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Ottawa's Disabled Live in Poverty Report: Coalition Survey Finds 50% Live on Less Than $15,000 a Year, 'an Embarrassment to The Nation's Capital'

Editor's Note: Editor's Note: The following article is reprinted from the Ottawa Citizen, FEB 3, 2003. Image: Decrepit boarded up apartment building.

More than half of Ottawa's disabled live below the poverty line -- "on the fringes of society" -- according to a report to be presented to a city council committee tomorrow.

The information comes from Maximizing Our Assets, a report produced by a coalition of 25 Ottawa community groups about the experience of disabled citizens in the amalgamated city.

Mayor Bob Chiarelli said yesterday he was appalled by the numbers, while the coalition's chairwoman, Teena Tomlinson, called the findings "an embarrassment to the nation's capital."

More than 1,000 disabled people living in Ottawa participated in the study last year.

Three out of five disabled people surveyed said they cannot pursue interests or participate in community activities.

More than half said they live on less than $15,000 per year, while one in five lives on less than $9,600 a year. Forty per cent said they rely on family or friends for homemaking and personal care, and 42 per cent said they can't afford adequate housing. More than 70 per cent said they do not use OC Transpo buses because of poor access and concerns about safety.

Cathy Kerr, the chairwoman of the coalition's steering committee, will present the report tomorrow to city council's corporate services and economic development committee, as it considers a plan to make Ottawa a more accessible place to live.

Her goal is to have council use the coalition's research and recommendations in its own accessibility plan, which must be in place by September.

The accessibility plan is required by the province's new Ontarians with Disabilities Act.

"Our most valuable resource is people, but the research shows that more than three-quarters of our disabled community are not working or volunteering because of a lack of access, training opportunities and employer sensitivity," she said.

The survey results are considered accurate within three percentage points, nine times out of 10.

Citing the efforts and money being spent in Ottawa on life-saving capabilities such as trauma centres and improved emergency response, Ms. Kerr said there's a need to "finish the investment" by ensuring those whose lives are saved are able to return to the community and participate fully, with or without a disability.

"Ottawa should be a model of inclusion for the rest of the country,"

Ms. Kerr said. "As a city that wants to win bids for sporting events and be selected by convention organizers and tourists, Ottawa must view accessibility as crucial, and make the concept of 'inclusion' a basic planning principle."

Jointly funded by the city and the United Way, the report was presented to Mr. Chiarelli on Dec. 3, at the "Celebration of People" event in recognition of the 10th anniversary of the UN's declaration of an international day for disability awareness.

The mayor said he would support funding for the coalition to continue researching the needs of disabled people. He would also like to include a goal in the city's official plan to "ensure all disabled persons are above the poverty line" within a reasonable time frame.

Councillor Alex Cullen, meanwhile, said the city must honour the Ottawa 2020 vision of "a caring, inclusive community."

He supports more funding for the coalition because "we have an obligation to find out what we can do and how best to do it."

Ms. Tomlinson, the coalition's chairwoman and a 19-year veteran in the community support field, says this is the most comprehensive study of its kind ever undertaken in Ottawa.

The value of the report, she says, lies in the detailed information "obtained directly from disabled persons who lead -- or are attempting to lead -- active, productive lives in the community."

Councillor Alex Munter says the biggest issue for disabled people is their frustration at being locked out of the workforce. "It's not a question of being nice to the disabled -- we as a community lose out when barriers exist that prevent disabled persons from participating," he said.

Mr. Munter acknowledges not all problems can be addressed by the city. However, he emphasizes the need to move from "understanding to action" at the municipal level.

That means looking at snow removal, public transportation, building codes, taxis and zoning with accessibility in mind.

"We cannot allow inaction by other levels of government to be an excuse for us," he added.

Ms. Tomlinson vowed the report will not simply collect dust because the disabled community "entrusted us" to see this through. "We need to encourage disabled persons to say what they need in order to participate, not ask permission to participate," she added.

The report marks a milestone for the coalition's "Partnering for

Participation and Inclusion" project, triggered by the 2001 Para Transpo strike. The strike drew attention to the isolation of the disabled community and prompted organizations and volunteers to start gathering information about the needs and problems facing the disabled.

Mr. Chiarelli reiterated his belief yesterday that transit should be declared an essential service.

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