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Disability Agenda: First Ministers' Last Priority?

Editor's Note: Editor's Note: Sherri Torjman is vice-president of the Caledon Institute of Social Policy. This article is re printed from THE GLOBE AND MAIL, AUGUST 31, 2000.

For years, Ottawa and the provinces have been promising action on the disability front. We've had reports from task forces, reviews, commissions, working groups and parliamentary committees; we may have seen more trees felled in the name of disability than any other cause. If only it were worth the loss.

For one brief shining moment, two decades ago, Canada was the global leader on disability. In 1981, the International Year of Disabled Persons, Ottawa appointed a special parliamentary committee to review all federal legislation from the perspective of disability. The committee defied overwhelming odds when it managed to get the rights of persons with disabilities included in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. This was a coup. Canada was the only nation in the world that enshrined constitutional protection for persons with disabilities. But since the early 1980s, progress has been halting.

There was one other exception: On Oct. 27, 1998, all governments except Quebec signed a national agreement on disability titled, In Unison: A Canadian Approach to Disability Issues. It set out a bold vision of people with disabilities participating as full citizens in school, work, culture, recreation and all aspects of community life, and identified key areas of action. It said supports--everything from wheelchairs, hearing aids, and styluses for writing Braille to services that help with eating, moving and communicating, and respite care for their families--should be available to allow people to live independently and participate in the mainstream of society. It said we need to remove barriers that prevent people from working. And it said that income-security programs should not create income security (people trying to move out of income programs such as welfare often have to accept the additional cost of paying for disability supports on their own).

There's no question that In Unison set forth an ambitious and complex agenda. But that's no excuse for the policy paralysis that now characterizes the disability field. Any daunting journey starts with small steps. What's important is the right direction.

The current system, such as it is, defies simple description. It's a hodgepodge of arrangements delivered by governments, community groups and private companies (primarily for the well-off who can afford the salary of a private attendant or have insurance policies to pick up the tab). The system is anchored by thousands of unpaid caregivers, mainly women.

Supports offered in one jurisdiction may not exist in another, or may be governed by different eligibility requirements. A visually-impaired teenager may be able to get reading assistance at school but not at a job-training program. Someone who qualifies for home-service supports in his rural area may spend weekends in bed because these are the only delivered Monday to Friday.

It's essential to take action on personal supports not just to help the 16 per cent of the population identified by federal surveys as "disabled"-all Canadians are aging and most of us will someday need some kind of assistance. Yet the personal supports agenda appears far from the first ministers' radar screen, despite the fact that it links to health care, the No. 1 priority on their list.

As they look for ways to reform costly health care, governments should develop more community services that prevent institutionalization and enable people to live at home. An adequate system of personal supports would help fill a major gap that creates huge pressures for expensive, hospital-based care. If governments would only act to improve the availability of personal supports, they'd be making great strides on both the disability and health-care fronts. It would be a shame if the sparks that flew at the recent meeting in Winnipeg prevent the first ministers from working In Unison.