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Accommodating Persons with Disabilities in Prison

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

A Paper Submitted to Ontario's Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services


Persons with Disabilities are among the most vulnerable individuals in our society, yet you will find us in all levels of the community. Some of us are street people, some of us are on social assistance and must subsist in extreme poverty, and too many of us are victims of abuse. Some of us work for minimum wage jobs, while some of us have good incomes and own property; and some members of our community run businesses, and the list goes on.

At times, some of us find ourselves being stopped by authorities and questioned, arrested, and even incarcerated for varying lengths of time. In this process what are our rights and how are these rights explained to us? Who has the responsibility to ensure that persons with disabilities are treated with respect as we try to cooperate? How do authorities remain professional and maintain their integrity while showing respect for those of us that are in a more vulnerable position then most of the persons authorities usually encounter?

This is a cross disability issue that requires a cross disability solution.

Let's begin with three stories.

1. Police Abuse

At hearings into police violence conducted by the National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) in Toronto on November 12, 2010, many individuals told horrific stories.

John Pruyn, a Revenue Canada employee from Thorold, Ont., was in Toronto on June 26 with his wife and daughter to participate in the peaceful Canadian Labour Congress march and rally when he was told to “move” by police. Pruyn, who only has one leg, says he was unable to stand up fast enough to avoid arrest. Pruyn says he was struck, jailed, had his canes knocked away, and had his prosthetic leg torn off, labelled a “weapon” and not returned until he was released 27 hours later.

Simon Wilson and Colin O'Connor of the National Post reported July 6, 2010,

In the early evening, Mr. Pruyn and his 24-year-old daughter, Sarah, were sitting on the lawn of the provincial legislature — the so-called “designated speech area” — waiting to meet Mr. Pruyn’s wife, Susan, from whom the pair had become separated during the afternoon march.

At the same time, a line of police began advancing on the crowd of protesters, the majority of whom, according to Mr. Pruyn were simply relaxing on the grass. “The police came up to us and said, ‘Move!’ so I tried to get up,” said Mr. Pruyn, who lost his left leg above the knee 17 years ago in a farming accident.

“I fell back down and my daughter yelled out, ‘Give him time. He’s an amputee.’ I guess the police thought I was taking too long ... then all of a sudden the police were on top of me.” Mr. Pruyn claims his head was kept on the ground by an officer digging a knee into his left temple while other officers yanked at his arms.

“One of them was yelling, ‘You’re resisting arrest,’ but I wasn’t resisting anything. I couldn’t move.” He says police then ordered him to start walking, but when he informed them that he couldn’t get up because his hands were cuffed behind his back, an officer grabbed his prosthetic leg and “yanked it right off.”

“Then he said, ‘Hop!’ but I told them I couldn’t because it hurts for me to hop on my right leg,” Mr. Pruyn recalled. “Then the cop said, ‘OK, you asked for it’ and two officers grabbed me under my armpits and dragged me away from Queen’s Park towards the police vans.”

Mr. Pruyn says five Toronto police officers then arrived and carried him the rest of the way, threw him on the ground and allegedly “gave me kicks and little punches and saying I was resisting arrest and that I had a weapon.”

This account doesn't conform to our stereotypic view of the typical disabled Canadian does it? How often does this kind of incident take place? We will probably never know.

2. System Failing Persons Who Are Mentally Ill

An article entitled, "Mentally Ill Offenders Swamping Prisons," by Kirk Makin in the Globe and Mail, Nov. 18, 2010 reports:

The Ontario Review Board – a provincial body responsible for offenders found not criminally responsible for committing offences – had more than 1,500 patients under its purview last year, a four-fold increase from 1992. Almost 300 offenders are added annually, dwarfing the numbers who are released.

The outlook is equally grim in the prison system. “Since 2004, the total number of mentally disordered inmates in Ontario jails increased by 5.7 per cent,” said Steve Small, Assistant Deputy \Minister of Community Safety and Correctional Services. “I have been around for 30 years, and it just keeps getting worse and worse and worse,” Mr. Small added.

Just over 18 per cent of the 8,948 inmates behind bars in the province last June had a psychiatric disorder. Of the 575 female offenders, 31 per cent were mentally ill. “I am just astounded by the number of female offenders who are coming in with mental problems,” Mr. Small said. He added that it is difficult to envision much improvement given the number of mentally ill street people who commit crimes just to survive and who are often unaware they are breaking the law.

The federal penitentiary system is no better off. “They are really struggling,” Dr. Bradford said. “Despite everything we have done in the forensic system and health system, growth continues at a rate of 5 to 10 per cent a year.” “Factors behind the phenomenon include new Canadians who suffer mental collapses as they try to cope with relocating, faulty mental health legislation, and police who lay charges rather than wait for a hospital to find a forensic bed,” Dr. Bradford said.

Given this and other reports of the numbers of psychiatric survivors in prison, some are asking if the prison system is becoming the newest place to institutionalize some members of our community.

