Whilst the European Union should be rightly criticised on many issues, it is vital to recognise the bureaucratic processes and frameworks that sought to address the inequality and marginalisation affecting disabled people and their families across Europe. Although disabled people’s living standards continue to be severely affected by current austerity measures, adopted by the European Commission and implemented by the member states, there has been a collaborative effort to bring together various grassroots movements and challenge those that seek to cause harm during this time. Furthermore, the narrative around the debate on leaving the European Union must recognise that certain groups, including the State, have attempted to undermine the EU at all times.
Regarding the impact of the referendum result upon disabled learners, there is now a concern as to whether various EU directives will be adopted – voluntarily – by the British Government. The work priorities of the Disability Intergroup, which aspires to promote disability issues within the European Parliament, will become insignificant as the eventual exit of the UK may result in the dismissal of any proposals put forward by the group. This means any recommendations adopted by the EU in response to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities will not need to be implemented by the UK, nor will the state prioritise the aspirations of the European Disability Strategy. Both of these examples will create further marginalisation and isolation for disabled students.
Recently, John Pring from Disability News Service highlighted the significance of three pieces of European legislation – outlined by Lord Low – that aim to have a positive effect on disabled people: procurement by public bodies, web accessibility and air passenger regulations. EU treaties guarantee certain fundamental rights to all citizens of the EU and among those rights are the free movement of persons, goods and services. Such fundamental rights will no longer be guaranteed to citizens outside the EU; therefore, it can be assumed that the barriers encountered when studying will intensify as the rights of disabled students will be further dismissed by the establishment and any discussion on advancing social justice issues associated with education can easily be excluded from the corridors of power – more so than it is now.
The economic and social inclusion aspects of the Europe 2020 strategy aimed to explore the correlation between disabled people’s underrepresentation in employment and their overrepresentation in ‘early school leaving’. This analysis identified the negative consequences of cuts to social services and community-based support – a stance echoed by the economists employed by the International Monetary Fund, who are critical of these destructive policies. This is not to embrace Brussels bureaucracy, which has been integral to the decline of democracy; rather it is a reflection of the various social structures (economic, cultural and political) that affect the development and delivery of education for people across Europe.
It is not just policy developments that will be affected; the geographic mobility of disabled learners to pursue their higher education options across Europe will become further restricted. The introduction of a European Mobility Card will, inevitably, no longer be realised and there is uncertainty as to what impact the exit will have on the Erasmus Programme (an EU exchange student programme). The scholarships provided through the Erasmus Programme are essential for meeting the access needs of disabled students but many national and international students who require support will find their opportunities further limited. The neoliberal capitalist frameworks and privatisation methods infiltrating higher education institutions are reflected in disabled people’s lack of current participation in academia. The British state has already committed to dismantling the support mechanisms for under/post graduates and the State will eventually not be required to justify itself to those within the EU who are committed to increasing disabled people’s social mobility and access to education.
Finally, detachment from the EU will lead to the further disintegration of Independent Living organisations that received support from Brussels and Strasbourg – whether through the advancement of demands through European Parliament collaboration or through financial security provided by the European Social Fund. User-led organisations have been closing rapidly for some time and it seems likely that this will accelerate due to the State ‘reclaiming’ sovereignty, which effectively means the ruling elite will be able to impose their ideology without substantial resistance from within the political system.
This article has continued the discourse surrounding the consequences for disabled people in the UK following the EU referendum result. The battle to advance the inclusion of disabled people will continue and there is a desperate need to retain the strong relationships between grassroots social movements across Europe. Those who support the fight for inclusive education must continue to plant and nurture the idea for a future education system within the present one. The roots of the problems in the existing institutions still exist, irrespective of Britain’s membership status, and those who seek to marginalise, isolate and exclude disabled people from society must be brought to account.
Miro Griffiths is a Trustee at ALLFIE and a PhD researcher and teacher at Liverpool John Moores University.