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Advocacy and People With Disabilities

Editor's Note: April D'Aubin lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba, where she is research analyst for the Council of Canadians with Disabilities. This paper has been prepared for presentation at Disabled Peoples' International's World Summit, Winnipeg, September, 2004. *Image: Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms Crest

People with disabilities have a long tradition as advocates in Canada. In 1886, deaf people organized a consumer group in Ontario. As early as the mid 1930's, the Canadian Federation of the Blind was advocating for disability pensions and other disability supports. Paralyzed war veterans advocated for home supports because they did not want to remain hospitalized. This article presents some of the highlights of the disability advocacy tradition in Canada, discusses why disability advocacy is an important component of the Canadian public policy framework and indicates some of the future challenges before the disability community.

By the 1970's, people with disabilities increasingly framed their advocacy work as a struggle for human rights. Some advocates organized cross-disability organizations, where people with various disabilities collaborated for social change. The Alberta Committee of Citizens with Disabilities is an example of a provincial cross-disability organization. Others preferred to work in uni-disability groups on issues of concern to a particular disability group. For example, people labelled mentally handicapped formed People First to fight against institutionalization. Both types of groups are essential if the social change necessary to bring about the equality of persons with disabilities is to be achieved.

The common denominator in the advocacy and organizational efforts of people with disabilities is the desire to eliminate discrimination preventing the full and equal participation of people with disabilities and to establish mechanisms that would prevent the creation of new obstacles. The barriers facing people with disabilities have been formidable: segregation, unemployment, forced nontherapeutic sterilization, institutionalization. While some obstacles have been removed through successful advocacy campaigns organized by the disability community (e.g. accessible buses on regular routes), other barriers have proven to be well entrenched (e.g. discriminatory immigration regulations that prevent the immigration of people with disabilities to Canada), and new ones emerge with changes in technology (e.g. websites that become increasingly inaccessible to those who use screen readers). While ideas like a disability lens are beginning to be developed, they are not sufficiently robust to play a strong role in the prevention of barriers. A disability lens is an analytical tool that helps policy developers explore the consequences of a public policy initiative for people with disabilities. Consequently, there is an ongoing need for people with disabilities to maintain advocacy organizations and to continue to campaign against discrimination.

Improving the representation of people with disabilities in the labour market has been one of the most difficult projects undertaken by the advocacy groups of people with disabilities. Many different advocacy strategies have been used to reduce the unemployment and underemployment of people with disabilities. Some of these have been collective strategies such as advocating for employment Equity acts at the federal and provincial levels. Individuals with disabilities have also undertaken their own independent actions. For example, in 1979 a group of vision-impaired persons in Edmonton went on strike to draw attention to the deplorable conditions in sheltered workshops operated by the Canadian National Institute for the Blind. The striking workers were particularly concerned about health and safety conditions and the fact that sheltered workshops were authorized by minimum wage exemption laws to pay their disabled employees less than minimum wage. Blatant examples of discrimination such as minimum wage exemptions have underlined the need for an organized advocacy movement of persons with disabilities that focuses on human rights abuses. A first step was to secure the necessary legal protection that would have the scope to tackle the discrimination rampant in the labour market.

Personal experience with discrimination motivated people with disabilities to wage vigorous advocacy campaigns to be included in Canada's supreme laws--the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Canadian Human Rights Act. During the 1979 Federal election campaign, people with disabilities made human rights protection for people with disabilities an election issue. Joe Clark, leader of the Progressive Conservative Party, promised to amend the Canadian Human Rights Act to include better protection for people with disabilities. When the Throne Speech did not articulate the Government's plans to improve the Act's protections for people with disabilities, disability advocacy organizations mobilized grassroots people to pressure the government by showing new examples of discrimination. Allan Simpson, one of the prominent leaders in the disability advocacy movement, stated:

"Our movement must register its strong disappointment that the Human Rights protection promised to us in a letter from the Right Honourable Joe Clark during the recent election campaign was not indicated in the Throne Speech as forthcoming. We had expected better treatment from the Conservative Prime Ministerial successor to John G. Diefenbaker, whose life was dedicated to human rights for all Canadians.

