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Editorial: Mere Integration Is Not Enough!

Picture:

John Rae and Marcia Cummings marching with other in Ottawa, to end exclusion.

In the early days of the disability rights movement, Canadians with disabilities sought integration. We wanted the opportunity to work and to escape the shackles of poverty. We wanted to go to school alongside our non-disabled peers, and to ride the same buses. We wanted to go to the movies and sit anywhere we chose and to participate in local fitness and recreational programs. We wanted to be able to use new products and emerging technologies. We wanted to live safely in our own communities and have our own families. And we wanted our human rights protected by Human Rights Codes.

In the old days, we sought "integration"--being in the same places as our non-disabled peers. It was a good starting point. It opened some doors. But too often it failed to move our position in Canadian society forward, either far enough or fast enough, and often resulted in mere tokenism.

In today's "mainstream" classrooms, do blind students have access to current adaptive technology and the training required to use it effectively? Are they instructed in braille and orientation and mobility skills so they can learn and play alongside their sighted peers? Do they receive the supports they need to succeed in school or are some just "dumped" into classes without the resources necessary for optimal learning? Every student, disabled or not, must be provided with the tools relevant to their particular education and development, to stand them in good stead for the rest of their lives.

Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees "mobility rights" to every Canadian, but being able to move from one province or territory to another isn't enough if needed disability-related services and supports don't follow you. If you happen to live in Ontario, for instance, you can qualify for its Assistive Devices Program, which pays up to 75% of the cost of many items, including computers with adaptive software. If an Ontarian moves to Manitoba, British Columbia or several other provinces and territories, access to this kind of support is lost, because many other jurisdictions still do not offer similar programs. This type of support must become universally available throughout Canada.

Technological advances were supposed to be the great equalizer and make it easier for persons with disabilities to secure and maintain employment. To some extent they have, but these advances have also made it easier for workplaces to phase out positions that used to provide employment for many.

Over the past three decades, our rate of employment has improved only slightly. At a time when a growing number of occupational fields are experiencing a shortage of skilled labour and many persons with disabilities remain unemployed or underemployed, why isn't government implementing a National Economic Strategy to bridge this gap by addressing both the chronic levels of poverty and unemployment that continue to plague so many Canadians with disabilities, including we who are blind, deaf-blind or partially sighted?

Too often the release of new versions of adaptive technology, designed to provide blind persons with access to mainstream computer programs, lags considerably behind the release of commercially available software. This produces new barriers.

Regular household products and appliances, furthermore, have traditionally been usable to the majority of the population but today, despite increased talk of "Universal Design", we are taking a step backwards, with a growing range of items operable only via digital displays or visual menus. Consumers with vision loss cannot use these products independently. In 2008, why are such barriers still being created? This represents yet another violation of our human rights. Products must be designed with everyone in mind.

Today's Canadians are becoming more environmentally conscious, leading to the ever-increasing popularity of the quiet, hybrid vehicle. While they may be friendlier to the environment--something the Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians firmly applauds--quiet, hybrid cars pose a danger to pedestrians--not just those who are blind--who may not hear the approach of these stealthy automobiles. Before someone is maimed or killed on our streets, we call on manufacturers to add some feature or device to these vehicles to emit a sound loud enough for pedestrians to hear them.

The ongoing imperative that old barriers must be removed and new ones prevented is one of many reasons why the AEBC was pleased to participate in meetings that developed the National Action Plan, which focuses on Building an Inclusive and Accessible Canada for all, released at last November's End Exclusion event in Ottawa (see the text of this Action Plan elsewhere in these pages and visit the End Exclusion website at www.endexclusion.ca). It is now up to all of us to familiarize ourselves with this National Action Plan, spread the word about it and bring its content directly to our locally elected officials.

The idea of "integration" remains laudable, but we must look far beyond merely being alongside our non-disabled counterparts. We want real inclusion and the removal of barriers so that we can realize our right to participate fully in all aspects of regular community life. In short, we want to realize the promise of the International Year of the Disabled Person 1981, which called for "full participation and equality."