EUROPEAN ATTITUDES TO DISABILITY

by Mary de Paor

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Eurobarometer public opinion surveys have been conducted on behalf of the European Commission since the 1970s, at least twice a year in all EU member states. Their purpose is to provide regular monitoring of social and political attitudes among the European public. (Smaller-scale ‘flash’ Eurobarometers and ‘candidate countries’ Eurobarometers are also conducted for social science research purposes.)

Eurobarometer 54.2, Employment and social affairs, and disabilities, was based on over 16,000 interviews (i.e. approximately 1000 citizens in each of the 15 member states) which were carried out between 2 January and 6 February 2001. A summary report of the section on attitudes to disability was published in June 2002. Twenty-one types of disabilities were named in the questionnaire, including illnesses such as cancer, asthma, arthritis, diabetes, muscular dystrophy, etc.

The findings of the survey are summarised below, under five headings:

1. Europeans and people with disabilities

More than 5% of Europeans consider themselves to be disabled. (Up to a quarter of Europeans believe that as many of 20% of their fellow citizens have a disability—an opinion which emerges under section 4 of the questionnaire.) (NB: The present tense has been used throughout this summary, although the findings refer to a survey conducted early in 2001.)

About six EU citizens in ten (58%) know a person with a long-lasting illness, disability or invalidity. Twenty-five per cent of Europeans say that a member of their family is affected by a disability. Fewer than 2% know a disabled schoolchild, and only 4% are conscious of having a work colleague with a disability.

The highest level of familiarity with people with disabilities are evident among people in Sweden, Finland, the Netherlands and Denmark (ranging from 75% to 71%). The figure in Ireland is 60%. The lowest level is in Greece, where 47% declare that they knew someone with a disability.

Overall, 80% of Europeans say that they are at ease in the presence of people with disabilities. However, the respondents feel that a significantly lower level of ease is felt by ‘other people’.

2. Access to equipment and events

Overall EU citizens perceive access for people with disabilities to public services and transport, sports events, workplace, schools and hotels/restaurants as fairly/very difficult. Nearly three out of four think that access to public services is difficult for people with intellectual disability. The answers given are firmly critical of the current situation. It is not surprising, perhaps that in countries (e.g. in Sweden) where the level of access-provision is perceived to be high, this criticism is more muted. Among the fifteen countries, Irish respondents rank in the mid-range of concern about the lack of accessible services, and in the belief that access has improved over the last ten years.

3. Who is responsible for improving access to public spaces for people with disabilities?

Two-thirds of European citizens consider that local authorities carry most responsibility; 55% name the national government; 30% name companies/employers; 28% name voluntary or charitable organisations; and 16% name the EU. It is considered that the wide spread of ‘shared responsibility’ shown in these answers presents an interesting prospect for the European Year of People with Disabilities 2003.

4. Europeans’ level of information about disabilities

Fifty-seven per cent of Europeans admit having a lack of knowledge about the types of disabilities named in the questionnaire. They claim a greater level of knowledge about long-lasting illnesses than for mental and psychological disabilities. A blurred perception of the number of people with disabilities is evident. Nearly 20% of Europeans do not have an opinion about the actual number of people in their country who are disabled. As mentioned above, nearly one-quarter of respondents think the perhaps as many as 20% have a disability.

5. Integration of people with disabilities

Ninety-seven per cent of respondents think that something should be done to involve people with disabilities more in society. The highest level of concern is for the removal of physical barriers (to building-access and transport, etc.). Nearly three-quarters are in favour of integrated schools, and more than three-quarters reject the idea of separating people with disabilities from the community. (Within this high level of agreement, Irish respondents scored at the higher end of the scale on issues of ‘involving people with disabilities more in society’ and ‘removing physical barriers’.

The Eurobarometer survey conclusions include the caution that the survey results only give the opinions expressed by those questioned, and may not reflect their daily behaviour. It can, however, say that even though Europeans may not claim to have a high level of knowledge of specific disabilities, they are clear in wanting improvements in access and inclusion, in the quality of everyday life, for people with disabilities. ‘Results of this public opinion survey—an indirect indictment against praxis too often tolerated or ignored—constitute without any doubt a message to the decision makers in its larger sense: politicians, civil servants, employers, organisation leaders acting on a local, national or European level.’

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