3. Determining If It Is Really a Police Officer

An encounter with police often begins with loud knocks on your door and a loud gruff voice saying, "Police, open up, police, open up in there!"

As a blind person what should I do? How can I determine if the person at my door is really a police officer or someone impersonating an officer attempting to enter my residence with the goal of robbing or molesting me?

If the person has partial sight and a peep hole in their door, they may be able to see if the person at the door is who he/she claims to be and can then proceed accordingly. Some of us will ask the person at our door to tell us their name, badge number and phone number of their station, ask for a minute or two and make a call to confirm the individual is indeed who he/she claims to be.


  1. What statistics does the Ministry have on the number of persons with various disabilities currently in prison, and is there any breakdown available by disability group?
  2. Does the level of accessibility play any role in the length of sentence a person with a disability might receive?
  3. Has any audit been conducted of existing prisons regarding their level of accessibility for persons with various disabilities and, if so, is a report publicly available? If no comprehensive review has been conducted, is one being planned?
  4. If held in jail to await a bail hearing, pending a trial, or to serve time, there are likely to be a number of issues that will arise, including:
    (a) Will an intervener be provided to a person who is deaf-blind?
    (b) If the individual requires medication, e.g. insulin or psychiatric meds, will they have access to needed medication?
    (c) Will persons with a disability be given equal access to prison services?
    (d) What training do the prisons provide its staff regarding inmates with vision and other disabilities?
    (e) What measures will be taken to promote the independence of an inmate who is blind, and also ensure his/her safety, as we know prison can be a rough place in which to live.
    (f) Will a person who is blind and uses a white cane or guide dog to navigate safely around their surroundings be allowed to keep and use the cane or dog while incarcerated, and if not, what steps will the facility take to enable the individual to get around his or her new surroundings independently and safely?
    (g) Can an inmate who is blind receive letters, educational materials or other items in alternative formats like braille, or in recorded formats?
    (h) If the individual wishes to upgrade his or her education, will the facility provide needed materials in alternative formats?
    (i) Will the individual be assisted to conduct research, either to further his or her educational program or in preparation for their trial?
    (j) If technology (like computers) is provided, will it be accessible to inmates who are blind or have significant vision loss?
    (k) Will the facility provide employment/retraining opportunities to an inmate who has a disability, including an inmate who is blind?
    (l) When time for parole approaches, what assistance will be provided to help the individual to reintegrate into the community upon release? Will the individual receive any help to find a job in the community?


The issues raised in this paper require research and response by the Ministry. The AEBC commends the Ministry for convening today's Round Table, and we hope it will leave Ministry staff with an increased understanding of issues facing persons with various disabilities and areas requiring research and consultation. The AEBC looks forward to participating in future discussions with your ministry.


Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. (Part I of the Constitution Act, 1982). Sections 7, 15

Eames, Ed and Toni. “Advocating for Willie.” The Braille Monitor, October 2002

Government of Ontario. Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, 2005. S.O. 2005, Chapter 11.

Makin, Kirk. "Mentally Ill Offenders Swamping Prisons." Globe and Mail. Nov. 18, 2010. <>.

NUPGE. "Police Tore Artificial Leg off Protester at G20 Summit." Nov. 12, 2010.

Ontario Human Rights Code. R.S.O. 1990, c. H.19, Sections 2, 7 (3), and 17 (2).

United Nations. Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities. Sections 13, 14 and 17.

Wilson, Simon and Colin O'Connor. "Canada G20 Police ‘Yanked’ Off Prosthetic Leg: Amputee." National Post, Jul 6, 2010.


Who is the AEBC?

Founded in 1992, the Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians / L'Alliance pour l'égalité des personnes aveugles du Canada (AEBC) is a national organization of rights holders who are blind, deaf-blind, and partially sighted. The bulk of our work focuses on public awareness to improve public attitudes and offer input on public policy issues of direct concern to our community.

What Are Some of the AEBC's Priorities?

Much of the work of rights holder organizations like the AEBC involves working to remove old barriers, such as in the areas of education, employment, transportation, access to information, fighting poverty, voting independently and in secret, and numerous others. We also spend a considerable percentage of our time attempting to improve public attitudes, which many consider the greatest impediment we face in our elusive goal of gaining full participation and equality, which was the slogan used way back during the International Year of the Disabled Person (IYDP) in 1981.

Today, however, we are forced to spend almost as much of our work on maintaining the gains that have been won, and trying to prevent the introduction of new barriers.

For example, more and more financial transactions in stores or restaurants are carried out through flat screen, point of sale devices that prevent us from knowing what sum will be charged to our credit card or debited from our bank account.

Some employers purchase technology that is unusable by persons who are blind or deaf-blind.

While braille is easier to produce than ever before, many assume technology has rendered it almost obsolete, yet it remains the route to true literacy for a person who is blind or deaf-blind.

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