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The Swinging Pendulum

Editor's Note: Editors Note: The following article is based on the Keynote Speech delivered by John Rae at the Public Service Alliance of Canada's access 99 Conference in Montreal, October 1, 1999.

Benjamin Franklin's famous observation that ... in this world nothing is certain but death and taxes is well-known to all!However, even the most cursory reviews of the events of the 20th century requires the addition of at least one additional axiom, change.

During the twentieth century, the world has experienced faster and more profound change than in all previous centuries of human existence. Some of that change is permanent and part has been more transitory. The pendulum has swung forward and backwards.

During the 20th century, we have witnessed the invention of the aeroplane and we are now in the jet age, where the world has become smaller and international travel has become the norm. We have survived the horrors of two World Wars, the Cold War, and we have witnessed the rise and fall of the Berlin Wall. Television was invented, and now we have instant news from the four corners of the world on the nightly news. The first atomic bomb was dropped; we came perilously close to the brink of nuclear annihilation, and now that pendulum has swung back at least a little. We have seen the rise and retreat of communism and the demise of apartheid. Our parents lived through the depression, and we have experienced economic growth and recession, and now the world is gripped by globalisation. And, of course, there is the greatest source of change, the computer which has brought us all into the information age.

For us as blind and otherwise disabled people, the 20th century also saw many significant changes, both in the development of new devices to assist us in our daily lives, and also in the ways in which we are perceived and how we view ourselves. Again, the pendulum has swung forward and back.

Many devices have been invented, and more are on the horizon. For us as blind persons, we now have greater access to print material than ever before, but still we have access to only a small portion of the information that is readily available to our sighted friends.

Some ask, if they can put a man on the moon, why cant they put Braille on my stove, my VCR, or voice the phone number at the end of an infomercial?

Studies tell us that attitudes have improved, and I believe this is true. However, our employment rate, even in good times, has failed to make significant strides forward. The computer was expected by many to be a virtual panacea for us, and it has made it possible for more well-educated and technically proficient disabled persons to work in highly technical jobs, but the bulk of persons with disabilities remain on the sidelines subsisting in chronic poverty.

Perhaps the greatest change for us as persons with disabilities is in the area of perception. Societal attitudes have changed, as have the ways we view ourselves. In the earlier parts of this century, we were gripped by the hide them away syndrome where persons with disabilities were often housed in large institutions, hidden away from the rest of the community. The de-institutionalisation movement has succeeded in closing many of these huge institutions, but the funding needed to realise the promised new age of community-based alternatives has often been thwarted by government cutbacks.

We were held back by the professional ethic and the medical model, where various professionals tried to control our lives, believing they knew what was best for us. While vestiges of their old attitudes still remain, many professionals have taken on a new approach where the individual is fully involved in determining his/her future.

In the 1970s, a real revolution swept through the Canadian disabled community. We came together, began to organise, and examined our situation. This movement developed a new approach to our situation. We developed a social construction model of disability (see the excerpt from Yvonne Peters speech elsewhere in this issue), which holds that our society is constructed with able-bodied persons in mind. In other words, our society holds the real barriers to our integration and participation.

At the same time, a more rights based approach emerged. We lobbied successfully for inclusion in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and provincial and territorial human rights codes. Since the enactment of the Charter, Canada has become a far more litigious society. Some noteworthy legal decisions have been handed down, and we must continue to look for significant, winnable cases that will help expand our rights.

But again, the pendulum has swung. Throughout the 80s and early 90s, we made considerable strides in having our issues seen as front page news and rights based. However, nowadays, there is a strong neo-conservative wind blowing throughout the world. It extols voluntarism and downplays government regulation and group rights in favour of individualism and globalisation where business is now ascendant. Will that pendulum swing back to a more balanced approach?

The history of the 20th century shows us that some changes are permanent and others more transitory. We may expect to see similar trends in this new century.

The disability rights movement must remain vigilant to preserve the gains we have won, attempt to set the agenda to achieve new opportunities, work for a kinder, gentler society, and look for new ways to develop coalitions and partnerships to help advance our agenda.

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