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Last Updated: Tuesday, 30 December, 2003, 10:06 GMT
Europe's disability year in review
Geoff Adams-Spink
BBC News Online disability affairs reporter

EYPD 'bus'
The key question is whether the Year will have a lasting impact
The European Year of Disabled People (EYDP) was conceived to draw attention to the inequality experienced by the European Union's 37 million disabled people.

Official statistics suggest disabled people are two to three times more likely to be unemployed than their non-disabled counterparts.

About 38% of disabled people aged 16 to 34 have an earned income, compared with 64% of non-disabled people.

But 97% of Europeans think more should be done to integrate disabled people into society.

So has the EYDP made a real difference or has 2003 simply seen it "have its turn" in the spotlight?

The Year's given a boost to the awareness of disability rights and the participation of disabled people which isn't going to disappear
Disability Minister Maria Eagle
Earlier this year British Sign Language was given official recognition and £1m was set aside to promote its use.

The British Government says the EYDP has been the catalyst for a number of things that will make a difference for years to come.

It points to its recently-published draft disability bill as the latest in a number of measures that will improve people's lives by giving them greater rights and freedoms.

Grassroots projects

Funding was given to the UK Disabled People's Parliament which held its first meeting in October.

The strength of the EYDP, according to Andy Rickell - director of the British Council of Disabled People and a member of the parliament - has been the focus on grassroots projects.

"It's probably worked out better than we thought," he said.

"The Year has been good insofar as it has encouraged grass roots activity about disabled people's rights and participation.

"The best way to achieve rights though is to have proper laws for disabled people's rights, as well as grass roots activity. And much more is needed to secure our rights."

Disability Minister Maria Eagle points to the variety of activities funded by the government to mark the Year.

"We've spent £2.5m and supported 170 projects around the country, many of them who've have never had any kind of support or money from the government before," she told BBC News Online.

"The Year's given a boost to the awareness of disability rights and the participation of disabled people which isn't going to disappear.

"It's neither been the beginning nor is it the end of implementing better and full civil rights for disabled people - that task goes on next year."

'Lasting changes'

The body responsible for policing anti-discrimination legislation, the Disability Rights Commission (DRC), is more cautious.

DRC chairman Bert Massie said it was too early to say whether any lasting changes would result.

"I'm long enough in the tooth to remember the International Year of Disabled People in 1981," he said.

You'd have to look around Europe in about five years time to see whether there have been any lasting changes
Bert Massie
Disability Rights Commission
While many of the initiatives undertaken in 1981 have had no lasting impact, others, according to Mr Massie, have endured.

"A lot of the transport work which is now delivering a third of accessible buses in London - and more to come - was started then.

"The proposal to amend part M of building regulations, to make buildings accessible, also started then."

Mr Massie says it is too early to say how the EYDP will be remembered.

"You'd have to look around Europe in about five years time to see whether there have been any lasting changes."

Disastrous start

In order to generate awareness of the EYDP, the organisers sent a 'bus' around the EU member states.

The bus - in reality it was a pantechnicon lorry - has clocked up 45,000 kilometres (just over 28,000 miles).

In the process it has attended a road protest in Vienna, a Real Madrid football match, the Derby at Epsom and had a visit from Santa Claus in Finland.

According to Jiska Bolhuis who has been co-ordinating the bus's grand tour, things almost got off to a disastrous start.

"The night before the opening ceremony, the bus had to be parked in the centre of Athens, in a part of the city that was not known for its safety.

"Of course, burglars tried to break into the bus that night and the next morning we found several locks destroyed.

"But we were also lucky because the thieves hadn't actually been able to get into the bus."

'More pride'

The BBC Ouch website, which takes a wry look at disability, has been contemptuously tracking the bus's journey through Europe.

Ouch's editor, Damon Rose, is unimpressed by the publicity given to the EYDP.

"Having international events given to us by bureaucrats was never going to enthuse or do anything great," he said

"We have ourselves as disabled people to blame - if we all had a little more pride and wanted to shout about it, a culture would spring up, events would be worth going to and we'd be 'bigging ourselves up'."

The EU needs to go further in securing greater rights for disabled people, according to Stefan Trömel, director of the European Disability Forum.

"At the European level we're disappointed," he said.

"We need a new EU directive to harmonise rights so that disabled people are able to move freely around Europe.

"We're still pushing for that but the commission is slow to commit itself."

And although the UK is widely regarded as leading on disability rights in the EU, campaigner Andy Rickell refuses to be impressed.

"Sadly that says more about the poor rights of disabled people in the rest of the EU than how wonderful they are in the UK."

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Bert Massie, Disability Rights Commission chairman
"There is a growing pan-European solidarity"

Maria Eagle, Disability Minister
"Some of the projects have been innovative and exciting and have made a real difference"

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