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Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities considers the initial report of Belgium

19 September 2014

The Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities today completed its consideration of the initial report of Belgium on its implementation of the provisions of the Conventions on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Presenting the report, Mr. Bertrand de Crombrugghe, Ambassador of the Permanent Mission of Belgium to the United Nations Office at Geneva, said Belgium’s initial report was a result of a close collaboration between various stakeholders. He highlighted that the Belgian delegation reflected the structure of the State by including representatives of all parts of Government charged with the protection of the rights of persons with disabilities.

Ms. Greet van Gool, Strategic Support Branch of the Federal Public Service of Social Affairs of Belgium, outlined strategies and laws that Belgium had introduced at all levels of Government such as the “handistreaming” initiative which ensured that the disability perspective was taken into account in political domains and at all levels of government. In Flanders, the protection of the rights of persons with disabilities was ensured through the Open Method of Cooperation, while in Wallonia it was promoted through a multi-sectoral approach. In the Region of Brussels, insurances for the rights of persons with disabilities were made through a strategy based on an inclusive approach, and through reinforcement of the anti-discrimination legislation. The German community had also introduced a plan of action. The full application of the “handistreaming” strategy depended on the provision of sufficient funding, as well as on the development of sensibility and expertise on disability of key actors in different political domains.

In the ensuing discussion, Committee Experts asked how disability was defined, and raised concerns about the high number of incarcerated persons with disabilities as well as the lack of inclusive education for children with disabilities. The delegation was asked about funding for independent community-based living for people with disabilities, about the new law on legal capacity and whether Belgium would consider a transition from a medical approach to disability to a social and human rights approach. Experts also raised concerns about the possibility that legal euthanasia could be misused to kill off persons with intellectual disabilities.

In his concluding remarks, Mr. Crombrugghe thanked the Committee for its thorough analysis of Belgium’s initial report, and constructive feedback. He stressed that much work needed to be done in Belgium to include persons with disabilities in every aspect of life and said great efforts would be made to take the Committee’s concerns and recommendations into consideration.

The delegation of Belgium consisted of representatives from the Permanent Mission of Belgium to the United Nations Office at Geneva, the federal Government, federal entities (Flanders, Wallonia and the Region of Brussels), the language communities (Flemish, French and German), and a member of the European Commission.

The Committee will next meet in public on Monday 22 September at 3 p.m. to review the initial report of Ecuador (CRPD/C/ECU/1).

Report

The initial report of Belgium (CRPD/C/BEL/1).

Presentation of the Report by the Delegation

Presenting the report of Belgium BERTRAND DE CROMBRUGGHE, Permanent Representative of the Mission of Belgium to the United Nations Office at Geneva, said the initial report was a result of a close collaboration between various stakeholders, and highlighted that the Belgian delegation reflected the structure of the State by including representatives of all parts of Government charged with the protection of the rights of persons with disabilities. He stressed the importance Belgium attached to the promotion and protection of human rights by ensuring that the country would continue to follow up on its voluntary commitment to cooperate fully with the various treaty bodies, including this Committee.

GREET VAN GOOL, Strategic Support Branch of the Federal Public Service of Social Affairs of Belgium, said that Belgium had always accorded great importance to the rights of persons with disabilities and was proud of its role in the adoption of the Convention by the European Union. In order to implement the Convention Belgium created a strategy of “handistreaming” which provided that the disability dimension had to be included in all policies and at all level of power, with as little delay as possible. At the federal level, contact persons were designated in all administrations, Ministries and State Secretariats. Those persons had to ensure that the disability perspective was integrated in all federal policies, in all domains of their competence, notably employment and access to buildings. Civil society was equally included in that process, and relevant reports were presented to the federal government every six months.

Ms. Van Gool outlined strategies and laws introduced in the regions of Belgium at all levels of Government. In Flanders, the protection of the rights of persons with disabilities was ensured through the Open Method of Cooperation, while in Wallonia it was promoted through a multi-sectoral approach, she said. In the German community, a plan of action was introduced in May 2014 to put in place a mid-term strategy that would involve all the institutions and services for persons with disabilities, their associations, and authorities. In the region of Brussels, insurances for the rights of persons with disabilities were made through a strategy based on an inclusive approach, and through reinforcement of the anti-discrimination legislation.

