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Investing in inclusiveness is key to ensure that persons with support needs can receive services where they live

The Coronavirus outbreak presents a major challenge to national, regional and local communities but even more in remote and/or rural areas where people have relatively poor access to welfare services, education, employment, income and life chances. During EASPD’s webinar on 1st July, service providers in the disability field from Austria, Romania and Spain expressed their concerns on the consequences of the COVID-19 crisis on their support systems and called for inclusive investment in rural areas to face the post COVID-19 recovery.
EASPD’s webinar addressed the main challenges on support service provision in rural areas during the COVID-19 crisis. Due to the low availability of services and the shortage of staff in rural social services, persons with disabilities living in rural areas perceived this period as much more difficult than persons living in cities or large municipalities. Moving to online support was not an option in many cases, as the digital gap is clearly higher in rural areas: limited availability of high-speed broadband, digital illiteracy and poor IT equipment in households are common patterns in different European countries. But even in these circumstances, organisations did their best to adapt their services and continue providing support to those in need. Innovative practices did emerge and now there is a need to re-shape existing legal and funding frameworks to accommodate such practices.
Catuxa Pereira, from the Galician Confederation of Person with Disabilities (COGAMI, Spain) explained that the fluid relationship with the local authorities facilitated the needed ad hoc responses but now “we must work on developing a mixed model of care (face-to-face & online services) which maintains the quality of the service, also for people with high support needs.” Talking about the next Cohesion policy, she also stressed that “there are some tools like the possibility of combining different funds, but it is not always being picked up by national/regional authorities. We need to work closer together with authorities in making the most of the available EU funds.”
In Eastern Styria (Austria), service providers had to design their own responses at local level as those provided by the authorities were either missing or not fitting the realities of the local (rural)  communities. Joining forces with other social services providers has been fundamental in fighting against the COVID-19 crisis. Michael Longhino from Chance B stated that “in rural areas, local action groups are essential. Community-led local development (CLLD) is a powerful, participatory regional development tool that needs to be much more promoted and used by managing authorities in the next EU funds programming period.“
Diana Chiriacescu  from the Federation of Non-Governmental Organizations for Social Services (FONSS) in Romania  highlighted how the lack of capacity of rural authorities to mobilize rapid response services was compensated by NGOs gathering together in ad-hoc coalitions to deliver goods and services (including emergency services ) for all persons who could not access the usual services anymore. “New forms of cooperation were set up, but this is not enough; there is clearly a need of massive and urgent investment in rural social services, as well as in rehabilitation and care services, as close as possible to people’s homes. This has been reflected in the priorities for the next Cohesion Policy funds in Romania, but we need to make sure the social services sector has access to them.”
The webinar was also joined by representatives of the European Commission (EC). Orsolya Frizon-Somogyi, from DG Agriculture and Rural Development, acknowledged the innovation capacity and solidarity of people living in rural areas but also pointed out to the need of more appropriate territorial planning of services, fitting the needs of local communities and allowing for the  involvement of the local/rural population in decision making. “The Common Agricultural Policy can certainly contribute to this, as well as to the further development of social entreprises in rural areas.” But to be more effective we need more accurate data about persons with disabilities and support services in rural areas. “This is a key aspect for the good functioning of the new EU funding programmes and the EC will continue raising awareness on this.” Finally, the representative of the EC announced that in 2021 the EC will launch its first Long Term Vision for Rural Areas and invited organisations to participate in the public consultation that will be open soon.
EASPD President Jim Crowe concluded the webinar by encouraging all kind of local partners to engage and reach out to social services providers as “the best response is undoubtedly where partnering up locally and across sectors happen.  Services in rural areas must be a priority and we will continue working closer together to improve participatory approaches in local community development for social inclusion.” As this was the last webinar of the EASPD COVID-19 first webinar series, EASPD President also took the opportunity to thank all those that have joined EASPD activities in the last months and encouraged participants to stay tuned for new activities in the autumn.

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Note to editors

The European Association of Service providers for Persons with Disabilities is a non-profit European umbrella organization, established in 1996, and currently representing over 17,000 social and health services for persons with disabilities. EASPD advocates effective and high-quality disability-related services in the field of education, employment and individualised support, in line with the UN CRPD principles, which could bring benefits not only to persons with disabilities, but to society as a whole.

For more information please contact:

Rachel Vaughan
EASPD Communications Officer
+32 2 233  77 20