Brexit and Disability Rights, Put Simply

By Campaign Agent Charlotte Spencer-Smith

As sufficient progress has been made on Brexit talks to start discussions on a much wished-for trade deal, disabled people are still not getting the assurances they want about life after Brexit. Whilst the UK Government stays silent on the future of disability legislation, campaigners say that disabled EEA nationals have been left out in the cold.

The right to stay for disabled Europeans and carers

Disabled Europeans in the UK feel let down by recent the last-minute agreement because it failed to address what will happen to citizens who are too disabled to work. While European nationals scramble to apply for permanent residence, some are finding that they don’t meet the requirements because of their disability. To qualify for permanent residence, you usually need to have been working, studying, looking for work or otherwise self-sufficient. Without first claiming permanent residence, the path to UK citizenship is barred. This is in line with the definition of EU citizen treaty rights, where citizens can live in another European country if they are working, studying or self-sufficient.

Disire, a group campaigning for disabled Europeans on issues brought up by Brexit, is frustrated at the lack of guidance or support from the government. Board member Yragael Drouet-Whiter, a French citizen severely disabled with spina bifida, has lived in the UK since he was four. Drouet-Winter is now working a small number of hours a week in an attempt to qualify for permanent residence. Although there is no guarantee that this will help his application, his disability prevents him from working longer hours. The new agreement has done little to reassure those in a similar position. 

Similarly affected are EEA nationals who care for disabled relatives or friends. Full-time non-professional care for another person is not considered work by the UK government, leaving European carers, including parents of disabled children, with an unclear future. Brexit could also place further strain on care for people with disabilities in the professional sector. The Voluntary Organisations Disability Group has expressed concern about the impact of Brexit on the adult social care sector. Just under 7% of workers in the sector are EU nationals across the UK, with the figure higher in London at 13%. The VODP are worried about pressures on these staff in a climate where “social care providers across the country are already struggling to recruit and retain staff”.

Replacing EU disability regulations

Brexit does not just affect disabled Europeans, but the regulatory climate for all disabled people living in the UK. Many protections for disabled people in the UK come from EU law, including 2006 European regulations that forbid airlines from discriminating against disabled passengers. In a report produced by Disability Rights UK this summer, disability consultant Jonathan Kay pointed to EU regulation encompassing “literally thousands of regulations and rules governing the design, functionality and usability of almost every product and object in the home and general environment, indoors and outdoors, which contain elements of disability related consideration”. These include the EU Medicinal Products for Human Use Directive 2004, Public Procurement Directives of 2014, Public Sector Websites and Mobile Applications Directive of 2016. 

To avoid a weakening of disability legislation in the UK, these regulations have to be integrated into British law. However, Disability Rights UK is worried that the focus on Brexit, and especially on post-Brexit trade, is overshadowing social issues like disability rights. Efforts to raise awareness of preserving disability rights have been driven by disability campaign groups, with little initiative from other quarters, including the government. In October, the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities criticised the “lack of information on policies, programmes and measures that will be put in place by the State party to protect persons with disabilities from being negatively affected” by Brexit. 

The future of these rights will need to be clarified to reassure disabled people and carers that they will not be left behind in the Brexit process. Until then, the focus on trade, customs and borders risks turning attention away from issues concerning disability, as well as other key social issues.

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Image: anjan58 @Flickr 

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