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Advocacy: An Important Feature of Canadian Democracy

Editor's Note: Editors Note: The following is an excerpt from Speaking Notes for Yvonne Peters address at the 25 Years of Advocacy Celebration, Windsor, Ontario, October 22, 1999. Yvonne Peters is a well-known disability-rights lawyer, who lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

I would like to thank Citizen Advocacy and Legal Assistance Windsor for inviting me to join you today to celebrate 25 years of advocacy. I am particularly delighted with the theme you have chosen. I say this because these days, social justice advocacy is not very popular among certain sectors of our society. In fact, because of the negative reaction associated with the idea of advocacy by certain powerful institutions, some of the organisation's I work with are now avoiding the word advocacy and substituting it with words such as public education and community development. But, as we rush headlong towards privatisation, cuts to social programs, the increasing demand for tax cuts and economic globalisation, vigilant advocacy is needed now more than ever before.

Over the past several years, the voices of the minority and the less powerful have collected together and attempted, through political and legal advocacy, to influence the way our society operates. Critics argue that such tactics are anti-democratic. But the reality is that for the moment, Canadian governments are obsessed with getting re-elected and are thus loathe to ruffle the major feathers. As a result, issues that involve the elimination of discrimination and the promotion of equality for disadvantaged persons are not high, or even an item, on the political agenda of most politicians.

Advocacy is, of course, a very broad concept and can take many forms. Interestingly, it was my social work studies that really taught me the need for advocacy and collective action. I was doing some research for a paper on the rights of workers and came across the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission. This was back in the 70s, and I was stunned to learn that people with disabilities were not (then) protected from discrimination in employment.

To make a long story short, I soon realised that there were some things that I alone could not change. I joined the disability rights movement and learned from the pros what real advocacy was all about. Although law school attempted to teach me about legal analysis and legal reasoning, I think I received my best training in this regard from my involvement in the disability rights movement.

In my experience, advocacy has taken on a multidimensional meaning. It is sometimes personal, sometimes political and sometimes legal. The fact is, you probably need all three forms to bring about social change. I therefore, commend Citizen Advocacy and Legal Assistance Windsor, who together engage in all three (and maybe more) forms of advocacy.

Political Advocacy

The 1970s saw the rise of numerous advocacy, or as I call them, equality rights organisation's. Organisation's representing women, racialised people, people with disabilities, poor people and gays and lesbians struggled to have a voice in the political arena. Some of these organisation's even managed to obtain government funding. You could say that the 1970s began the era of identity politics; that is, equality seekers organised along lines of race, sex, disability etc.

These organisation's played a significant role in identifying discriminatory attitudes and carriers and in defining solutions for equality. Numerous government reports and studies were produced, documenting the various inequalities experienced by equality-seekers. For example, the women's movement was instrumental in bringing about the Royal Commission Report on the Status of Women the recommendations of which are still in the process of being implemented. Political organising was also empowering for those persons who had no voice within mainstream politics. This was certainly the case for persons with disabilities who, through self-help and advocacy tactics, helped to transform society's thinking about disability. In the 1970s and 1980s I spent a lot of time drinking bad coffee and talking about how to construct a disability rights framework. I would therefore like to spend a few minutes talking about the role that the disability rights movement played in shifting the concept of disability from a medical model to a rights-based model because, I think it illustrates how advocacy can influence our thinking and analysis.

Prior to the 1970s, the problems associated with having a disability were located with the individual. Disability was regarded as a medical problem requiring the care and intervention of professionals such as doctors, social workers and rehabilitation counsellors. Consequently, many people with disabilities were isolated from society and forced to live in conditions of dependency and oppression. Framed as an illness or individual defect, disability was ascribed a negative value.

With the emergence of the disability rights movement, people with disabilities were able to challenge these negative assumptions and demonstrate that the problem was not with the individual, but with a society that was organised and structured with only able-bodied persons in mind. This analysis has lead to an understanding of disability as a social construct. In other words, the barriers that people with disabilities encounter are more likely to be caused by discriminatory social norms than by a persons particular disability.

This shift in thinking laid the groundwork for constructing a disability rights approach to address the equality claims of people with disabilities. Unfortunately, while a rights-based approach has helped to more clearly define the problem, it has not materially improved the lives of people with disabilities. Arguably then, the gains for people with disabilities have been more intellectual than tangible.

Of course, disability rights is one small piece of the overall advocacy picture. Thanks to advocacy groups, issues such as racism, sexism, homophobia and so on, have been brought out of the Canadian closet. So, the sectorial approach to equality (or identity politics) has unquestionably contributed to a deeper understanding of the particular inequalities experienced by various groups and individuals in our society. But, it has done something else. For many it has caused us to compartmentalise our life experiences.

For the most part, we are all made up of a variety of characteristics, and we live in a variety of circumstances. For example, I am a woman with a disability. My friend is an Aboriginal lesbian living in low income housing. The compartmentalised approach to equality invites us to fit our lives into little boxes which can fragment and distort our true life experience.

To further illustrate, I have been active in both the women's movement and the disability rights movement. In both cases I have struggled to express my full equality aspirations. The women's movement has trouble understanding the disability experience and the disability movement has trouble understanding the value of a feminist analysis.

Advocacy groups are not alone in this regard. Human rights legislation also requires a complainant to choose a box to describe her experience with discrimination. I confess, I'm not sure how we resolve this problem. On one hand, I recognise the value of specific equality seeking groups. On the other hand, I feel strongly that we need to transcend the boxes before we can fashion a comprehensive, inclusive definition of equality.

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