You are here:

Disabled Losing Ground in Battle For Equality

Editor's Note: Editor's Note: The following article is re-printed from the Toronto Star, January 21, 2002.

Canada's Charter of Rights states clearly that "every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination and in particular, without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability."

Real life doesn't work that way.

There has always been a gap between what the law says and what actually happens. What is frightening, for the 4.6 million Canadians with disabilities, is that it is getting wider, and no one seems to care.

Three recent cases have highlighted that trend:

A lawyer representing the immigration department told the court this month that Ottawa had every right to turn down a disabled woman's request to live and work in Canada.

Angela Chesters is married to a Canadian citizen, has two post-graduate degrees and extensive work history. She was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis 11 years ago.

According to federal lawyer Debra McAllister, Chesters might someday impose an "excessive demand" on Canada's health and social services.

This is not discrimination, McAllister insisted. It is a legitimate way of ensuring the sustainability of medicare.

Last week, VIA Rail Canada, a government-owned corporation, refused to widen the doors of its new high-speed trains to accommodate wheelchairs.

"We'd be looking at millions of additional dollars'' to modify the French-made rail cars, explained company official Malcolm Andrews.

He maintained that the narrow coaches meet industry standards and accommodate some types of wheelchairs. That is good enough for VIA.

It is not good enough for the Council of Canadians with Disabilities. The non-profit agency has pleaded with the government to intervene.

Transport Minister David Collenette, to whom VIA Rail reports, has been silent on the issue.

Last month at Queen's Park, Citizenship Minister Cam Jackson announced with great fanfare that Ontario had just passed "Canada's most far-reaching legislation" for persons with disabilities.

Unfortunately, the 1.6 million Ontarians with disabilities didn't see it that way.

The bill didn't eliminate any of the barriers they faced in their daily lives. It didn't set a date by which public buildings had to be accessible. It didn't require stores, restaurants or businesses to become accessible at all.

They begged the government to strengthen the bill before passing it. Jackson blithely ignored them.

These sorts of rebuffs hurt. The lack of any public outcry hurts even more.

It is tough to fight for equality from a wheelchair, especially when many of the country's courtrooms are inaccessible.

Despite the courage and determination of those who do challenge discriminatory treatment, individuals with disabilities are losing ground in Canada.

The reason is simple: Public officials think it is safe to ignore a vulnerable, not-very-visible minority.

It is up to able-bodied, fair-minded Canadians to let their governments know that it is not safe, not acceptable and not right.