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Assistive Technology in the European Union: Facilitator or Barrier to Free Movement of People with Disabilities?

1 Comment 🕔16.Sep 2015

This article is part of our feature People, Power, Policy.

Giannoumis leader image

Blind people leading a group in Toulouse, France. Photo credit: Frank Taillandier.

 

by Jenni Kline and G. Anthony Giannoumis

Introduction

Assistive technology’s lack of portability restricts the free movement of people with disabilities across Europe. In this context, assistive technology refers to “any item, piece of equipment, or product system, whether acquired commercially off the shelf, modified, or customized, that is used to increase, maintain or improve the functional capacities of individuals with disabilities” and typically includes wheelchairs, white canes, hearing aids, and various devices that enable persons with disabilities to use consumer technology.[1] This commentary contrasts the principle of the free movement of workers in the European Union with the situation of people with disabilities in Europe. Additionally, it explores the fragmented nature of assistive technology markets and how the provision of assistive technology across the EU influences the ability of persons with disabilities to move freely across Member States.

This paper draws upon research conducted as a part of Active Citizenship for Persons with Disabilities (DISCIT), an EU-funded research project that involves research institutions, NGOs and universities across the Europe. DISCIT aims to examine the concept of “Active Citizenship” for people with disabilities and to produce new knowledge to inform policies and programs that enable the full participation of people with disabilities in all aspects of life and society.

 

Free Movement in the EU

Freedom of movement for workers is one of the hallmark principles of the EU and was introduced in the Treaty Establishing the European Economic Community in 1957.[2] This freedom is an integral part of the idea of a common European market and has been a part of the EU since its founding. Article 45(1) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) specifically asserts workers’ right to freedom of movement in the EU, and Article 45 (3) provides exceptions predicated on “grounds of public policy, public security or public health.”[3] The importance of this fundamental freedom has been recently emphasized and highlighted in debates around migrant workers in the UK.[4] This debate is useful not only to show the importance of this principal in EU policy, but also to interrogate how the principle has excluded people with disabilities in Europe.

Persons with disabilities rely on disability related services in order to exercise full active citizenship; however, the lack of portability of disability related services has created a barrier to this fundamental freedom of the EU. Workers with disabilities often lack access to services, such as disability dependent cash benefits, personal assistants, transportation subsidies, or assistive technology.

 

Lack of Portability of Assistive Technology Services between EU Member States Restricts Free Movement of People with Disabilities

Workers’ freedom of movement is one of the key principles of the EU, and the EU has the authority to enact laws and legislation related to the free movement of workers. “Portability” means that there is an option for workers with disabilities to retain disability services, such as access to assistive technology when exercising their freedom of movement or occupational mobility. In effect, to ensure full freedom of movement among EU Member States, the principle of portability must provide consistent disability related benefits across the EU.

However, services such as assistive technology that enable independent living (of which ‘unrestricted movement’ is an essential part) typically fall within the authority of the EU Member States and do not fall within the purview of EU portability mandates. Many assistive technology provision schemes are considered health policies and fall within the competency of EU Member States – beyond the authority of the EU.[5] Although some employment related social benefits may be portable, as noted by Lisa Waddington, those benefits must be cash benefits and often do not extend to disability related benefits.[6] This is especially relevant when discussing assistive technology provisions since the provision of assistive technology in EU member states is generally through the direct provision of technology rather than through the provision of cash payments used for personal procurement of technology.

This essentially means that the assistive technology disabled workers receive in Spain may be drastically different from what they would receive in Ireland and could act as a disincentive to move between countries for work. In the interviews for the DISCIT project, one interviewee discussed his inability to take a job in a different country because of the lack of portability of services.[7] The existence of such a disincentive seems to violate the spirit, if not the letter, of the law, preserving workers’ freedom of movement.

The lack of portability of services, specifically portability of assistive technology, is problematic for both movement between Member States and movement within Member States.[8] Thus, regional approaches to assistive technology provision may also restrict the movement of workers with disabilities within a Member State.

 

Diversity of Assistive Technology Social Benefit Schemes Creates Information and Access Barriers

A further problem regarding the portability of services with respect to assistive technology is the challenging nature of seeking access to assistive technology when systems for the provision of active technology are often quite different between EU member states.  For example, some Member States provide assistive technology solely through the health system,[9] while other states rely on insurance schemes.[10]  Still other Member States may have one scheme to access assistive technology for “everyday life” and a completely different scheme operated by a different organization for assistive technology provision related to “work and employment.”[11] In interviews conducted through DISCIT, people with disabilities who used assistive technology often spoke about having to “know the system”[12] in order to get the assistive technology they needed. Such knowledge was often gained through years of experience accessing the same system or cooperating with a particularly helpful contact[13] within the system.

The complexity of assistive technology systems in EU Member States and the diversity between States act as barriers for people with disabilities who seek employment in different EU countries. In addition to the typical challenges associated with relocating for work, people with disabilities who use assistive technology would also have to learn a new system to gain access to the assistive technology that enables them to live, work, and participate in society, which could result in delays in accessing the technology and beginning employment.

