small business exemption, if still in place today, would mean around 15% of the workforce were not be covered by the act’s protections. Remain supporters argue that not only did EU membership enhance existing rights for disabled workers, it also guarantees those rights for as long as the UK is part of the EU, because the UK government cannot undercut the minimum standards set out in the directive. “The EU acts as a double-lock on our own law,” says independent disability rights expert, Neil Crowther.

Other positive impacts of EU membership include the 2006 regulation that prohibits airlines from refusing reservations or boarding to disabled passengers because of reduced mobility and disability. It also requires that airports provide free assistance to disabled passengers on arrival.

A draft EU Accessibility Act would impose on EU states common access requirements on goods and services, from computers to banking services, transport, telephones and e-commerce. Supporters argue that these benefits would never be enacted by a post-Brexit UK government. Disability rights campaigner and crossbench peer, Jane Campbell, warned last week that a go-it-alone Britain would banish disabled people to the margins of British life once more.

What disability rights would look like outside the EU is necessarily speculative. If, as some assume, a post-Brexit government wants to leave the EU but remain in the European Economic Area, it may be required to abide by EU minimum standards on access requirements, for example. But it would have no say in the drawing up of those standards.

There are fears that a post-Brexit UK government would make “a bonfire” of many hard-won disability rights – which are often characterised by rightwing politicians as “red tape”. Some disability activists on the left argue, however, that the EU has promoted economic policies such as privatisation and austerity that have hit disabled people hardest.

The EU, however, has had no jurisdiction over the UK government’s welfare reform agenda. So cuts to a range of benefits for hundreds of thousands of disabled people such as the Independent Living Fund, disability living allowance – as people transfer to personal independence payment – and employment and support allowance and increased conditionality to receive benefits will not be affected by the referendum result.

Many older campaigners who have fought in the equality battles of the past few decades, are pro-Remain. As John Evans, one of the founders of the UK independent living movement, told a Westminster seminar last week: “We want to protect Europe’s very significant achievements for disabled people, and prevent others from being taken away from us, and provide a platform for the further improvements for our future.”

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