Due to the federal system of the Belgian State, contact points were put in place at each level of Government, while the Federal Public Service was designated as mechanism of coordination. In that way a permanent structure was set up to coordinate the cross-cutting issues of the Convention. The coordination mechanism also allowed for the exchange of information, good practice and development of community actions. At the same time, there was also an Inter-ministerial Conference, comprising members of the federal government and regional governments. It was the section for persons with disabilities of the Inter-ministerial Conference on the Wellbeing, Sports and Family that designed the independent mechanism – the Interfederal Centre for the Equality of Opportunities.

Belgium placed great importance on cooperation with civil society, Ms. Van Gool said, noting that implementation of the Convention required constant dialogue with organizations that represented persons with disabilities. Ms. Van Gool thanked representatives of the independent mechanism and civil society for providing alternative reports.

Ms. Van Gool stressed that the principle of legal capacity was one of the key elements in ensuring the equality of persons with disabilities. To that end on 1 September 2014 Belgium introduced a new law which reformed the principles of legal incapacity and promoted the principle of autonomy of persons with mental disabilities, paying attention to the specific situation of each person. The principle of greater autonomy was also introduced in the areas of education and support for persons with disabilities. In Flanders, for example, a new system of support was being elaborated so the type of support was decided by persons with disabilities themselves. In Wallonia it was proposed that institutional residencies be transformed into supervised homes. Such a solution would allow persons with disabilities to live independently under supervision of a regular daily service. The transformation of services from “special” to “inclusive” could also be observed in education, such as the provision of reasonable accommodation, identification of special needs of students and identification of barriers in educational environment in Flanders. In the French-speaking community there was an increase in the inclusion of students with disabilities into mainstream schools.

Nevertheless, the strategy of “handistreaming” was far from being fully implemented. Its full application depended on the provision of sufficient funding, as well as on the development of sensibility and expertise on disability of key actors in different political domains.

Questions by the Experts

LOFTI BEN LALLAHOM, Committee Expert Acting as Country Rapporteur for the report of Belgium, presented his findings on the implementation of the Convention in Belgium, which relied on different sources of information, including Government reports, alternative reports from non-governmental organizations, and those of international organizations. Mr. Lallahom noted that there was a strong discrepancy between legislation and actual implementation and highlighted the lack of specific legislation for persons with disabilities, and the lack of a global plan for the implementation of the Convention. In addition, it seemed that non-governmental organizations were not sufficiently involved in relevant decision making. Appropriate consultative bodies were missing in all the regions.

Mr. Lallahom underlined that there was no clear definition of disability in Belgium, and regulations often reflected a medical model of disability rather than one based on the human rights approach. For each new request for services, persons with disabilities had to submit new medical examinations. The provisions for accessibility were also problematic, such as poor implementation of regional accessibility regulations, lack of access to public transportation and lack of a plan for physical accessibility of buildings and pavements. The Government’s measures were mainly focused on ensuring accessibility for persons with physical disabilities, whereas persons with intellectual, audio and visual disabilities were neglected.

Mr. Lallahom drew attention to the high number of incarcerated persons with disabilities in Belgium: 10 per cent of the incarcerated population had mental or intellectual disabilities and lived in inhuman conditions in prisons. The system of incarceration should be radically reviewed in collaboration with relevant stakeholders.

The issue of insufficient funding for independent living of persons with disabilities in communities, as well as long waiting lists for residential homes in all the regions in Belgium was also raised. Belgium was one of European countries with the highest percentage of institutionalized children with disabilities. Belgian inclusive education was not guaranteed and its implementation was slow. Students with disabilities were still refused entrance to elementary schools. Other problematic issues included the low number of persons with disabilities employed in the public sector, the absence of employment quotas in the private sector, the lack of relevant statistics on persons with disabilities and insufficient social and poverty protection.

Other Experts took the floor, asking questions including on the rights of children with mental disabilities and the support that was provided to them; were they empowered to express their views freely and fully?

The Committee identified euthanasia as a very problematic area of disability rights. Since services for persons with disabilities in Belgium were highly institutionalized, it would appear that euthanasia could be misused to kill off persons with intellectual disabilities. Experts asked for an elaboration on legal safeguards that would prevent the misuse of euthanasia. The Committee asked for elaboration on the legal measures to protect the rights of institutionalized persons with mental disabilities, and on the action plan to fight domestic violence, which still did not include disability perspective.

