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Canada's Programs for Disabled Too Complex, Says OECD

Canadians with disabilities or health (issues) are caught in a complex web of federal and provincial programs that make it almost impossible for them to join or remain in the workforce, says a new OECD report. Few programs lift the disabled out of poverty and many seem to work at cross-purposes, says the report by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which looked at the major disability benefits and services offered by Ottawa and the provinces.

To improve programs and make it easier for the disabled to get help, the report recommends better federal-provincial coordination and "one-stop shopping" offices.

The 85-page report comes on the eve of a promised Ontario review of social assistance and mirrors many of the recommendations of a provincial expert panel that called for more coordination of federal and provincial programs for vulnerable working-age people.

"Even with better coordination, there is considerable room for streamlining by making provinces fully responsible for all employment measures and programming," says the OECD report, released this week.

Like many OECD countries, the report notes Canada's benefits and services are focused on what the sick and disabled cannot do rather than on what meaningful work they are able to do. Before the recession, just 60 per cent of Canadians with health (issues) or disabilities were in the workforce and their unemployment rate of more than 16 percent was twice as high as the general population, the report says.

A spokesperson for federal Human Resources Minister Diane Finley said the Harper government has taken "unprecedented action to support Canadians with disabilities" including the new Registered Disability Savings Program, Employment Insurance sickness benefits for the self-employed, and the Working Income Tax Benefit.

Mary Marrone, of Ontario's Income Security Advocacy Centre, welcomed the report's recommendation that Canada and other countries need to focus on people's abilities, not their disabilities. But she is concerned about the report's suggestion that countries should tie disability benefits to a person's efforts to work, even part-time. "We need to be providing real opportunities for people to work through employment support and accommodation and not make work an obligation for people with disabilities," she said in an interview.

Michael Mendelson of the Caledon Institute of Social Policy said Canada would be unwise to adopt one-stop shopping for the disabled before reforming the various federal and provincial programs. "Creating an integrated service as a Band-Aid over a dis-integrated system would just create one more layer of bureaucracy," he said. "The issue is the coordination of programs," said Mendelson. "We need to try to develop our income security system as a whole."

Reprinted from The Toronto Star, October 3, 2010, courtesy of Torstar Syndication Services.

Our Rights, Our Future: A Rights-Holder Perspective

Editor's Note: The following are notes for the President's Report delivered by Robin at the opening of AEBC's 2010 Conference and Annual General Meeting (AGM) in Montreal, Quebec.

I would like to welcome all of you to our Conference and AGM in Montreal. I am sure you will enjoy your visit here. I hope you meet some old friends and get acquainted with some new folks from across the country. Please join me in thanking the organizing committee--Anthony Tibbs, Marc Workman, Natalie Martiniello, Heather Rupert, Rosie Arcuri, Ezra Chitayat, Paulo Monteagudo--and the rest of the Montreal Chapter for working hundreds of hours to make this weekend a success.

I would also like to thank the 2009-10 Board of Directors for their commitment of valuable time and hard work to the AEBC. Each National Board member devotes many hours each week to promote the goals and objectives of our organization. Denise Sanders is leaving the Board after serving four terms, two each as Treasurer and Director Without Portfolio. She plans to stay involved on the Communications Working Group and will continue to participate with the Kelowna Chapter.

Welcome to all the new members who have joined AEBC during the past year.

To all the Chapters, I thank Executive members for their commitment to the work of AEBC. Also, I would like to thank the Affiliate for all its hard work in British Columbia. Further thanks go out to our National Committees, including scholarship, finance/fundraising, human resources, membership and policy development, and their many working groups.

I am pleased to report that, for the 2009-10 academic year, AEBC awarded three scholarships and two bursaries: The AEBC Rick Oakes Scholarship for the Arts to Mr. Allan Angus; The AEBC National Achievement Scholarship to Mr. Anthony Tibbs; The Alan H. Neville Memorial Scholarship to Ms. Helen McFadyen; The Reverend Leslie Ball Bursary for the Performing Arts to Mr. Koceïla Louali; and The Reverend Leslie Ball Bursary for Vocational Training and Trades to Ms. Stephanie Berry. Congratulations to the winners. We wish them all the best in their studies and future plans.

AEBC has been very active during the past year. Discussions have taken place over the past several months between representatives of consumer organizations of blind Canadians, CNIB, the Learning Disabilities Association of Canada and the Council of Canadians with Disabilities. These discussions have been aimed at drafting recommendations on how a new network hub responsible for coordinating access to library services for print disabled Canadians should be designed and operated. Final recommendations were submitted to Library and Archives Canada (LAC), which is drafting a proposal to be sent to Cabinet. There will be future opportunities for AEBC and individual members to have further input into this process.

AEBC’s National Board of Directors has approved these recommendations with one exception: we have a membership resolution in place stating that any entity like the one being proposed be government run and operated. This resolution prevents the AEBC from endorsing that particular recommendation; however, the Board supports the remaining recommendations.

AEBC has also been meeting with other national rights-holder organizations and CNIB to attempt to form a national coalition that will work collaboratively on common issues. The main purpose of these meetings was to build on some of the momentum established over the last several months as these and other disability groups worked on the library issue.

