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Reflections of a Blind Trade Unionist

Editor's Note: Editor's Note: In addition to being involved in disability rights work for the past 27 years, John Rae has also been active in human rights and disability rights activities within Canada's trade union movement for the past 22 years.

When I became a civil servant in 1980, I began paying dues to the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) and I reasoned that, if I was going to pay dues to OPSEU, I should join, get involved, and have my say.

Shortly after, I met Beverley Johnson, a steward in my local, and John Ford, then my Local President. Both encouraged me to get involved and bring forward issues of awareness and access for members with disabilities.

I have always thought the disability rights and the trade union movements should be natural allies. Both movements are experienced in community organizing; both are lobbying on social justice issues; and both groups are fighting for a more equitable division of the economic pie.

But it's not that simple. Again, persons with disabilities are faced with the task of building coalitions to try to get our issues higher up the priority ladder of other organizations. In this case, we are hampered by our egregious level of representation in the workplaces of our nation.

In the early days, the trade union movement had some understanding of the issues facing workers who were injured on the job, but the late Dave Humphrey and I often felt like a pair of lone wolves crying in the wilderness, seeking accessibility, materials in alternative formats and a greater understanding of the needs of other workers with disabilities who were in our workplaces or in our communities wishing to work.

During 1981, the International year of Disabled Persons (IYDP), many unions passed progressive policy statements, but there were few mechanisms beyond injured workers' committees to promote the advancement of these policies.

Today, the situation is quite different. Many labour bodies, including the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC), the Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL), the National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE ), and OPSEU have disability rights committees that provide the opportunity for members to come together for personal support and collective action on issues of common concern. A growing number of unions have also introduced seats on their Councils for various equity-seeking groups, including workers with disabilities, to give these groups a voice at their decision-making tables.

Educational courses on a wide range of human rights topics, including the duty to accommodate and other disability concerns are becoming a more frequent part of union education programs. However, convincing members to sign up for these courses remains difficult, so we must continue to work to include modules on disability rights and other human rights concerns in all courses.

The new CLC "MORE" campaign really says it all. To ensure a brighter future for all workers with disabilities, the trade union movement needs to do more to advance the needs and aspirations of all workers with disabilities across Canada.