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Canada's Social Policy - Positive Changes and Persistent Challenges

Editor's Note: Michael Prince is the Lansdowne Professor of Social Policy at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, and is a board member with the BC Association of Community Living.

For persons who are blind, deaf-blind and partially sighted, what in Canadian social programs has changed over the past 20 years that positively affects their quality of life and status of citizenship? And, just as importantly, what has not changed?

The specifics of reform no doubt vary by provincial and federal jurisdiction. In a political system of federalism, it is more useful to think of a multiplicity of policy records. Ideally, then, to answer the question of the Canadian record of progress, we would need a series of case studies that cast light on results spanning an array of government jurisdictions, communities, services and instruments of public policy. Moreover, the timeframe to assess changes in approaching disability issues, and the expectations for major changes, likely vary among interests within the Canadian disability community. Here, I can offer only a selective overview assessment.

Positive developments over the last few decades in advancing access and inclusion for Canadians with disabilities include:

  • New tax benefits recognizing additional needs and costs of persons living with prolonged or severe disabilities, and their families. Examples include the Child Disability Benefit, Disability Supports Deduction, and the Registered Disability Savings Plan.

  • Public education and social awareness campaigns by governments, employers and broadcasters that contributed, along with other factors, to a shift in discourse from a personal tragedy to a public participation viewpoint.

  • Changes to federal, provincial, and some municipal election laws and procedures, including outreach measures to improve the accessibility of voting for citizens with disabilities. From a survey of almost 200 associations representing people with disabilities about the 2000 federal election, 89 percent reported a positive impression of Election Canada's role, 75 percent were satisfied with services to Canadians with disabilities, and 72 percent were aware of these access services.

  • Technological advances in communication that include captioning of all national programming by Canadian television stations and some local programming, TTY (teletypewriter) access through telephones, video relay services and, most recently, wireless pagers and messaging services.

  • Legal developments regarding disability and political victories, such as the right to sign-language interpreters in health-care services; Québec legislation in 2004 to further secure handicapped persons their rights to achieving social, school and workplace integration; and passage in 2005 of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act.

  • A concerted effort by Statistics Canada since the 1980s to conduct surveys on Canadians with disabilities in order to identify their lived experiences, the barriers they face, and trends over time. Other federal departments and think tanks also have greatly assisted in the development, interpretation and dissemination of much disability information.

  • Adoption by the United Nations General Assembly, in 2006, of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The Canadian government in 2007 signed the Convention and fully ratified on March 11, 2010. The Convention covers civil, political, cultural, economic and social rights--a multidimensional conception of citizenship--supported by a monitoring body to encourage the compliance of states to their obligations.

Hence, there have been many achievements in Canadian disability policy and practice in recent decades, but they have been uneven and incomplete.

There have also been setbacks. For example, in the mid 1990s, the federal government withdrew from cost sharing with the provinces the provision of core social services and social assistance across the country. In the late 1990s, the federal and most provincial governments approved reductions to CPP (Canada Pension Plan) Disability benefits. Federal expenditures on employment services for persons with disabilities remain modest and, more significantly, stagnant in real terms over the last decade. As grounds of discrimination, disability is by far the most common type of complaint brought to the Canadian Human Rights Commission.

Serious gaps persist in access to affordable, quality disability-related supports for a considerable number of Canadians with disabilities. The default is informal family care and charitable services where possible, and where not, social isolation and unmet basic needs with everyday activities.

The general picture in Canada on employment for persons who are blind, deaf-blind and partially sighted continues to be one of relatively high rates of unemployment and underemployment, with barriers to training and placement services, along with inadequate supports for employment preparation and accommodations in workplaces.

Large numbers of people with disabilities are not receiving the essential services they require because of cost, lack of availability and inaccessible environments. Entry to some supports are still tied to receipt of income benefits, most notably social assistance, which adds a barrier to gaining access to needed services.

As I point out in my recent book Absent Citizens: Disability Politics and Policy in Canada (University of Toronto Press, 2009), individuals and their families bear a disproportionate share of the costs, work and responsibilities associated with addressing the everyday needs of living with disabilities. As a consequence, they experience undue hardship and are restricted from full and active participation in economic, educational and social life.

Due to inadequate supports, attitudinal barriers, and insufficient employment opportunities, plus provincial government efforts at moving "able bodied" people off welfare, people with disabilities now represent between 40 to 70 percent of those on income assistance, the so-called "social safety net." This program of last resort has become the program of first resort for thousands of people with disabilities across the country--a program distinguished for minimal rights, complex rules, and the sting of stigma.

Most social policies in Canada still regard disability as specific impairments, diseases and disorders; programs are categorical rather than a continuum of services, with sharp distinctions and abrupt changes when a person experiences a life transition. Living with a disability in Canada remains a strong predictor of welfare dependence and poverty for individuals, families, and many of the agencies struggling to assist them. A critical need therefore exists for enhanced income security, personal supports and public services.

For younger Canadians who are blind, deaf-blind and partially sighted, a key social policy goal must be accessible school-based supports, and school-to-work transitions to employment preparation and placements.

For the current generation of older Canadians who are blind, deaf-blind and partially sighted, important social policy issues concern ensuring more adequate and dignified provision of financial support at the federal and provincial levels of government as well as encouraging social participation and inclusion through such local and municipal activities as adult education, community services, recreation and peer support.

For all Canadians, the necessity exists to raise awareness on an ongoing basis about the fact that people who are blind, deaf-blind and partially sighted are still among the most vulnerable citizens in our society.

Photo: Michael J. Prince

Comments

hi my name is ryan and i am 100% full deaf and i am canadian citizen where i was born in toronto canada as well and right now i live trinidad with my parent but i need your help because my parent never send me to canada better life for a long time also i have two adorable son my first son wil be 8 years old and my second son he will be 7 months old this month we all want to live in toronto canada because i was born there so please help us right now my mind all confused because my family dont help me nothin all my life since i was born hope to hear from u soon please help us my family hate me because of my disability and my parent push me out to find place of my own but life not easy here trinidad so help us and send us back to live toronoto

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