Scholars have written elsewhere about the gap that exists between relocating to a new country and receiving services in the new country.[14] This could deter persons with disabilities from seeking employment in other Member States and limit freedom of movement for persons with disabilities, as such gaps would leave people with disabilities without essential services. Eligibility and entitlement requirements for receiving assistive technology also vary greatly among Member States, meaning that moving to a new country for employment could result in the loss of a previously held benefit or technology.

 

The Fragmented Market for Assistive Technology

Finally, another potential barrier restricting the free movement of people with disabilities is the highly fragmented nature of the assistive technology market in Europe. This means that many small companies produce assistive technology for a national or regional market.[15] For a worker with a disability who uses assistive technology, this means that she may experience barriers to accessing the technology she is familiar with using or currently uses, and her preferred technology may not be available for purchase or repair if she moves to a different country within the EU. Thus, the fragmented market for assistive technology acts as a further barrier to the freedom of movement for persons with disabilities.

 

Recommendations and Conclusions

In order to truly embrace workers’ freedom of movement, we recommend that EU countries explore options for transitioning to cash benefit systems for the provision of assistive technology. This would potentially eliminate the barrier of portability of services since EU law generally allows for the exportability of cash benefits between EU countries. Furthermore, the use of cash benefits for assistive technology would give people with disabilities greater autonomy and choice in deciding what assistive technology best fits their particular needs.

The issues regarding the portability of services with respect to assistive technology must be addressed. If the freedom of workers is fundamental to the EU, then it must protect and extend this freedom to all workers and potential workers. To this end, further investment in researching issues related to the lack of portability of services and other barriers to the free movement of people with disabilities is necessary. Disability and the use of disability related benefits and services cannot and should not be a barrier to cross-border employment for people with disabilities in Europe.

 

Jenni Kline is a research associate at the Centre for Disability Law and Policy at NUI Galway in Ireland. She hold a juris doctor from Northeastern University School of Law. Her research interests include examining how disability policy impacts and influences individuals with disabilities as well as assistive technology, issues of gender and disability, and international development.

G. Anthony Giannoumis is currently an assistant professor of universal design at the Department of Computer Science at Oslo and Akershus University College, a researcher with DISCIT – making persons with disabilities full citizens, and a legal and ethical advisor for Cloud4All – Cloud platforms lead to open and universal access for people with disabilities and for all. He is also a PhD candidate at the Faculty of Law at Maastricht University.

 

This article is part of our feature People, Power, Policy.


[1] Marcia Scherer, ‘The change in emphasis from people to person” introduction to the special issue on Assistive Technology’ 24 Disability and Rehabilitation 1 (2002) quoting ‘Technology-related assistance of individuals with disabilities act of 1988’ (PL 100-407).

[2] Treaty establishing the European Economic Community (1957).

[3] Consolidated Version of The Treaty on The Functioning of the European Union [2012] OJ C326/47.

[4] Rowena Mason and Philip Oltermann, ‘Angela Merkel Warns David Cameron over freedom of movement’ The Guardian (2 November 2014). Available at <http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/nov/02/angela-merkel-warns-david-cameron-german-chancellor-uk-prime-minister-unskilled-migrants> (last accessed 8 January 2015).

[5] i.e., Italy, Ireland, Sweden and Finland. Carmen Pastor, ‘ICT Assistive Technology in Europe’ Technalia-Health & Quality of Life, Creating Conditions for Independent Living The European Day of People with Disabilities 2009 (4 December 2009).

[6] Lisa Waddington, Disability Benefits and Entitlements in European Countries: Mutual Recognition and Exportability of Benefits- A synthesis of evidence provided by ANED country reports and additional sources, ANED (December 2010)118.

[7] Interview with IE-M70F as a part of the DISCIT research conducted by Delia Ferri on 28 May 2014 in Galway Ireland. (N.B the move was to be to a non EU state but reflects how barriers end up denying job opportunities for people with disabilities)

[8] Ruth Townsley et al., The Implementation of Policies Supporting Independent Living for Disabled People in Europe: Synthesis Report, ANED report (January 2010) 35.

[9] i.e., Italy, Ireland, Sweden and Finland, Carmen Pastor, ‘ICT Assistive Technology in Europe’ Technalia-Health & Quality of Life, Creating Conditions for Independent Living The European Day of People with Disabilities 2009 (4 December 2009).

[10] i.e., Germany and Switzerland.

[11] i.e., Netherlands, Lisa Waddington, Disability Benefits and Entitlements in European Countries: Mutual Recognition and Exportability of Benefits- A synthesis of evidence provided by ANED country reports and additional sources, ANED (December 2010)118.

[12] Interview with IE-M90F as a part of the DISCIT research conducted by Jenni Kline on 19 May 2014 in Galway Ireland.

[13] Interview with IE-M90M as a part of the DISCIT research conducted by Jenni Kline on 26 August 2014 in Galway, Ireland.

[14] Lisa Waddington, Disability Benefits and Entitlements in European Countries: Mutual Recognition and Exportability of Benefits- A synthesis of evidence provided by ANED country reports and additional sources, ANED (December 2010) 136.

[15] Carmen Pastor, ‘ICT Assistive Technology in Europe’ Technalia-Health & Quality of Life, Creating Conditions for Independent Living The European Day of People with Disabilities 2009 (4 December 2009)13.

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