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What Will Brexit Mean for Disabled People?

Brexit has been wedged into the folds of our brain for years now, the term sending a slight shiver down the spine of everyone who happens to hear it for the thousandth time. 

According to YouGov polling, Brexit’s impact on the NHS and other public services came in as a major concern for just 9% of the population when we all took to the polls in 2016. This does, in many ways, relate to disabled people and the ways they will be affected by Brexit. I can’t pretend that now, four and a half years after the vote, we have a sharp insight into what a post-brexit Britain will look like. Unfortunately, that means there is currently no magic lid to lift to reveal what is going to happen to the disabled community, especially when related discussions on disability and health have paled in comparison to, say, fish. 

However, whilst there may not be a sparkling display of clarity just yet, we can – with absolute certainty – say that Brexit is indeed going to hugely impact the lives of disabled people. We already know that funding for widening participation and research will go, as well as laws set up by the EU won’t be legally binding for the UK anymore. 

“But the 2010 equality act exists!” I hear you cry, “thus meaning that disabled people are protected by virtue of the UK’s own legal system!”. Whilst that is indeed true, the equality act is the piece of landmark legislation protecting all minority groups, including disabled people, the EU in fact has gone one step further in their legislation. 

For example, the EU worked on the negotiations for the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Disabled People (UNCRPD), which is now implemented across EU policy. As such, EU law requires providers of transport by air, as well by train, ship, and bus to assist disabled passengers and the bus directive requires wheelchair accessibility. The EU has also introduced accessibility improvements for medicine packaging and recently for public sector websites and apps.

The 2010 equality act simply does not make such policy implementations, it just asks that “reasonable adjustments” be made where possible. This often leads to accessibility provisions not being in place, represented by the 40% of train stations that are not accessible in the UK, and the two thirds of disabled people who have faced access issues when travelling by train. When we leave the EU, there will be no additional body to ensure that the UK’s future projects are accessible. It also means that the upcoming EU Accessibility Act – which enforces accessibility provisions from computers and operating systems, cash points, to e-books – will not apply to the UK. This essentially means that new accessibility provisions, and reforming old ones, rest on the shoulders of our Government, and our Government alone. 

Now, the most important issue when it came to voting in the referendum was the economy. It was all about the money, baby, so let’s talk about it. 

The European Social Fund is a pot of money (metaphorical, of course, but I do like imagining a Winnie-the-Pooh style pot of euros) dedicated to the funding of employment schemes and training to support people getting into work. This is not solely for disabled people, but rather for all people who need additional support grinding work and employment opportunities, ergo including disabled people within its remit. Since the Brexit vote and the last four years of constant back and forth-ing can be somewhat seen as a middle finger to the EU, we shouldn’t expect to get any of that money. 

The EU also funds research into disability through their numerous academic grants. All together, considering the policies implemented, the funding provided, and the research supported, Charles Whitmore, research associate at Cardiff University, says “disability rights and accessibility are mainstreamed in the provision of EU funds and more widely in the activities of the EU Commission, as per the European Disability Strategy 2010-2020.”

EU policy has changed UK laws, and has made the lives of disabled people – in some ways – better, like through EU case law removing the UK’s £8,500 compensation cap on the grounds of discrimination in the 1993 Marshall case. 

Right, that sounded pessimistic, and frankly, when something is as devisie, long winding, and never ending as the Brexit discourse, I’m not sure how to make it sunny. It’s really important to note that the UK Government does have an accessibility policy, there are funds in the UK for research into disability, and there is money for projects supporting underrepresented groups. 

The crucial point is we don’t know what’s going to happen. It is possible that our Government will replace all of these funds and will introduce and implement new laws and policies. Because disability has not had a front bench seat in the discussions on Brexit, it’s really unclear how post-Brexit Britain will change in it’s treatment of disabled people. 

Sorry, I wish I had a superpower to know exactly what is happening with Brexit, but I’m not sure anyone in this country does. 


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