The EU must take active steps so that disabled people no longer have to live in institutional care, a European conference has been told.
BBC News website age & disability correspondent
The conference to mark the International Day of Disabled People has been told that those who live in institutions are systematically denied their human rights.
Society often fails to find dignified alternatives to institutions, says Yannis Vardakastanis
The EU commissioner with responsibility for equal rights, Vladimir Spidla, said the EU could and should use funds to bring an end to the institutionalisation of disabled people.
But he said the commission was hampered in its task by the lack of reliable data on precisely how many people were forced to live in this way.
The president of the European Disability Forum (EDF), Yannis Vardakastanis, told the conference thousands of people were "living in the dark".
"It's time they came out into the light and were able to participate as active European citizens," he said.
Although reliable statistics on the levels of institutionalisation are hard to find, one delegate told the conference that 10% of French disabled people lived in institutional settings.
Mr Vardakastanis said there was no place in the European Union of tomorrow for such institutions.
The EDF says that many disabled people are too often denied the fundamental right to exercise choices over their own lives.
The prevalence of institutions for the long-term care of disabled people is, according to Mr Vardakastanis, the result of society's failure to provide dignified alternatives.
"What disabled persons ask for is something simple - to live included in society," he said.
'Circle must be broken'
"Whenever a disabled person lives in a situation where their right to choice is being violated, and where decisions are taken over their head, they are institutionalised."
He called for action at every level - the EU, national governments, local authorities and disabled people themselves - to make sure that the situation changes.
"The circle of segregation in which disabled people have been placed must be broken."
And it is not just large, residential institutions that Mr Vardakastanis has in mind - any situation where a disabled person is unable to exercise choice, families included, qualifies for the term.
At the route of the problem, he thinks, has been the tendency to segregate people in education, employment and housing.
Scope under fire
But in order to "de-institutionalise" disabled people viable alternatives must first be put in place in order that disabled people are not, quite literally, made homeless, according to Mr Vardakastanis.
In the UK, disability charity Scope recently came in for criticism as a result of its decision to close a residential facility in Cardiff.
Scope said the decision was taken because the charity was refocusing its activities from providing institutional care to campaigning for disability rights.
But the publicity generated by campaigners to keep the care home open serves to underline the need for a gradual transition.
While the European disability movement may well be agreed on the goal, institutions are likely to be a reality for sometime to come.