One glaring example of discriminative policy planning by the new Federal Government is in its intention to establish new job creation programs for high unemployment target groups, omitting the group with one of the highest unemployment rates--handicapped Canadians estimated somewhere between 50-90% unemployed depending on the type and extent of disability. Natives, youth and women are designated in the Throne Speech as groups experiencing special employment problems--why is there no recognition that disabled Canadians experience a 70% unemployment rate and higher? Disabled Canadians, for their Part, are prepared to accept full responsibility to ensure involvement in all aspects of Canadian society." (COPOH Columnist, 1979)

The advocacy efforts of the disability community were successful, and today's Canadian Human Rights Act offers protection to people with disabilities. Later advocacy efforts resulted in people with disabilities being recognized as a designated group for Employment Equity purposes.

The disability community also secured inclusion in section 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. This only occurred because people with disabilities dedicated themselves to overcoming the prejudices of the parliamentarians charged with framing Canada's constitution. Jean Chretien was one who thought that disability was too nebulous a concept to be included in the Charter. Disability advocates, such as Yvonne Peters, Jim Derksen, Allan Simpson and David Lepofsky, waged a vigorous campaign for inclusion of disability in Section 15 and eventually convinced then Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau to include disability among the groups enumerated in Section 15.

A new website describes the disability community's advocacy struggle to be included in the Charter. To tour the museum, go to: http://www.disabilityrightsmuseum.ca/about_cdrm.php

Once Section 15 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms came into force in 1985, people with disabilities began to intervene in court cases that were developing jurisprudence on equality rights. In part due to the disability community's interventions in Charter-based test case litigation, Canada has moved toward a substantive theory of equality, where equality of result rather than equality of opportunity is the objective of public policy.

Yvonne Peters, a disability rights lawyer, describes the disability community's contribution to Canadian jurisprudence in a new publication entitled "20 Years of Litigating For Disability Equality Rights: Has It Made A Difference? To read Peters' article, go to: http://www.ccdonline.ca

If we fast forward to 2004, it becomes readily apparent that disability advocacy continues to be needed. Human rights abuses continue. For example, in Canada, VIA Rail, a crown corporation, put new train cars into service that ignore the access needs of persons with disabilities. The Council of Canadians with Disabilities (CCD) is fighting VIA's Federal Court of Appeal bid to ignore the mobility rights of Canadians with disabilities. CCD fears that, if this blatant disregard of the rights of people with disabilities were allowed to go unchallenged, it would send a dangerous signal to other modes of transportation. CCD is committed to protecting the mobility rights of Canadians with disabilities.

Improving the representation of people with disabilities in the labour market continues to be an objective of today's organizations of persons with disabilities. For example, during this year's federal election, CCD challenged party leaders to commit to establishing the Federal Government as a model employer of persons with disabilities. Only the New Democratic Party of Canada responded to CCD's challenge. The Liberals had made a commitment to becoming a model employer in the Throne Speech. It will likely take the combined advocacy efforts of the entire disability advocacy community to make the Federal Government a truly model employer of persons with disabilities.

Discrimination is a worldwide problem for people with disabilities. International human rights conventions have not proven helpful in addressing this problem. Consequently, the international advocacy organizations of people with disabilities have dedicated themselves to elaborating an international treaty that will protect the human rights of persons with disabilities. Canadians with disabilities have been advocating that any new convention on the human rights of persons with disabilities be based upon a substantive theory of equality, similar to that articulated in Canadian jurisprudence. The Government of Canada included Steve Estey, a person with a disability and Chairperson of CCD's International Committee, on the Canadian delegation that attended meetings in May and August at the United Nations (UN) about the Convention. Another consumer, Vangelis Nikias, a former Chairperson of CCD's Human Rights Committee, also participated on the Canadian delegation representing the federal Office of Disability Issues.

To learn more about the disability community's involvement in the development of the UN Convention, visit Disabled Peoples' International's (DPI) website: http://www.dpi.org/en/resources/topics/topics-convention.htm

This article has provided only the briefest overview of the advocacy activities of people with disabilities. Readers who would like to learn more about the fascinating contributions made to Canadian public policy by disability advocacy organizations may want to consult two new publications: Making Equality History of Advocacy and Persons with Disabilities, edited by Deborah Stienstra and Aileen Wight-Felske; and In Pursuit of Equal Participation: Canada and Disability at Home and Abroad, edited by Henry Enns and Alderd Neufeldt. Both books were published by Captus Press.

Comments

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Naba Kumar Ghosh

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Wanyama Moses
Focus on Disability and Development

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Considering my capabilities I would like you to give me a fair chace to prove my quality. My mobail No is o1835-848456, 01713-195935, E-mail no-nabakumar2@yahoo.com Please infom me.

thankyou
Sir

Naba Kumar Ghosh

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Naba Kumar