The Committee identified another problematic area of disability rights. Due to different interpretations of the concept of disability in Belgian regions, uniform application of the Convention standards did not appear possible. Other experts enquired about the effect that the autonomy of different regions in the country on the extension of reasonable accommodation support services provided to persons with disabilities. An Expert observed that Belgian employment legislation could be improved through an introduction of affirmative action provisions.

An Expert enquired about the monitoring of fertility control treatments of institutionalized women and girls with disabilities, and about mechanisms that prevented violence and sexual abuse of women and girls with disabilities. She observed that punishment and mistreatment of girls and boys with intellectual disabilities still took place, in spite of legal provisions to prevent it. Concern was also voiced about corporal punishment of children with disabilities, and the placement of child offenders with mental disabilities in psychiatric institutions, which was contrary to the Convention.

The Committee also asked for elaboration on how complaints about the provision of reasonable accommodation were handled, and what support was available to affected persons.

There was a lack of inclusive schools, said an Expert, also asking general questions about accessibility, such as physical accessibility of city transport and pavements, and about website and communication materials. Some experts said Brussels was one of the most inaccessible cities in the world for persons with disabilities.

Experts also raised the issue of insufficient representation of organizations of persons with disabilities in the legal, judicial and decision making areas of society. They also said the transition from a medical model of disability to a social and human rights model was not taking place in Belgium.

Responses by the Delegation

BERTRAND DE CROMBRUGGHE, Permanent Representative of the Mission of Belgium to the United Nations Office at Geneva, asked the Committee Experts to be more prudent when questioning the structure of the Belgian State. He stressed that the federal structure was decided by Belgian citizens, which resulted in objective reasons for different ways of implementation of the Convention in different regions. In that respect Belgium was no different from any other country.

Speaking of the lack of a uniform definition of disability in Belgium, Ms. Van Gool noted that the Convention itself did not have one. In order to obtain certain rights, different contexts had to be considered which resulted in various disability definitions. As for the lack of statistics on disability, she said it was difficult to gather full-scale statistics. Nevertheless, inter-regional cooperation was in place to provide relevant statistics, as well as the level of the European Union. Ms. Van Gool also clarified that the Belgian law had very strict euthanasia regulations, and that the country used international standards on web accessibility.

The Law on Euthanasia established the possibility for every person to decide to terminate their life, said a delegate. Euthanasia could only be decided by the patient who had legal capacity and a doctor had to ensure that decision was voluntary.

A delegate described the new law on the legal capacity of persons with disabilities. The delegate also outlined existing measures to encourage affirmative actions in employment for persons with disabilities. Regarding domestic violence, she explained that National Action Plan 2010-2014 contained provisions for the prevention of domestic and inter-family violence.

Corporal punishment was not a specific crime in Belgium, but many laws were indirectly applicable. The mistreatment of children was in the jurisdiction of communities, while the statistics on discrimination based on disability were available. In addition, children with disabilities had a guaranteed right to speak in front of court.

A delegate representing the Region of Brussels acknowledged accessibility problems in Brussels. He said there was a plan to introduce accessibility in all of the city area by the end of 2018, including the good use of public transport, messages over loudspeakers, tactile signs, and bus lines for wheelchair users. There would be constant improvement in access for persons with reduced mobility.

A delegate representing the Region of Flanders, said that Flanders was establishing an agency to centralize all the know-how in the field of disability, including the users of disability services, to provide for the labelling of accessible spaces, events, touristic structures, and public transport to make it fully accessible in the coming years. He added that architects would be stimulated to design accessible buildings.

The participation of persons with disabilities in Flanders would be ensured through an advisory board. The regional government previously did involve relevant organizations in policy development through the Flemish Agency for Persons with Disabilities, which it regularly consulted about labour provisions. The delegate also spoke about local points for monitoring of discrimination in Flanders, and said annual discrimination reports were available. He also added that relevant statistics on disability employment and social care also existed.

A delegate representing the Walloon region said it had a specific body ensuring accessibility for persons with disabilities, and that the regional government ensured that all websites were accessible to everyone. Since 2003 the Government made the majority of websites accessible. In Wallonia the involvement of civil society was enacted through 13 regional consultation bodies, he said. In addition, 253 communes had contact persons who provided all manner of relevant information to persons with disabilities.

Responding to Committee’s concern about the lack of sufficient participation of civil society in decision making, Ms. Van Gool said that regular meetings were held at the federal level to discuss various issues, adding that the federal Government actively sought participation of civil society.

