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Personal Reflections on the Cross-Disability Movement

Editor's Note: Yvonne Peters is a human rights lawyer in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

It is probably fair to say that, as a young blind person, I was a bit of an individual maverick. I believed that if I tried hard enough I could overcome negative stereotypes and barriers all by myself. But the wind was taken out of my self-righteous sails when I discovered that I could not count on the law for support.

It was the late 70s and I was finishing my social work degree. I had to do a paper on the law and the rights of workers. As I went about conducting my research, I came across the Saskatchewan Human Rights Code. I was excited to learn that a law existed prohibiting discrimination on a number of grounds, but deeply disappointed to learn that disability was not one of them.

The fact that some people were protected, and others were not, was enormously shocking and seemed a glaring injustice to me. This point was made even more profound as I applied for jobs and encountered a variety of ludicrous and negative attitudes about employing a blind social worker. I had no legal recourse, while others experiencing similar discrimination did. When I realized that I could not count on the law for help, I knew that more than individual resolve was needed.

A community activist friend of mine told me about the Saskatchewan Voice of the Handicapped (a provincial cross-disability organization) and the work it was doing to promote the rights of persons with disabilities. I was sceptical, but agreed to attend a meeting. The relief and empowerment I felt when I connected with like-minded people, who were as outraged and as passionate for change as myself, was a life-changing experience.

Others, more seasoned than I, introduced me to the world of politics. I learned how to lobby, marshal convincing arguments, and rally others to the cause. When we succeeded in securing comprehensive inclusion of disability rights in the Saskatchewan Human Rights Code, I became a committed disability rights activist.

Initially, I was hesitant to become involved with people with different types of disabilities. I didn't really consider myself to be a person with a disability; I was capable and independent, and eventually I would prove this to those around me. If I am honest, I think I was worried about the stigma of association. But, the more I ventured out into the "real” world, the more I realized that my perceptions were misguided and based on false bravado. Moreover, my work in the women's movement had taught me that discrimination was real and that collective action was an effective way to overcome oppression. And so eventually I came to realize that disability was more political than personal.

Back in the 70s, the idea of disability rights was just beginning to take shape. There were very few disability-focused organizations that promoted a human rights discourse. Most organizations were in the business of providing services for persons with disabilities, promoting activities that were recreational or social in nature, or raising funds to support disability charities.

But the rise of the American civil rights movement, and the demand for equality by soldiers disabled by the Vietnam war, provided inspiration for Canadian activists. It motivated persons with disabilities to demand rights rather than charity, and to begin laying down the foundation for a Canadian disability rights movement.

Fortunately for me, the rise of the disability rights movement, and my political consciousness raising about disability, more or less occurred around the same time. So joining the Voice of the Handicapped to push for protection of our human rights was a logical choice for me. Moreover, as I indicated earlier, it was the only political forum I knew of at the time that was concerned about eliminating disability-based discrimination and achieving equality. I was hooked and I threw my heart and sole into the movement.

The cross-disability movement brings together people with a variety of different disabilities. The rationale underpinning cross-disability is the shared experience of exclusion and discrimination, and the collective desire for social change. It also promotes standards and solutions that take into account a range of needs, not just those of a particular group. For example, the concept of accessibility no longer means just access for persons who use wheelchairs, but also includes audible and tactile cues for blind persons and visual cues for deaf and hard of hearing persons. The cross-disability concept has therefore helped to create a dynamic, comprehensive and inclusive approach to disability rights.

What is less certain is how well the cross-disability movement addresses the unique and specific issues that arise from having a particular disability, such as being blind or partially sighted. Arguably, the cross-disability movement does not have the time, resources or expertise to fully analyze various issues and their unique impact on particular disability groups. Thus, specific disability issues may not receive the attention or profile required to bring about timely and meaningful change.

I am therefore very supportive of a partnership approach to disability rights. This is the approach promoted by the Council of Canadians with Disabilities (CCD), the national Canadian cross-disability organization. Originally, the CCD National Council was made up exclusively of provincial/territorial cross-disability organizations. However, over time, the CCD came to recognize the necessity and value of working with single-disability or single-issue national organizations. Thus, the current CCD Council is made up of both cross-disability organizations and national organizations that promote issues relevant to a specific disability (such as the Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians), specific topic (like education), or specific target group (such as women with disabilities).

I believe that Canada has an impressive history of persons with disabilities collaborating and working together for change. The cross-disability movement gave us our voice and a forum for organizing and developing a disability rights analysis. But I also believe that single focus disability rights organizations have their place in the quest for equality. Their expertise and experience provide the substance and depth required to achieve equality that is inclusive and transformative for all Canadians with disabilities.