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Disability Rights-Are They Trade Union Issues?

Editor's Note: Editor's Note: Derek Fudge is the Canadian Labour Congress's Vice-President for Persons with Disabilities and the Chair of the CLC Disability Rights Working Group. He is employed as the National Director of Policy Development and Liaison with the National Union of Public and General Employees in Ottawa. Derek has had a long association with the disability rights movement and has been a strong advocate of strengthening the relationship between the labour movement and the disability rights movement.

Disability rights - Are they trade union issues? As a trade unionist and a disability rights activist for nearly a quarter of a century, the answer to this question is fairly obvious - disability rights need to be an integral part of the trade union movement's agenda, both here in Canada and internationally. Perhaps more appropriately, we should be asking why trade unionists should be working with disability rights activists to break down those societal barrie rs that have prevented many Canadians with disabilities from gaining equality and full participation in society?

The answer to this question relates to the fact that many union members and their families already have disabilities; all of us are subject to becoming disabled at some points in our lives! But besides this obvious reason, let's not forget that the labour movement has a longstanding history of supporting social justice and equality for all members of society. Support for the collective struggles of persons striving to gain greater control of their lives has always been a cornerstone of our movement.

It is for this reason that the labour movement, under the leadership of the Canadian Labour Congress and its affiliated unions across Canada, has stepped up its work on disability rights issues.

Much of the leadership within the labour movement on disability issues has come from the Canadian Labour Congress's (CLC) Disability Rights Working Group made up of union activists with disabilities from across Canada who are dedicated to improving the status of women and men living with disabilities in Canada by eliminating inequality and discrimination.

Our Working Group is deeply committed to the principles of self-help and advocacy. We believe that persons with disabilities are themselves their own best spokespersons. No 'non-disabled' 'expert' or collection thereof can understand the soul-deep aspirations of people with disabilities. We reject the traditional attitudes that society has had of people with disabilities. It's these approaches - the medical model based on the assumption that we have to be 'taken care of', paternalism, charity, dependence, out-of-sight-out-of mind - that has resulted in people with disabilities being segregated from most aspects of society. Our goal is to empower people with disabilities both in Canada and around the globe to become active participants in the decisions that affect their lives.

As union activists with disabilities, we believe that our unions can, and should be important vehicles for bringing down barriers to full participation and equality. We're committed to ensuring that they are!

On December 3, 2001, the UN International Day for Persons with Disabilities, the CLC launched a national disability rights campaign, which was developed by our Disability Rights Working Group. The campaign is designed to encourage unions to adopt and promote a disability rights agenda as part of their overall workers' rights agenda. It has two important objectives. One is to create a greater awareness amongst union members about disability rights issues - as stressed on the posters and buttons that were produced for the campaign, "disability doesn't stop me, discrimination can."

The other objective is to have unions and other affiliated bodies of the CLC find ways they can do MORE in trying to achieved full participation for people with disabilities - and by "MORE" we mean Mobilize, Organize, Represent and Educate around disability rights issues.

These are tough times for the Canadian trade union movement - our resources are already stretched thin in defending and promoting workers' rights, social justice and equality. But our movement must recognize that for the most part, persons with disabilities have been excluded from political, economic and social structures of Canadian society; they have a long way to go in their struggle for social justice and equality. We must do MORE to ensure that people with disabilities are able to fully participate in all aspects of our movement and the broader society.

There are many examples of things that unions can do to advance the rights of people with disabilities within the labour movement and the broader society. Here are a few examples:


    - Take affirmative measures to ensure that members with disabilities are integrated in all aspects of the union's work. 

    - Create vehicles such as committees or working groups where activists with disabilities can strategize and mobilize around their workplace issues. 

    - Ensure that as a part of the union's public policy and legislative agenda, its leadership campaigns and lobbies governments for a comprehensive and integrated public system of human rights protection, support services and income security programs aimed at promoting the full participation of Canadians with disabilities in all aspects of society. 

    - Join with the CLC's Disability Rights Working Group in calling on the federal government to introduce a Canadians with Disabilities Act (CDA).


    - Ensure that the union's organizing strategies include tactics aimed specifically at encouraging working people with disabilities to join and to become active in their union. 

    - Do community outreach - work with seniors, injured workers and disability rights organizations like the National Federation of the Blind, on issues and campaigns impacting on persons with disabilities. 


    - Make sure all union activities are accessible to members with disabilities by using a comprehensive accessibility checklist when planning all union events.

    - Ensure that disability rights issues form a part of the union's bargaining demands. Issues of accessibility and accommodation are bare-bones fundamentals for working people with disabilities. 

    - Force employers to recognize their legal responsibility to make workplace accommodations for workers with disabilities.

    - Promote employment equity within the workplace and internally within the union.


    - Make it a priority to integrate a disability rights perspective into all aspects of union education.

    - Union education is an important ingredient to building activism. Encourage members with disabilities to take advantage of the union's education program.

    - Educate members with disabilities on how the union can be their vehicle for change in the workplace and the broader society.

    - Educate the membership about disability issues in the workplace and within the union's public policy and legislative agenda.

If the unions can undertake to implement several of these measures in the coming year, then we believe the Canadian labour movement will have taken a major step towards advancing social justice and equality for Canadians with disabilities. An integral part of this campaign is working with progressive disability rights organizations like the National Federation of the Blind: Advocates for Equality to do MORE to advance the rights and equality of Canadians with disabilities.


People with both mental & physical disabilities should be potected by unions.

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