Another delegate spoke about measures taken in the German speaking community of Belgium to ensure the participation of civil association of persons with disabilities through a consultation forum. He expressed hope that the forum would be formally recognized.

Questions by the Experts

An Expert explained to the delegation that the Committee did not intend to question the structure of the Belgian State, explaining that it had a mandate to look closely at the implementation of the Convention, and wanted to ensure the discussion continued on the best of terms.

An Expert asked about national emergency responses and the progress of the SMS crisis alert programme for deaf people which was initiated in 2011. He also raised the issue of long waiting lists for personal assistance services, as well as available resources for allowing persons with disabilities to pursue community activities.

Experts noted that the new law on legal capacity seemed a step forward, but that civil society complained about the lack of budget to implement supported decision making. They further enquired about the difference in funding for institutionalized services and independent living services.

Another question concerned the status of a person who could not understand facts of the trial during criminal proceedings, as well as the conditions in prisons for convicted persons with disabilities. An Expert drew attention to the case of French citizens with disabilities who received funding from the French Government to build institutionalized accommodation in Belgium.

Experts observed that the Belgian law that prohibited sterilization of women was not effective, and that substitutive decision-making rather than supported decision-making seemed to be dominant.


Responses by the Delegation

To ensure the application of the “handistreaming” initiative across the board an information brochure had been distributed at all levels of Government, said a delegate. Concerning emergency risk information, she said that two kinds of emergency intervention were exercised in Belgium: individual emergencies and common emergencies. Warnings were communicated to citizens through text messages upon subscription and were also available to persons with disabilities.

Responding the Committee’s questions regarding awareness raising campaigns about the rights of persons with disabilities, a delegate explained that in Flanders many such campaigns were conducted in the media. For example, there was a campaign on higher education possibilities for persons with disabilities. The goal of the campaigns in Flanders was to stress persons’ abilities rather than disabilities. In the German speaking community, such campaigns were organized in cooperation with civil society. In the Region of Brussels two awareness raising campaigns were taking place: one on the inclusion of persons with disabilities in the labour market, and another on equal opportunities, which were organized annually by the Brussels Centre for Equal Opportunities.

Speaking about the new law on legal capacity, the delegation said there was no distinction between persons with mental disabilities and those with physical disabilities. The new law of 17 March 2013 reformed the regimes of legal incapacity, but it had just entered into force so it was too early to assess it. It upheld the principle of autonomy for persons with disabilities, except in cases when the judge would rule them legally incapable. As for the provision for assisted decision making, the law provided that either administrators or family members act on behalf of the person.

Responding to Committee’s many questions on the possibility of the misuse of euthanasia to kill of persons with disabilities, the delegation assured the Committee that under Belgian law euthanasia was not exercised on patients with disabilities. Euthanasia could be practiced only on certain patients, but even then it was regulated very strictly. Additional guarantees were in place for the practice of euthanasia on children.

Speaking of the difference in reasonable accommodation standards across Belgian regions, the delegation said they were almost identical. In case of divergences, they could be corrected through court rulings. Special provisions were made to meet the needs of incarcerated persons with disabilities, such as additional space for wheelchair users and blind persons. Special training was also provided to prison staff, and all prisons had medical services and hospitals.

As for the institutionalization of persons with disabilities, a reform of the mental health system was under way, in order to provide care and assistance to a broader range of persons with disabilities. Those who had less serious psychiatric disabilities were encouraged to live in the community. The social protection law of 1964 would be abolished and replaced by the one May 2014, which promoted the principle of independent life for persons with disabilities.

A helpline for youth was introduced in 2005 which was also available for youth with disabilities as part of abuse-prevention efforts. The helpline put young people in touch with counsellors and operated throughout the French-speaking part of Belgium.

Reproductive rights, sterilization and child care were covered by several laws. The National Medical Council ruled several times that the sterilization of persons with disabilities was inadmissible, and any such decision had to be taken by at least three medical professionals. Laws were also very strict on any involuntary medical treatment.

Responding to Experts’ questions about independent living and inclusion of persons with disabilities in the community, a delegate explained that in Flanders until recently policy measures focused on creating additional places in institutional housing. However, a new system placed more importance on personal needs and choices of persons with disabilities. A personal assistance budget was installed, but gaps still existed due to the waiting lists for person-linked financing. In the period between 2010 and 2014, almost €47 million (Euros) was set aside to create additional places in institutions, while €29 million (Euros) was invested in the extension of person-linked financing. Persons with disabilities in residential care housing had to be consulted on possibilities of activities outside their housing.

