Members' Research Service By / November 25, 2021

Understanding EU policies for persons with disabilities

Traditionally, there have been two main models of disability – a medical and a social one:
 The medical model focuses on the person’s medical condition – illness or injury – which is the direct cause of their disability and may have an impact on their quality of life;
 The social model focuses on the barriers created by society. Those may be physical or social restrictions preventing the development or use of the abilities – physical, social or professional –that each individual needs to thrive.

© Andrey Popov / Adobe Stock

Written by Marie Lecerf.

Both the EU and its Member States have signed the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and use its definition of disability as a common reference at EU level. Bearing in mind that there is no other harmonised definition of disability in the EU, and that there is a wide variety of statistical surveys in terms of questions asked and population surveyed, a complete statistical assessment of disability in the EU does not yet exist. However, the annual Eurostat statistics on income and living conditions survey reveals that, in Europe, the prevalence of disability is higher among female, older and less educated respondents. Furthermore, studies show that the coronavirus pandemic has affected people with disabilities disproportionately more than others.

The EU combats all forms of discrimination alongside and in support of its Member States. To improve the situation of disabled people, it has introduced a series of initiatives, programmes and strategies over a number of decades. The European Parliament has been highly active in the bid to end all forms of discrimination against disabled people since the start of the 1980s.

In 1997, Article 13 of the European Community Treaty, introduced by the Treaty of Amsterdam, (now Article 19 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU) on the human right not to suffer from discrimination on the grounds, in particular, of disability, paved the way for a genuine disability policy. The first step in this regard was the adoption of a 2001-2006 action programme to combat discrimination. Later, the 2010-2020 European disability strategy sought to enable disabled people to exercise their rights and participate fully in society and the economy. A new 2021-2030 strategy, incorporating the lessons learned from its predecessor, seeks to ensure that all persons with disabilities in the EU, regardless of their sex, racial or ethnic origin, religion or belief, age or sexual orientation enjoy their human rights; have equal access to participation in society and the economy; are able to decide where, how and with whom they live; move freely in the EU regardless of their support needs and, no longer experience discrimination.


Read the complete briefing on ‘Understanding EU policies for persons with disabilities‘ in the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.


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