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From "lunatics" to Citizens: Tracing The Emergence and Growth of Disability Politics in Ontario

Editor's Note: The following article is reprinted from Abilities Magazine, Fall 2005:

In 1885, the Ontario government began construction of the new legislative building--known as Queen's Park--located on Toronto University Avenue. To make way for the huge red building, the government tore down one of Torontos largest "lunatic asylums" and transferred its occupants to existing institutions in Amherstburg, Orillia and London. Since this time, much has changed for people with disabilities and their families in Ontario.

Beginning in the 1970s, in Ontario as in other places, people with disabilities began to organize on their own behalf, forming local and province-wide organizations to reject their status as so-called second-class citizens.

"In the 1970s and early 1980s, there was a rising tide of consumerism in Ontario", says Harry Beatty, a founding member of ARCH: A Legal Resource Centre for Persons with Disabilities and long-time member of the disability community. "This meant that, in part, you saw the self-assertion of people with disabilities over the services that affected their lives."

By the 1980s and into the 1990s, provincial and local organizations led by people with disabilities were working both inside and outside Queen's Park, using strategies and tactics aimed at pressuring policy-makers for changes in policy and politics that would further the citizenship rights of people with disabilities and their families.

ARCH: A Legal Resource Centre for Persons with Disabilities (originally called the Advocacy Resource Centre for the Handicapped) has been at the forefront of disability politics in Ontario, and indeed, in Canada. This year, ARCH is celebrating its 25th anniversary. Given this auspicious occasion, it seems appropriate to this writer to gaze into the past, as well as into the future.

A Brief History of Disability Organizing in Ontario

Beginning in the late 1960s, cracks in the dominant response to disability had begun to appear in Ontario. Facing pressure from parents caring for children with disabilities and from progressive professionals, the dominant ideas associated with disability began to shift as people with disabilities began to assert their right to control their own lives and destinies.

Throughout the 1970s, shifts in attitude were most evident towards people with intellectual disabilities. These shifts were due largely to the introduction of the principle of normalization, which was developed by Wolf Wolfensberger in 1972, while a visiting scholar at the Canadian Institute on Mental Retardation (now the Roeher Institute).

Normalization called for a breaking down of those forms of institutional segregation that were stigmatizing and resulted in inferior services for people with various forms of intellectual disabilities. Further, it called for the creation of new forms of service delivery in which individuals would live in "normal" settings. In Ontario, as in other jurisdictions, normalization led to radical shifts in policies affecting people with intellectual disabilities, including the deinstitutionalization of people with intellectual disabilities and the creation of community-based services.

In the 1980s, a new stream of disability organizing, called the Independent Living movement, emerged in Ontario. Fuelled by ideas from the United States, the Independent Living concept rejected the dominance of the medical establishment and rehabilitation services, calling for community-based systems in which people with disabilities themselves are in control and can exert choice and flexibility. It was also during this period that the psychiatric survivor and mental health movements began to organize in Ontario, asserting the rights of those individuals who faced involuntary treatment and institutionalization.

Taken together, these various streams of disability organizing solidified a new set of principles for disability politics in Ontario: self-organizing, self-advocacy and cross-disability. As they did at the federal level, these principles would come to define this period in disability politics, as governments began to accept and implement rights-based legislation and policy frameworks.

"Independent Living and consumer-led movements were amazing in terms of bringing forth the idea that people with disabilities could have both voice and choice," says John Lord, an academic and participant in Ontario disability politics. "These were critical ideas to get across to policy-makers, to politicians and to professionals."

Indeed, by the end of the 1980s and into the 1990s, the emphasis on cross-disability frameworks had contributed to creating a disability identity and culture. The introduction of a cross-disability framework to disability politics helped form a collective identity that rejected the medically created disease types. Around this time, we also saw the beginning of discussions about how disability intersects with factors such as sex/gender, race and sexual orientation.