In Wallonia, there was criticism about the lack of flexibility in the provision of personalized assistance in institutional housing. In order to improve personalized services, the Walloon Agency for the Persons with Disabilities was trying to improve dialogue with professionals and beneficiaries. In the German speaking community, an individualized approach was preferred regarding housing options for persons with disabilities.

Since 2014 there had been many programmes on the hosting of some 7,500 French children with disabilities in institutionalized housing in Wallonia, due to the lack of places in France. An agreement was established with France in 2011 to regulate services provided to them, with authorization of the Walloon government, clarified a delegate.

Questions by Experts

An Expert observed that the delegation’s responses reflected that the medical model of disability was still dominant in Belgium, and urged that a transition to a social and human rights approach to disability be adopted. He observed that in Belgium it seemed that psychiatrists had replaced judges in taking care and making decision for persons with disabilities in institutionalized setting. An Expert asked about measures for uniform provision of information services for persons with disabilities across the country, such as those in broadcasting.

The State party was urged to adopt the principle of inclusive education. An Expert enquired about the lack of resources for the inclusion of children with visual and audio impairments in mainstream schools. He observed that there was less funding for mainstream education of children with disabilities in Flanders, which could be seen as segregation. In some cases, when children with disabilities could not access education in mainstream schools, they were channeled into special schools.

An Expert asked about the issues of inclusion and exclusion rates of persons in disabilities in education, and support measures for pre-school children with disabilities.
Still on the subject of education, the Committee enquired about the funds available for reasonable accommodation for students with disabilities in mainstream education, the quality of educational output in specialized schools, and the inclusion of deaf students into mainstream schools was also raised.

Some Experts asked about the provisions provided to single mothers of children with disabilities who had to stop working in order to take care of their children, as well as about the rights of children to equal family life, particularly those children with parents with disabilities.

Experts also asked about the absence of disability as a cross-cutting issue in Belgium’s international cooperation, wondering whether the Government would include “handistreaming” into its international cooperation through the European Union. A question was also raised about how the Government ensured the quality and effectiveness of its international aid for persons with disabilities.

The delegation was also asked about research into the low employment rates for persons with disabilities and the lack of employment quotas for persons with disabilities in the private sector. The impact of the recent reform of unemployment allocations on persons with disabilities was also enquired about, along with the outcomes of training and employment programmes for persons with disabilities in Belgium.

Responses by the Delegation

On inclusive education, a delegate said that in Flanders that less than one quarter of students with disabilities attended mainstream schools and three quarters went to special schools. Indeed, less funding was provided for the inclusion of children with disabilities in mainstream schools. A new decree of March 2014 proposed a financial instrument to provide more funding for inclusion in mainstream schools. The delegation said that approximately €4 million (Euros) was spent on technical aid for children with disabilities in mainstream schools, such as audio and visual support.

In the French speaking community, a child could not be refused admission into a school on the basis of his or her disability, and inclusive education was actively promoted. It was not true that special education was used as a primary option for children with disabilities, to the detriment of inclusive education. Progress was still needed in the provision of training for teaching staff. A master’s programme in sign language interpretation would be starting in 2014.

In the German speaking community, the accessibility of infrastructure in schools was mandatory. The principle of inclusive education was applied to every school, but full inclusion had not yet been implemented. Approximately €1 million (Euros) would be spent to that end. Since 2009 the financial support for special needs in education had increased considerably each year. Parents enjoyed the right of choice of school, and could appeal decisions that violated that right. Visual and audio technical aid was also provided in schools.

Concerning the inclusion of disability perspective in the Sustainable Development Goals and the Post 2015 agenda, the delegation said that the Government would make sure that persons with disabilities were given special attention within that agenda.
Concerning the new law on unemployment, the delegation said those competences would be transferred to various regions following elections.

Concluding Remarks

BERTRAND DE CROMBRUGGHE, Permanent Representative of the Mission of Belgium to the United Nations Office at Geneva, in concluding remarks, thanked the Committee for having provided a thorough analysis and discussion of Belgium’s initial report, and welcomed constructive feedback. He stressed that much work needed to be done in Belgium to include persons with disabilities in every aspect of life. He underlined that huge efforts were made to consider the Committee’s concerns.

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