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What a possible ‘Brexit’ could mean for Britain’s disabled people

On 23rd June, the people of Britain will vote in a referendum on whether or not they want to remain part of the European Union (EU). The Prime Minister, David Cameron, is supporting the ‘in’ vote, along with Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the opposition Labour party, and Caroline Lucas, the leader of the Green Party. US President Barack Obama has also spoken out in favour of Britain remaining in the EU. Many of Cameron’s Conservative colleagues, along with far-right, anti-immigration party Ukip, are campaigning to be ‘out’ of the Union after June. Ukip aside, the debate is dividing political parties and causing splits in traditional left and right divisions and alliances.

Second only to the US Presidential election in the ‘most tedious TV coverage’ stakes, much of the reporting on the EU exit (or Brexit — British exit from the EU) is long-winded and reflects an atmosphere of petty in-fighting. Many citizens are confused about their options and find the conventional media’s coverage both opaque and irrelevant.

What people want to know is how a continuing membership of, or exit from, the EU will affect their lives and those of the people around them. And disabled people, currently being battered by a barrage of funding cuts, want to know the implications of the Brexit referendum for themselves.

A Brexit could devastate the disability community

Elaine McDonald is one disabled woman who has been able to gain the benefit of EU law after her local authority removed support for her to receive night-time care. After failing to regain her rights in the High Court, the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court, she successfully appealed to the European Court of Human Rights that the removal of her support worker and provision, instead, of incontinence pads, interfered with her right to respect for her family and private life, under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

For many disabled people, in fact, European law has been the source of positive steps forward. A Europe-wide non-discrimination law, and access requirements for all major forms of transport, the web, and public buildings are two major benefits that have brought rights to disabled Brits that we may simply never have had otherwise, at least not without many more years of fighting.

A recent EU Accessibility Act aims to improve access further and strengthen the gains that have already been won under equality laws across the region. Further, employment rights to ensure that disabled people are not discriminated against by small businesses were also ensured by the EU, and other non-discrimination laws regarding the provision of goods and services have been passed. These laws also protect people who could suffer from discrimination because of their association with (such as the parenting of) disabled people.

Miro Griffiths, from the European Network on Independent Living, told the Disability News Service that he believed Brexit would “have dire consequences for disabled people”. And Labour Member of the European Parliament (MEP) Richard Howitt believes that a departure from the EU would have a negative effect on British disabled people’s rights. He told The Guardian, “Discrimination doesn’t stop at borders. […] If these and other disability rights were torn up through Britain exiting the EU, could British disabled people really rely on the government to reinstate each and every one of them? Being part of Europe is a safeguard against British governments of all political colours removing disability rights.”

It is not just laws and requirements from Europe that have benefited the disabled community. Social and international funds have provided the cash necessary to run some disability-friendly initiatives, such as employment support, and funding for local and national third-sector organisations.

What disabled Britons stand to lose

Forced institutionalisation has long been a concern of disability rights activists, due to a long and painful history (and continuing reality) of this occurring around the world. The European Union has taken measures in this area, insisting that states “shall protect persons with disabilities from forced interventions or forced institutionalisation aimed at correcting, improving, or alleviating any actual or perceived impairment”.

A lack of faith in the politicians supporting Brexit has also led to suspicions that, if that’s what they want, it can’t possibly have good outcomes for disabled people. Caroline Richardson, a disability rights campaigner, stated, “Those supporting Brexit are overwhelmingly MPs and Ministers who have supported and designed sweeping cuts to disability and sickness benefits (including Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith and Employment Minister Priti Patel), and hence disabled people are totally justified in not wishing to follow their guidance in voting out”. Smith resigned as Work and Pensions Secretary after Richardson made this statement.

Things are far from perfect for disabled people as members of the European Union. But, as non-members, the fight against austerity, reduced rights and increased cuts could feel considerably more lonely. It could also undermine our ability to support our disabled peers in countries across the Union.

Of course, this is not the full story. While it is tempting for an old lefty to look at the number of Conservatives who support Brexit and automatically oppose it ourselves, we have to also acknowledge that some right-wing politicians such as Cameron, who has presided over some of the most brutal cuts the disability community has ever seen, are in the ‘in’ camp.

Disabled supporters of a Brexit have a different perspective

Some people believe that the EU is simply too large and corrupt to care about supporting people out of austerity. Ellen Clifford, of Disabled People Against Cuts, wrote, “I believe that the conclusion drawn by a range of anti-austerity campaigners that the capitalist monolith of the EU cannot be reformed and must be opposed, is equally applicable to Disabled people fighting oppression and the impact of austerity cuts”.

She describes a no vote as “very much in solidarity with Disabled people who have born [sic] the brunt of austerity measures imposed on them by the EU in countries such as Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain” and points out that the European Convention on Human Rights would still be accessible to British people, although the current Tory government has plans to remove us from its remit if it can.

Clifford concludes, “the argument that Disabled people in the UK have too much to lose by leaving the EU is insufficiently convincing to justify voting in favour of an institution that acts so clearly in the interests of the 1%, that forces Disabled people to suffer under austerity to keep the bankers’ bonuses piling in and that condemns refugees (many of whom are Disabled or children) to drown in the sea”.

While I understand these reservations and appreciate this perspective, I can’t help but see a Brexit as a regressive move for the UK. We are a small country in a big world and could easily be swallowed up if we aren’t part of a wider grouping. The progress that disabled people have seen, in our laws and our funding, that can be directly attributed to the EU is something I am loathe to let go of, and I will be voting ‘in’ in June.

Image: U.S. Embassy London/Creative Commons


Philippa Willitts

Philippa Willitts is a British freelance writer who specialises in writing about disability, women's issues, social media and tech. She also enjoys covering politics and LGBT-related topics. She has written for the Guardian, the Independent, New Statesman, Channel 4 News, Access Magazine, xoJane and many more publications. She can be found on Twitter @PhilippaWrites.

One thought on “What a possible ‘Brexit’ could mean for Britain’s disabled people

  1. Shouldn’t it be up to the Labour and Lib Dem parties to argue a case for an alternative government – why do they always go cap in hand to the EU? If you don’t like what’s happening shame tory backbenchers (like was done the other week) or build up your own parties to win an election.

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