Among the most prominent cross-disability groups to emerge were the Advocacy Resource Centre for the Handicapped (ARCH) (1980) (renamed ARCH: A Legal Resource Centre for People with Disabilities in 1993); Persons United for Self-Help in Ontario (PUSH-Ontario) (1982); the Disabled Women's Network (DAWN-Ontario) (1985); and the Ethno-Racial People with Disabilities Coalition of Ontario (ERDCO) (1993).

ARCH's Contribution to Disability Politics in Ontario and in Canada

Spurred by legislative developments at the federal and provincial levels, in particular the adoption of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (1982) and the amended Ontario Human Rights Code (1981), the Ontario disability movement started to become engaged with mainstream political institutions. During this period, litigation became a feature of the disability movement, especially with the opening of ARCH in 1980--an organization responsible for acting as counsel on several precedent-setting disability test cases at the Supreme Court of Canada, as well as playing an influential role in improving access to legal services for Ontarians with disabilities and their families.

In fact, along with allies in the province's legal system, ARCH was instrumental in working closely with then-Attorney General, Roy McMurtry who, among other things, commissioned a report on the accessibility of legal services in Ontario to people with disabilities. In her landmark report, Access to Legal Services by the Disabled (1983), Judge Rosalie Abella (now a Justice at the Supreme Court of Canada), undertook the first comprehensive study on barriers to people with physical and mental disabilities in seeking access to the legal system. Her report played an important role in opening up the legal system to people with disabilities, and legitimizing ongoing funding to ARCH through the Ontario Legal Aid Plan.

Under the leadership of David Baker, its founder and first executive director, ARCH developed into one of Canada's leading organizations, focusing on disability law reform, litigation and public legal education. At the Supreme Court of Canada, ARCH has been instrumental in bringing a critical disability perspective to numerous prominent disability rights cases.

Two important cases which advanced disability policy and law are: Eaton v. Brant County Board of Education, [1997] 1 S.C.R. 241 (S.C.C.), in which the court found that integration of children with disabilities in regular classroom settings should be recognized as the norm of general application because of the benefits it generally provides; and Eldridge v. British Columbia (Attorney General), [1997] 3 S.C.R. 624 (S.C.C.), in which the court unanimously ruled that failure to provide sign language interpretation in the delivery of health care services, where it is necessary for effective communication, violated section 15 of the Charter.

Beyond the courts, ARCH has developed expertise in providing the disability and legal communities with a critical disability perspective about legal rights, responsibilities and entitlements affecting people with disabilities and their families. As well, ARCH's mandate includes providing a summary advice and legal referral service and law reform activities to thousands of Ontarians with disabilities and their families with respect to numerous areas of law, including income tax, income support and disability benefits, telecommunications, transportation, employment, education, human rights, issues related to abuse, and immigration.

It is people with disabilities themselves who created ARCH and, indeed, who continue to ensure that its mandate responds to the needs of Ontarians with disabilities. Currently, ARCH's membership has grown to include more than 60 disability consumer and service organizations. And, ARCH continues to be governed by a volunteer board of directors, of which a majority must be people with disabilities.

Looking Forward to the Next 25 Years

Disability politics have made an important contribution to Ontario's fabric and will continue to have influence in the years to come. It is perhaps symbolic that ARCH is celebrating its 25th anniversary the same year the Government of Ontario will move forward with closing its three remaining institutions housing people with disabilities. This is also the year that the Government of Ontario passed into law the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, which has as its long-term goal a barrier-free Ontario. As well, this year the Ontario disability movement has witnessed the emergence of a new Ontario-wide consumer-controlled disability organization, Citizens with Disabilities-Ontario, to advance the voices of all Ontarians with disabilities.

"We might have hoped and expected that, after three decades of action and advocacy, Canadians with disabilities would already be living in a fully inclusive society. Not so," says Phyllis Gordon, ARCH's executive director. "We still need countless more doors to open, profound institutional changes to occur, and public spending to be reallocated so that people with disabilities can participate fully and with the dignity to which they are entitled. We at ARCH and activists everywhere still have much more to accomplish."

Fraser Valentine has proudly served on the ARCH Board of Directors since 1999 and is an Adjunct Professor at the School of Disability Studies, Ryerson University.

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