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Editorial: Equality Long Overdue

In May 2008, I became the editor of the Canadian Blind Monitor (CBM). John Rae had done an admirable job for several years and I recognize he will be a tough act to follow, but I look forward to the challenge, and to working along side all the people who contribute tirelessly to producing a publication that readers can enjoy, and of which the AEBC can be proud.

The CBM will continue to be an educational tool and a medium for information sharing. Readers will continue to have the opportunity to exercise critical thinking and to develop their philosophy and ideas about social justice issues regarding people with disabilities. I invite parents and educators of students at all levels to use any of the material to stimulate thinking and debate. In this issue on economics, readers will find articles on such things as employment, education, poverty and technology, all of which play a role in the lives of people with limited or no vision and their participation in the world around them--a world that is driven by the almighty dollar.

People with disabilities, by their very existence, contribute to the economy, though they are seen as beneficiaries and burdens most of the time. Some have jobs, businesses and property, buy high-end goods and services, and enjoy an upper middle-class lifestyle. Most folks with disabilities have to purchase goods and services from doctors, teachers, landlords, grocers, clothing stores and so on, who in turn pay taxes and buy other goods and services. If you were to ask people with disabilities, however, most would rather contribute from the front line as wage earners and equal consumers, with all the problems and privileges that entails. Of the over 400,000 working-age blind and partially sighted persons in Canada, half are either unsuccessfully looking for work or have given up.

Another well-known fact is that people with disabilities are more likely to be abused in some way. If they were in a position to manage their own lives and money, and did not have to rely on charity and the kindness of others to assist them with daily tasks, it's likely instances of abuse would be drastically reduced. They would be able to hire the help they need and pay for the goods they want, and if they received unsatisfactory service, they would have the power and money to hire someone else. Instead, most people with disabilities are forced to live by the "beggars can't be choosers" saying, which puts them in very vulnerable situations.

Contributing to the economy from the front line usually implies that one is employed and is a consumer who has power, choice and independence over goods and services. Quite often the reverse is the case--being a ward of a system where others control and make decisions on what you can and cannot do. Until capable people with disabilities, be they employed or on Social Assistance, have the opportunity and freedom to say how they want to live their lives and make their own decisions, there will not be true independence and equality.

The obvious benefit of persons with disabilities having sufficient income and being in control of their own affairs is higher self-esteem and pride. They wouldn't have to face as much paternalism from the people around them because they would no longer be treated as charity cases. When people are participating in the economy from the front line, the community also benefits, in that there would be less demand for health and social services. People with disabilities would be happier and healthier, and these types of people are much more likely to give back to their communities--financially and through volunteerism.

Do you think it might be possible that, subconsciously, service providers keep us needing their services because they fear for their jobs? Let's hope not. There are many other types of work needed in our world for which people could train, in the same way that those in the fossil fuel industry will be phased into other kinds of employment. Most of the people who provide services have way more choice of jobs--at least the non-disabled ones. It's equally important for organizations and government departments concerned with disability to have the means to be effective in what they do; yet they are often the first to feel the pinch in bad economic times. Most of us know it's nearly impossible to do anything without money, never mind organizations of workers who face endless barriers.

Traditionally, people are more inclined to donate or grant funds to organizations that provide direct services or goods to the disabled, but what about consumer groups that have an open membership, are democratically structured, and which monitor services and advocate for appropriate change? Government and service organizations often lack effective mechanisms for consumer input, which means others make the decisions instead of the individuals with disabilities themselves. In a truly just society, equal funding would be available to groups representing the voice of consumers and to service providers alike.

To make matters worse, service provision and consumer groups are at the mercy of the economy. At the best of times, people with disabilities receive the bare minimum, and when the economy is rocky, they are at the whim of whatever charity dollars are out there and whatever resources governments can spare. Is it a just society, when meeting basic needs and respecting human rights are unstable and inconsistent for those unable to fend for themselves?

Around the time of the International Year of the Disabled (1981), persons with disabilities wanted to be treated the same as their non-disabled neighbours in the hopes that they would get jobs like them, but it hasn't happened. Twenty-eight years later, about 50 percent of blind people are still unemployed, and at least that many live below the poverty line across Canada.

The province of Ontario recently released its strategy on poverty based on 12 years of studies, but it contained nothing for persons with disabilities who do not have children. We don't need any more studies and it is no longer reasonable to lump people with disabilities in with the non-disabled. In the article, A Path to Financial Freedom (later in this issue), what struck me was that a person with a disability receiving ODSP (Ontario Disability Support Program) would need a 46 percent raise in benefits just to reach the poverty line, and that would still not include the extra costs of things specific to their disability. Do people in poverty not pay the same for a loaf of bread and a carton of milk as government officials who get cost of living increases?

Capable working-age persons with disabilities and profoundly disabled people subsisting below the poverty line are tired of waiting. They want enough money to live, not just survive. As it is, they are given a life sentence of poverty, which is only one small step above letting them rot in institutions or putting them to death because they are disabled. Living below the poverty line, from the cradle to the grave, is undue hardship and torturous. Do Canadians with disabilities have to do something drastic to draw attention to their cause (see Hunger Strikers Win Aid for Disabled later in this issue)? An economy is only doing as well as the poorest people in it--or so I heard.

Language also plays a role in the acceptance, equality and participation of persons with disabilities. Why would employers, for example, want to hire anyone who is blind if they constantly hear and use words that imply pity and helplessness? I don't claim to have "perfect" language myself, and I certainly don't want others to become so self-conscious they are afraid to speak. Unfortunately, intelligent and well-meaning people are unknowingly contributing to the "second-class citizenry" of persons with disabilities by using language that is negative, out of date, and perpetuates myths and misconceptions. While other movements have come a long way in changing the way people think and speak, vocabulary in reference to disability still needs work.

I want to express my deep appreciation for the valuable information in articles we receive for the CBM, as well as those we reprint. Here also, language can be inappropriate. For instance, articles might refer to people "suffering" from blindness or vision impairment, or to people "with sight problems." After rehabilitation and training in adaptive skills, however, it is seldom that limited vision causes suffering. Furthermore, it is not lack of sight itself that is a problem, but outdated language, negative and patronizing attitudes, and inaccessible products, services and environments. Instead of "sight problem", the terms "sight loss", "limited sight", or "low vision" could be used. All I ask is that we be more mindful of what is said and written.

With all that in mind and until we meet again, I invite you to look for the next issue of the Canadian Blind Monitor sometime in the spring of 2009, when we will feature--in very broad terms--the theme of wellness.

Best Wishes.