An EU scheme to make urban life easier for people with disabilities promised to do away with bureaucracy and help them access key services — but cities and regions aren’t all on the same page, frustrating rights groups.
The European Disability Card was intended to extend mutual recognition of disability status across eight EU countries — Belgium, Cyprus, Estonia, Finland, Italy, Malta, Romania and Slovenia — and give holders access to a variety of benefits like public transport passes, free tickets to cultural venues and discounts for gyms and swimming pools.
Touting the success of the pilot program, which was launched in 2016, the European Commission has pledged to present a proposal for an EU-wide disability card by the end of 2023. But people with disabilities and activist groups say the scheme needs urgent fixes before it can be expanded across the bloc.
“The pilot projects did not go far enough, did not cover important areas and services, and many places and providers did not know about it,” said Yannis Vardakastanis, president of the European Disability Forum.
In Brussels, cardholder Louise Day said she hasn’t been able to tap into any of the advantages, calling it “virtually useless.”
The card’s coverage across Belgium “changes from one region to the next,” Nadia Hadad, co-chair of the European Network on Independent Living, explained, saying the card’s usefulness depends on the public and private entities that decide to participate in the scheme.
There is still no centralized platform with information about what card users can expect in various cities and regions, making it hard for them to plan their activities, especially while traveling.
In Italy or Slovenia, simply having the card is enough to qualify for a reduced fare on public transport, for example. But in Belgium, cardholders must also file a special application and demonstrate they meet certain income requirements.
“You never know in advance what you’re entitled to and what you need to do to access these offers,” said Joeanna Xerri, a Maltese resident whose son Karl has a disability. “You have to prepare well in advance and actively reach out to people — and sometimes it’s providers themselves who aren’t even aware of the card.”
She argued it was essential to create “a single, EU-wide website where you can find out which providers offer which services.” Providers should also “make a bigger effort to make this information prominent, just like they do with discounts for children or older residents.”
“People should know about their rights without being forced to ask for them,” she stressed. “If you have to ask every time, you feel like you’re crying for help.”
Some countries are already taking steps to ensure people can take full advantage of the card.
“When we adopt a convention with a new provider an external organization checks if their location is accessible, if they have, say, accommodations for deaf or visually impaired people,” said Primož Jeralič from the National Council of Disability Organizations of Slovenia, an NGO representing local disability groups which partnered with the government to roll out the card in the country.
He added that an EU-wide disability card should also set common “minimum standards” for organizations and businesses providing benefits to disability cardholders.
“A lot of people with disabilities are afraid of traveling because they don’t know if the venues will be accessible,” he said. “We need to make sure that every provider in every country respects certain standards and we need to make that information available to everyone in the EU — that’s the starting point.”
A Commission official told POLITICO that its intention was that the EU-wide card cover culture, sport and transport services, and offer visiting cardholders the same preferential conditions that are offered to local residents with disabilities. The official noted that national governments would ultimately have the final say on the assessment and recognition of disability status, as well as the benefits provided by the card.
Despite its shortcomings, the disability card has made the lives of people with disabilities “better and more inclusive,” said Maltese resident Xerri.
“We are glad that the European Commission is presenting a proposal to make the European Disability Card available throughout the Union after so many years of campaigning by the movement,” said the EDF’s Vardakastanis. “The card shows promises but needs to be developed … it must support equal rights for EU citizens also when they want to live, study and work abroad.”