Webinar 'Law for Accessibility' November 2019

In cooperation with the European Network on Independent Living (ENIL), DRD held a webinar focused on ‘Law for Accessibility’ on the 25th of November 2019. This report summarizes briefly the webinar. A recording of the webinar can also be watched on youtube.


The webinar was opened and moderated by Jamie Bolling, director of the Independent Living Institute (ILI) and co-chair of the European Network on Independent Living. She welcomed the 33 participants and introduced the webinar agenda. 

The first speaker was Selina Griesser an employee of ILI, who explained the goals and work of the project DRD. She invited the webinar participants to join the closed facebook group ‘Disability Rights Defenders’ and to subscribe to the DRD newsletter.

Annemarie Isbert, an intern at ILI for DRD, gave a short introduction on accessibility to get an overview of the topic. She made clear what accessibility is, explained different areas where accessibility is needed and talked about accessibility as a precondition for the right to live independently and to participate in society.


Then, Robbie Sinnott, the founder of Voice of Vision Impairment (VVI), presented his High Court case about the right to vote in Ireland for blind people. As Robbie’s sight slowly deteriorated he realized that in Ireland there was no system that allowed people with visual impairment to vote. He was allowed to ask a trusted friend or an officer in the polling station to vote for him but as a visually impaired person he could not verify if the vote was made according to his wishes. In 2010 Robbie founded the Blind legal Alliance which looked into the right to vote for persons with visual impairment and searched for legal help. With the help of the Free Legal Advice Centre a barrister was found who was willing to take on the case. Barrister Michael McDowell, the former Minister of Justice found that the current voting situation at the time was not only against constitutional law but also that the Electoral Act from 1996 stressed specifically the right of persons with visual impairment to mark their vote on a ballot paper. In 2017 a court order was issued which stated that the state is obliged to provide conditions that allow persons with visual impairments to vote. Even though there are now templates or stencils which can be used for voting, the right to vote is not guaranteed for blind people. The ballots are too long for use with the stencils and the information available on phone is impractical. Robbie founded the Voice of Vision Impairment and still fights for the right to vote for blind people in Ireland.


Paul Lappalainen, a US-American and Swedish lawyer, spoke about his work regarding a comparative analysis of equality law in the US, Canada, UK, EU and Sweden. He presented the development of equality law in these countries. In the US there is the Civil Rights Act from 1964 which covers discrimination based on race, religion and sex. Later in 1990s the ADA passed and focussed on disability. The Equality Act in the UK from 2010 was a consolidation of earlier acts on anti-discrimination on the ground of race, sex and disability. In Canada the Human Rights Act from 1977 covers discrimination based on race, sex and disability. The EU anti-discrimination directives cover race and sex in the working life as well as in other areas, whereas disability is only mentioned in regards to working life. The Swedish Discrimination Act from 2009 covers race, sex and disability as well as covering all areas of social life. There are different issues regarding equality law and key drivers that led to the different laws. What is missing in Sweden and the EU according to Paul is that the civil society needs to develop its use of the law and see that lawyers are trained. The Civil Society can act on its own with lawyers and litigate to fight for the laws they find appropriate.


Sid Wolinsky, a retired chief of litigation at Disability Rights Advocates, Berkeley, talked about the Americans with Disability Act (ADA) and its origins. He described the way that led to the passage of the ADA in 1990 and highlighted six lessons that can be learned from this experience. First, the ADA was a product of many years of activism and extraordinary amount of work, especially from the disability community. The impulses and motivation came from the disability community itself, no one did it for them. The third lesson is the importance of making a piece of legislation like the ADA cross-disability so that it is covering all disabilities. Further, the direct political actions like sit-ins, demonstrations and letters that were adapted from the civil rights movement played an important role. As a fifth lesson, he pointed out the critical role of lawyers who were important not only in drafting but also in helping to organise and doing litigation to protect and extend the ADA. A final lesson that can be learned is the importance of trying to cross political lines as much as possible and to make the law inclusive.


The last speaker of the webinar was Inmaculada Placencia Porrero, Senior Expert in Disability and Inclusion at Directorate-General Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion at the European Commission. She spoke about the origins of the European Accessibility Act (EAA) and discussed differences and similarities between the EAA and ADA. She described the context in which the EAA was developed, the components of the act and a comparison with the US American ADA and other US laws. The goal of the EAA is to remove barriers at the European level for accessibility, providing access to goods and services in Europe and to support EU member states in the implementation of the CRPD. This is a different context in comparison to the ADA which was pushed by the civil rights and disability movement. As there were already other EU directives and different accessibility laws at the national level in the EU member states, the EAA tries to harmonize the accessibility legislation at the EU level. She pointed out that it is not possible to compare the ADA and the EAA as different parts of the EAA can be related to different US laws. Further, control was explained to ensure that products and services that enter the EU market are accessible.


After the different inputs from the speakers there was time for questions. The webinar ended with a lively and productive discussion on accessibility law.


DRD and ILI are looking forward to the next webinar that will take place next year. Stay tuned!