Labour MEPs have welcomed plans for a binding EU law on access for disabled people as a victory after decades of pressure from MEPs.
Richard Howitt MEP, co-chair of the European Parliament All-Party Disability Rights Group, says the new Act, which is being officially proposed today by the European Commission, has the potential to create a genuinely single market by stopping the exclusion of disabled people, but European officials have 'dragged their feet' on a promise to outlaw disability discrimination in access to goods and services, made as long ago as 2000.
As parliamentary negotiator for the anti-discrimination package that year, Mr Howitt will make the first official response by MEPs to the new proposal as a keynote speaker in tomorrow's "European Day of Disabled People" conference in Brussels, saying that without years of relentless campaigning by disabled people's organisations, the promise would have been forgotten altogether.
Richard Howitt MEP said:
"For the first time we can start to talk honestly about Europe's single market, because it will be one where the barriers preventing disabled people from participating are finally being lifted.
"Although I am proud that Europe has made progress on disability access rules in the past in relation to the installation of lifts, for some public transport and on the internet, the bitter truth is that the large swath of the built environment remains a 'no go' area for people with disabilities in Britain and in Europe.
"Today's proposal is not yet freedom of movement for disabled people, nor is it inclusive design of products, nor is it the right of equal access to services - but it does begin the legislative process, allowing the European Parliament to begin to negotiate what can be achieved."
The draft Accessibility Act requires mandatory access for a range of mainly digital services, and will make cash points, travel bookings and new generations of mobile devices fully accessible to disabled people across the whole of Europe.
The proposal is expected to lead to improvements in physical access - a bank has to be accessible if the cash machine inside it is to be so. The law also seeks to 'operationalise' European rules which require all EU-funded services and infrastructure to be fully accessible to people with disabilities.
However, there is regret the proposal falls short of meeting the promise for a general right of non-discrimination for disabled people's access to goods and services. MEPs, though, are expected to seek to toughen up a provision to allow access rights to apply more widely to the 'built environment' in EU member states.
Commenting on the protracted delays in getting the legislative proposal, Mr Howitt added:
"It is shameful how long disabled people have been forced to wait - the foot-dragging by anyone and everyone in Brussels has to stop right now. Echoing the slogans of disability activists, today is much more a victory 'by rather than for' disabled people themselves.
"When I helped negotiate the EU law against disability discrimination in access to employment in 2000, the European Parliament was promised that action to outlaw the same discrimination in access to goods and services would soon follow.
"Today, that promise remains unfulfilled, but we can make sure the Accessibility Act becomes a step towards it. It is equality itself which must finally be given equal treatment.
"Perhaps the most significant comparison is in the 25th anniversary this year of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which can be said to have inspired some of today's European proposals. It is a sign of how far Europe has fallen behind in guaranteeing civil rights to disabled people and how quickly we must now act to catch-up.
"The battle is now on to ensure the law is comprehensive in scope, is consistent with human rights commitments and is agreed between the European Parliament and EU governments without further delay."