There has been little acknowledgement of disabled people’s rights, requirements, and policy needs during the campaigns, negotiations, and agreements that surround the UK’s exit from the EU. The referendum, the transition period, and the subsequent trade deals have not addressed the widespread concerns raised by disabled activists, their organisations, and scholars committed to improving disabled people’s participation within society. Concerns are varied, which range from weakening disabled people’s rights to reducing opportunities for travel, employment, education, and leisure. Much of the activity on the UK departure’s impact on disabled people remains reactive. Campaigners for exiting the EU, and the UK government, have either dismissed the concerns or responded with vague, goodwill gestures that lack detail. This creates a major problem. Disabled people’s politics, policy demands, and activities become trapped in responding to the imminent crisis. Our energy and resources focus on getting policymakers and parliamentarians to acknowledge our concerns. This comes at a cost, as activists and their organisations are unable to articulate longer-term visions for inclusion, participation, and the emancipation of disabled people.

Disabled people’s politics are varied and our community will comprise of those who supported the UK’s exit, those who campaigned against, and those who remain ambivalent. Those who supported the exit now need to demonstrate how disabled people’s life chances will be improved – this means highlighting the strategies and policy measures that will advance disabled people’s well-being and remove the unnecessary barriers imposed upon us. For those who campaigned against, now is the time for scrutiny and critique of the emerging policies and legislation that will affect disabled people’s lives – and to offer alternative visions to the present situation. With this article, I want to present the priorities for action. As disabled people, what do we focus on and what do we do in order to protect the fundamental freedoms of disabled people in the UK and across Europe?

Implications for choice, control, and participation

There are opportunities, over the course of the disabled person’s life, where an individual should have the option to travel, relocate, participate in different environments, and be protected from discrimination and marginalisation.

Disabled people’s support will be affected by the UK’s exit from the EU. There is a lack of detail surrounding how personal assistants, support workers, and care agency staff, from EU countries, will continue to work or access the labour market in the UK. Current emphasis is on EU health workers employed across the National Health Service, which is an important issue nonetheless; but individuals who access self-directed support will be placed in a precarious situation. This is likely to lead to a detrimental impact on disabled people’s choice and control. With limited choice of suitable assistants and workers, disabled people could be pressured to move away from personalised support.

It should be acknowledged that the portability of personalised support has never fully been realised across the EU and many disabled people have struggled to establish support frameworks when moving to a different country. Protecting the supply of European workers to support disabled people in the UK, as well as realising the portability of support packages across the EU, must become part of a broader strategy for realising Independent Living. There needs to be a comprehensive review of the restrictions placed on disabled people to access and utilise self-directed support – pre-and post the UK exit – followed by recommendations to improve the supply of available labour. What does Independent Living mean in the current state of global politics and social security provision?

A lack of clarity over reciprocal arrangements for healthcare has left disabled people perplexed over the cost of meeting medical needs abroad. Disabled people have encountered discrimination when searching for insurance to cover conditions, impairment, and medical diagnosis, with extortionate quotes that leave disabled people unable to travel. This issue, combined with the necessity to travel for purposes of employment or education, will severely restrict disabled people’s mobilisation across Europe.

The current situation does provide an opportunity to promote an intersectional approach to understanding disabling barriers and the policy responses required to address such barriers. Often, our approach to disability policy has tended to homogenise the experience of disability – leading to accusations that the significance of diversity and variance within the disabled people’s community is detached from our demands for social change. Our responses to the growing concerns of disabled people in and from the EU, as well as disabled people in the UK who want access opportunities in the EU, needs to be understood through the lens of intersectionality. This means documenting and highlighting the unique experiences encountered by disabled people through the intersecting of different characteristics and backgrounds.

Undermining Human Rights

The UK Government’s desire for sovereignty have led to suggestions that rights and protections will be regressed. The Government have responded by claiming that existing rights will be retained and improved. That is a difficult claim to accept when we consider the Government’s disregard of the UN investigation into disabled people’s human rights violations in the UK. Similarly, much focus has been placed on removing existing legislation to liberalise the UK economy – without due diligence for how this will impact upon marginalised communities, such as disabled people.

Attention must turn to promoting the importance of the UK Equality Act, and the duties within the act to accommodate adjustments and protection against discrimination. The UK Disabled People’s Movement is divided over the value and worth of existing equality legislation but now is the time for unity if we are to protect existing rights and stop the potential attempts to regress existing rights. One avenue of importance is to focus on embedding the UNCRPD within UK domestic law. To achieve this, it is paramount that UK disabled activists and scholars highlight the improvements that will emerge through the EU Accessibility Act and promote case law from the European Court of Justice. Our demands are strengthened through evidence and international comparisons.

UK and the European Network on Independent Living

Thankfully, ENIL will continue to support and assist UK members. ENIL is not limited to the EU and operates on the basis of supporting all disabled people across Europe. Disabled people’s emancipation must be addressed as an international issue. The social problems we encounter, and the policy and legislative responses we require, necessitate international collaboration.

Now, more than ever, we need our allies.

Dr Miro Griffiths, Leverhulme Research Fellow in the School of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Leeds