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Brief to the Standing Committee on Finance

Date: 
Saturday, August 1, 2009

The Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians / L'Alliance pour l'égalité des personnes aveugles du Canada (AEBC) is a national, not for profit organization whose work focuses primarily on improving public attitudes and providing input on public policy issues that affect members of our community. For background on the AEBC and our work, visit our website: http://www.blindcanadians.ca.

The United Nations declared 1981, the International Year of Disabled Persons. It did so under the forward-looking theme of full participation and equality. 1981 was some 18 years ago. Since then, Canada has enacted the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which guarantees equal protection under the law and the equal benefit of the law.

Canadians with a disability, including Canadians who are blind, deaf-blind and partially sighted, have made considerable progress when it comes to the equal protection of the law. Unfortunately, to date we are still a long way from achieving either the goal of the international year or the promise of the charter – namely, the equal benefit of the law.

Today, persons with disabilities are among the most unemployed in this country, remain among the poorest of the poor in this prosperous land, and are among the most chronically marginalized in Canada. We submit that this ongoing situation, this ongoing plight, is a national disgrace!

What do we need to redress these chronic and ongoing problems?

We need a national economic strategy, not just a national employment strategy, that will address three major areas:

  1. Unemployment
  2. Poverty, and
  3. Access and Inclusion.

Instead of looking at things in the typical way government does, a piecemeal approach, we are calling for a holistic broad-brush approach that will deal effectively with the inter-relationship among a variety of barriers and issues.

Where does it start?

It starts with the main tenet that has been missing forever in this country: national political will. Thus, we call upon the Prime Minister to lead in the development of a new approach, by calling together leaders from business, labour, and citizen organizations like the Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians, the Council of Canadians with Disabilities, the Disabled Women's Network, etc., to forge a new partnership.

1. Reducing Unemployment

That partnership needs to look at employment. It should start by making the federal public service the model employer that we want it to be.

In the last year or so there was a new commitment to hiring visible minorities in the federal public service. The AEBC supports this kind of initiative, and believes a similar, dedicated, energetic strategy needs to be put into place to increase the representation of persons with disabilities. Similar initiatives need to be introduced in all provinces and territories across the country and among all other employers, in both the private and public sectors.

2. Reducing Poverty

In the area of income, the disabled community's plight and level of poverty is well known and well documented. Report upon report has come out year after year. As you know, Ontario is one of the provinces that has embarked upon a poverty reduction strategy. We'll see what happens.

One of these reports has made a very interesting and perhaps startling revelation; that is, if you put $1,000 more into the pockets of poor people, it will make a significant difference in their health status. We know that our health care system is overburdened. We need to do everything we can to try to help with it. Putting more dollars in the pockets and purses of the chronically underemployed will not only improve their quality of life, it will also assist our overburdened health care system and contribute directly to improving the health of the poorest among us.

In the area of income, we hear about the disability tax credit. I'm retired. I'm a taxpayer. I benefit from that. It does help offset some of the costs of disability. But I think calling it a tax credit is a grand misnomer. People like me who work, benefit. People who are on social assistance, who I must say need it even more than I do, do not also benefit. That's not a credit; it's a deduction. If the Government of Canada means it to be a deduction, then call it a deduction. The AEBC is among those organizations that believes that the tax credit should become a true refundable tax credit.

3. Promoting Access and Inclusion

Much of the work our organization does focuses on trying to remove old barriers and prevent the introduction of new ones. Believe it or not, in 2009 a growing amount of our work involves trying to prevent the introduction of new barriers. The area of technology provides a good example. A lot of technology is not developed with the notion of universal design in mind; thus either it is unusable by us or it requires expensive additional technology. To make a cellphone ‘talk’ its options, for example, we are required to buy extra adaptive technology.

Sighted Canadians can go to a store and buy a microwave, or travel on Air Canada and enjoy its onboard entertainment system. By contrast, blind Canadians are being presented with more and more touch screens that have no buttons that we cannot use. Is it any wonder that we call this discrimination?

In Canada, we have the opportunity to move from province to province. That is enshrined in the charter itself. It's called mobility rights. We, too, have the right to move across country. But if you look at the disparity that exists province to province, this is what we find. Laurie Beachell, the national coordinator of the Council of Canadians with Disabilities says that if you are disabled, if you need home care, you'd better live in Manitoba; if you want technical aids, you'd better live in Ontario; and so on and so forth. What he means by this is that there are tremendous disparities in services available in different provinces and territories.

For example, in the area of funding for the purchase of necessary technical aids, as an Ontarian, I have the opportunity to access Ontario's assistive devices program, but if I should leave Ontario and move just one mile across the border into Manitoba, I would lose this entitlement. The Province of Manitoba has no similar program at this time.

We live in what is supposedly one country. Why do we not have similar entitlements in all provinces and territories? We need a national strategy with national standards.

The last budget included significant funding to improve Canada's infrastructure. To what extent does that program include money designated to help remove some of the barriers that affect persons with disabilities?

Some of the money is going to colleges and universities, and that's a good idea. Some colleges and universities need significant retrofit to make their buildings more accessible.

To what extent is it intended that some of this money be used for that? Similarly, in the area of public transit, many transit systems need to be made more accessible, including installing onboard GPS systems to call out stops. Can some of this funding be used for those purposes?

In conclusion, we're calling for a national Economic Strategy that will begin with political will, that will increase labour market participation, that will help fight poverty, that will help remove barriers to technology, and that will make use of some of the infrastructure money to assist persons with disabilities through improved access to our communities.

Over the past two years, governments at all levels are finding funds to bail out corporations. Isn't it time that some more money be found to help bail out those individual Canadians who are most in need of assistance?

RECOMMENDATIONS

  1. That the Government of Canada embark on a National Economic Strategy for Canadians with a disability that will develop a comprehensive strategy in the areas of employment, fighting poverty and improved access to Canada's infrastructure, with appropriate national standards;

  2. That the Prime Minister convene leaders from the provinces and territories, business, labour, and community organizations of persons with disabilities, to forge a new strategy and program to reduce the chronic level of unemployment and poverty that remains the lived reality of far too many Canadians with a disability; and

  3. That all new and existing government programs be reviewed on a regular basis to ensure they assist in removing existing barriers to that elusive goal of "full participation and equality," and to ensure no new barriers are put in their place.

Thank you for your consideration.

John Rae, First Vice-President
AEBC

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