The situation for disabled people
The situation has remained the same.
- The UN ‘Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities’ issued recommendations to Estonia.
- The COVID-19 crisis highlighted concerns about the protection of the rights of people with disabilities.
- Increasing attention is being paid to the built environment and accessibility to services.
- The capacity limitation system needs to be modernised.
- The ‘Equal Treatment Act’ continues to discriminate against people with disabilities.
Political and institutional developments
In March 2021, Estonia defended the first national report of compliance with the UN ‘Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities’ (UNCRPD) in the UN ‘Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities’. On 5 May 2021, the committee published its proposals to the Estonian state. According to the UN, the focus should be on Article 12 of the UNCRPD, regarding ‘equal recognition before the law’. In Estonia, there is no supported decision-making mechanism which serves to limit active legal capacity and, in most cases, guardianship is assigned to all activities of persons who require support in their decision-making and administration due to intellectual disabilities or mental disorders. For example, thousands of adults will lose their right to vote, without the court delving into people’s real capacity. With regard to Article 19, ‘Independent living and inclusion in the community’, the UN considers that the establishment of smaller special care institutions is too common a practice in Estonia. They are still institutions with all that the name implies, even if the conditions in them are significantly better than they were in the old, large care homes. The committee considers that only independent living in a place of one’s own choice, with the necessary support services, is an appropriate solution for people who have special needs. The impact of the shadow report,, which was presented by the ‘Estonian Chamber of Disabled People’ (EPIKoda), is clearly visible in the UN proposals.
On 21 May 2021, the Riigikogu adopted the long-term strategy, ‘Estonia 2035’. For the first time, the issue of the inclusion into the strategy of people who have disabilities has expanded to a cross-cutting area, having previously appeared as a narrow social issue. For example, in the issue of space and mobility, the principle of universal design has been highlighted and emphasis has been placed on the importance of public transport which is accessible to all.
In 2019-2021, an accessibility task force worked at the government office. The proposals which were contained in the final report by the task force were approved by the government on 2 September 2021. The implementation of the activities is the task of various ministries; the coordinating role is carried out by the Ministry of Social Affairs. The main effect of the task force is to raise the issue of accessibility for government agencies to a significantly higher level than before, ensuring it reaches a cross-cutting level.
From 1 May 2021, it will be possible to identify a disability in children who are suffering from a constraining or progressive condition for the full period prior to them reaching the age of sixteen. In the past, these children also had to re-apply every three years for disability recognition, which was a major administrative burden for their families. The same amendment to the law created the possibility of being able to pay disability benefits in certain cases to children who have not been determined to have a disability, but whose rare disease involves significant additional costs. As a form of mitigation for families of disabled children, emergency parental support for a child with special needs was introduced during the 2020 emergency. From 1 December 2020, it will no longer be necessary to apply for or carry an aid card, as all information on technical aid transactions will flow through the e-environment. This is an important step in making it easier for people with disabilities to get the help they need. As of 1 January 2021, the circle of recipients of remote translation services for sign language was extended from just the current working age population to children and the elderly as well. However, the availability of standard sign language translation services is still uneven and often insufficient across Estonia.
In 2021, the Riigikogu started amending the ‘Media Services Act’, while the draft act on the ‘Accessibility of Products and Services’, ie. the EU ‘Accessibility Directive’, went into the coordination round. The expected future entry into force of both laws will help to protect the rights of people who have disabilities when it comes to them being able to access information, services, and products.
Due to restrictions on the placing onto the market of single-use drinking straws in the EU, there is a legitimate concern for people who have reduced mobility about the future availability of straws for independent eating and drinking. A corresponding draft report has been prepared, and national solutions have been developed and made possible with the intervention of the Chancellor of Justice’s adviser, but an EU-wide solution would still be needed.
Unfortunately, the law on equal treatment remains unchanged, as pointed out strongly by the United Nations. The law provides broader levels of protection against discrimination based on nationality, race, or colour, and narrower levels of protection based on religion or belief, age, disability, or sexual orientation. People who have disabilities also need protection from discrimination in the areas of education, social welfare, health, and social security, and access to goods and services which are provided to the public, including housing. Similarly unjustified is the fact that disability is excluded as a feature from the section in the Penal Code which covers discrimination (§ 152).
A potentially high impact on social protection at the local government authority level will come from the decision by the Supreme Court, dated 9 December 2019 which, while adjudicating the Chancellor of Justice’s application concerning the provision of social services in the city of Narva, served to clarify the fact that the local government authority must take into account people’s fundamental rights, and should therefore fulfil its legal obligation to ensure the provision of social services.
In 2021, under the conditions which had been imposed by COVID-19, the Supreme Court repeatedly addressed the matter of hearing people via a video bridge during procedures which were related to placing someone in a closed institution. The decisions found that the hearing of a person within the meaning of § 536 of the ‘Civil Procedure Code’ cannot be carried out using a video bridge. Even under the conditions which were imposed by a pandemic, a direct meeting with a judge is necessary for the hearing, during which it is possible to obtain additional information about the person’s mental disorder in order to form an internal conviction about any potential justification for their possible placement in a closed institution.,,
In a case which involved the dismissal of a prison worker who had a hearing disability, the Supreme Court turned to the European Court of Justice to clarify whether national legislation which established the health requirements for a prison officer were actually in conformity with EU law. In a judgment which was published on 15 July 2021, the Court of Justice ruled that national legislation which provides for the complete exclusion from a prison of an official whose hearing does not meet the minimum standards which have been laid down, without allowing the official in question to verify their ability to be able to carry out their duties after taking reasonable steps as are seen to be necessary, is contrary to EU Directive 2000/78. On 29 September 2021, the Supreme Court’s Constitutional Review Chamber decided to refer the case to the Supreme Court en banc.
