EurWORK European Observatory of Working Life


There is no official EU definition of disability. However, the EU’s European Disability Strategy 2010–2020 quotes the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which states that people with disabilities ‘include those who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments which in interaction with various barriers may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others’. This UN Charter is the first legally-binding international human rights instrument to which the EU and its Member States are parties (see below).

Further, in reference to Directive 2000/78/EC, which establishes a general framework for equal treatment in employment and occupation, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled (Sonia Chacón Navas v. Eurest Colectividades SA, Case C-13/05) that the concept of ‘disability’ must be understood as referring to a limitation which results, in particular, from physical, mental or psychological impairments and which hinders the participation of the person concerned in professional life.

By using the concept of ‘disability’ in Article 1 of the directive, the legislature deliberately chose a term that differs from ‘sickness’. The implication is that the two concepts cannot be treated as being the same.

According to Article 5 of Directive 2000/78/EC, reasonable accommodation for disabled persons shall be provided in order to guarantee compliance with the principal of equal treatment in relation to persons with disabilities. This provision means

that employers shall take appropriate measures where needed in a particular case to enable a person with a disability to have access to, participate in, or advance in employment … unless such measures would impose a disproportionate burden on the employer.

The ECJ ruling in the Chacón case implies that the importance attached to measures to adapt the workplace to the disability demonstrates that the Community legislation envisaged situations in which participation in professional life is hindered over a long period of time. However, the directive does not indicate that workers are protected against discrimination on the grounds of disability in cases of sickness and, based on these considerations, the ECJ decided that a person who has been dismissed by her/his employer solely on the grounds of sickness did not fall within the general framework laid down for combating discrimination on grounds of disability by Directive 2000/78/EC.

Rights to protection against discrimination on the grounds of disability were further strengthened through the signing, on 30 March 2007, of the UN treaty on disability rights by the European Community. The UN Convention recognises, at an international level, that disability is a human rights issue. The text of the Convention recognises the obligation to make ‘reasonable accommodation’ a principle also established under Directive 2000/78/EC and acknowledges that women with disabilities, in particular, are more likely to suffer from multiple forms of discrimination. It therefore calls for measures combining the mainstreaming of gender issues and specific gender-sensitive measures in the disability field.

The European Commission's European Disability Strategy 2010–2020, adopted in 2010, builds on the UN Convention and takes into account the experience of the earlier Disability Action Plan (2004–2010). The strategy has eight priority action areas:

  1. Accessibility: to make goods and services accessible to people with disabilities and to promote an EU-wide market for assistive technology.
  2. Participation: to ensure that people with disabilities enjoy all the benefits of EU citizenship; to work towards removing barriers to equal participation in public life and leisure activities; to promote the provision of quality community-based services.
  3. Equality: to combat discrimination based on disability and to promote equal opportunities. 
  4. Employment: to raise significantly the share of people with disabilities working in the open labour market.
  5. Education and training: to promote inclusive education and lifelong learning for students and pupils with disabilities. Equal access to good-quality education and lifelong learning enables disabled people to participate fully in society and to improve their quality of life.
  6. Social protection: to promote decent living conditions, to combat poverty and social exclusion.
  7. Health: to promote equal access to health services and related facilities.
  8. External action: to promote the rights of people with disabilities in the EU enlargement and international development programmes.

Eurofound research in this area includes a 2013 report on the active inclusion of young people with disabilities or health problems. This research covered young people with a broad range of impairments, including physical, sensory and intellectual (general learning difficulties) impairments, as well as mental health and psychosocial disorders, which included conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

See also: Non-discrimination principlediscrimination.


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