Statistics and surveys
In 2020, the ‘Estonian Chamber of Disabled People’ (EPIKoda) conducted a study regarding the coping of people with disabilities during the first wave of COVID-19. It turned out that the closure of contact studies and social services in schools, including special schools, during the emergency had resulted in a sharp increase in the care burden being placed on the shoulders both of the parents of disabled children and the relatives of disabled adults in combination with difficulties in remaining in the labour market. Great difficulties were also experienced in terms of accessing scheduled treatment. As a result of the recommendations in the EPIKoda study, the government made a number of changes to restrictions in the second wave of COVID-19 for those people who had disabilities, such as the opening of social welfare institutions and the continuation of contact studies for children with special educational needs. The translation of Estonian sign language was provided during government press conferences; in the autumn of 2020, subtitles were added to the Health Board’s press conferences.
A study which was published in 2021 mapped out the activity limitations and care needs of the adult population. It emerged that increased funding for long-term care was needed to improve access to services, and that services to support living at home should be further developed by increasing their capacity. In order to equalise options in relation to receiving assistance across Estonia, common standards must be developed for benefits and services.
The Praxis think tank completed a study regarding needs assessment in terms of providing support services for adults with special needs, and the National Audit Office completed an audit of the availability of educational support services, according to which almost a third of those children who are in need of support in kindergarten and a quarter of young people who are in need of support in basic school, who number more than 8,400 in total, have to cope with significantly less than the necessary levels of assistance, or have to obtain it elsewhere, or remain completely without assistance.
Promises and good practice
The Consumer Protection and Technical Surveillance Authority has successfully launched the monitoring of building accessibility, which raises awareness in designers, builders, and building managers in regards to accessibility. Riigi Kinnisvara AS (RKAS) has promoted its competence in the field of accessibility to such an extent that it is taking on the role of a leader in terms of accessible space creation in the public sector. An excellent example of accessibility is the RKAS Tartu state building. In 2020, following a thorough refurbishment, the Fat Margaret Maritime Museum was reopened. The building and exposition here have been designed in cooperation with the EPIKoda to ensure they are fully accessible to visitors with mobility, visual, and hearing impairments. Thanks to the new smart application, ‘MovieReading’, visually impaired people can enjoy new Estonian films in the cinema.
On 3 December 2020, the ‘International Day of Persons with Disabilities’, the EPIKoda published the COVID-19 crisis-inspired social short film campaign, ‘Healthy life in an emergency’, which looked at life changes which have been imposed by the epidemic from the perspective of people who have disabilities and also on behalf of the chronically ill.
Under the leadership of the Pärnu County Public Transport Centre, the public and social transport service in Pärnu County was combined in 2018-2021. The cross-county organisation of social transport services has significantly improved the accessibility of the service for people with disabilities.
In the run-up to the 2021 local elections, the National Electoral Committee took a welcome step to ensure the accessibility of the elections. For example, the requirements, instructions, and checklists for subcommittees have been published on valimised.ee, and information which was important to the voter has also been published in Estonian sign language.
Major public debates
The public debate in the years 2020 and 2021 bore the stamp of COVID-19. The focus was on the quality of care in care facilities, the legitimacy of and equal treatment in the implementation of the COVID-19 restrictions, and access to vaccinations for people with disabilities, along with their carers. For example, it was found that the digital registry through which vaccinations can be accessed was not accessible to the visually impaired. The topic of public discussion has also included the misuse of parking cards for people with disabilities, which is especially relevant in Tallinn.,
Trends and outlook
The shortage of staff with the necessary training in general care and special care institutions has further been aggravated. Chronic labour shortages in the personal care field are the most dangerous future trend in terms of protecting the rights of people with disabilities. In addition to staff shortages in care homes, there are not enough people to support children with disabilities or to be personal helpers for disabled adults. People with disabilities are also concerned about the continuing uncertainty about the future division of social welfare responsibilities between the state and local government authority levels. The law obliges local government authorities to assess the need for assistance and to provide the necessary assistance but, in practice, the chances of receiving assistance depend upon where the person in need actually lives – in effect, a postcode lottery – along with the financial resources which are available to that particular rural municipality or city authority, along with many other political priorities potentially getting in the way.
In 2020, a parent applied to the EPIKoda with a child who had reduced mobility issues who could not study at the state gymnasium nearest to their home, although their study results and good results in the entrance examination would have made it possible. The negative decision they had received was based on the fact that, during the admission interview, the student was not able to describe other options which may be open to them in case they were not in fact selected for the only gymnasium which they could attend in a fully independent basis. The solution was sought under the leadership of the EPIKoda, and with the participation of officials from the Ministry of Education and Research, while the Commissioner for Equality and the adviser to the Chancellor of Justice were also involved in the case. The commissioner issued an opinion on the case, finding that the school had discriminated against a child with reduced mobility issues. The child was able to study only after a story had appeared in the press, followed by the intervention of the Minister of Education.
- Amend the law on equal treatment so that people with disabilities are protected from discrimination in all areas of society.
- Ensure needs-based social protection across Estonia for people who have disabilities by implementing a common methodology for assessing the need for assistance, and apply state supervision over local government authorities in accordance with the ‘Social Welfare Act’.
- Consider withdrawing the declaration which has been provided in Article 12 of the UNCRPD, and moving from substituted decision-making to supported decision-making.
- Ensure the implementation of the recommendations in the final report from the ‘Accessibility Task Force’.
- Provide qualified personnel for the provision of personal care services.
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