Everyone seemed to agree that the working relationship was positive and productive, but if it is to continue operating as anything more than an ad hoc coalition, we needed to determine and clearly articulate the structure, roles and operations of the coalition and its various member organizations. In May, the groups met for two days in Toronto, and developed terms of reference for the Coalition. Each participating organization is to discuss the outcome of these meetings, and indicate its participation in the coalition. It is expected the groups will not meet again until the fall of 2010, and in the meantime work is to begin on access to PIN-and-card and point-of-sale devices.

A resolution will be introduced to you, the members, at this Conference to endorse AEBC's participation in this coalition.

Over the past year, the AEBC National Board has been engaged in a comprehensive review of our activities. Our goal has been to determine those areas where we are most effective, and those in which our performance or effectiveness could be improved. Discussion of this review will take place at this Conference.

We also need to work on our communications strategy. The present redesign of the national website will go a long way toward addressing this concern, by collecting information on each “issue” (elections, quiet cars, education, etc.) into a central location; however, our internal communications (among Chapters, members and the National Board) also needs an overhaul. This Conference will give you the opportunity, as members, to participate in determining how AEBC will go about communicating our future activities to you. The final plan will need "buy-in" from all levels of the organization--Chapters, committees and the National Board--to be successful.

Several years ago, Donna Jodhan, our 2nd Vice President, launched a Charter case in which she is challenging the Canadian government over inaccessible websites and unequal access to information. Donna, with her lawyers and supporters, including AEBC, has been fighting to force the federal government to make its websites and information accessible and usable. Unfortunately, to date, the Canadian government has ignored all requests to settle this ongoing action. Donna's case, on behalf of all Blind Canadians, will be heard in federal court on September 21-23, 2010. The AEBC fully supports this landmark access case, and we urge members of our community to come out and show their support. (Editor’s Note: Please see “Challenging the System” elsewhere in these pages for further details and an update on the case.)

AEBC continues to submit briefs and make presentations on issues of concern. More and more, we are being recognized by all levels of government as the real voice of Canadians with significant vision impairment.

Our activities over the past year (2009-10) have included: meeting with representatives from the Office of Disability Issues re a national ID card; hosting Michel Grenier, Director of Library and Archives Canada (LAC) at our November Board meeting; making a presentation to the review of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA); a presentation on poverty to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills and Social Development (HRSD); presenting Webzine on the AODA and the Accessibility Standards development process for Citizens With Disabilities-Ontario (CWDO); a presentation to the Standing Committee on Social Policy for Bill 152, an act respecting a long-term strategy to reduce poverty in Ontario; meeting with HRSD Canada Special Advisor to Minister to discuss funding, hybrid cars, electronic voting, library issues etc.; participating in Canada Transportation Agency Advisory Committee meetings; Speaking on advocacy and facilitating a workshop at the annual Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) Action Coalition Conference, entitled Leading the Way: Developing a Poverty Reduction Strategy for People with Disabilities; speaking on a panel at Sick and Tired of Being Sick and Tired: Taking Action on Poverty, Poor Health and Bad Jobs, sponsored by the Toronto Social Planning Council; and attending the Saskatchewan Legislative Assembly on the introduction of the Blind Voters Rights Bill.

Briefs and position papers we have submitted include: Electoral Accessibility: A Key to Equality, to the Standing Committee on the Legislative Assembly of Ontario; Status of the AODA; Copyright Consultation; National Economic Strategy, to the Standing Committee on Finance; Review of the Municipal Elections Act, to the Ontario Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing; Bill 152, an act respecting a long-term strategy to reduce poverty in Ontario, to the Standing Committee on Social Policy; and Information and Communication Accessibility Standard (ICAS), to the Ontario Ministry of Community and Social Services.

More details on our activities can be found by visiting our website: http://www.blindcanadians.ca (Editor’s Note: Also see “Headlines & Highlights” in these pages for updated information).

Finally, some AEBC members believe our organization would be more successful if we concentrated our efforts on fewer issues. This is an understandable view but potentially problematic, due to the vast number of other barriers blind Canadians continue to face daily. We, as a national organization and the voice of the blind, cannot ignore these issues. However, I believe that becoming more focused on a few issues can be achieved, as long as we still recognize there are many issues related to blindness that need to be addressed, albeit at a lower priority.

Over the past few months, the AEBC Board has been discussing the idea of trying to find three to five "issues" that we, as an organization, can prioritize so that our actions are focused and more effective. A large list of issues that matter to blind, deaf-blind and partially sighted members was drawn up primarily from the brainstorming session at the face-to-face Board meeting that took place in Toronto. We started out with a list of more than 20 items, which we then proceeded to merge and eliminate, combine and rewrite. We also recently conducted a poll among the membership to ascertain which issues you consider the most important. The results will help guide the discussions at this year's Conference.

The outcome of these discussions, in many ways, will be a difficult task for each of you to consider. The issues are all very important, and it will be hard to choose a few that deserve to have a higher priority than others. However, we need to face the question of whether we can achieve more by becoming focused.

An AEBC member is a rights-holder who inspires empowerment and addresses our rights for the future.

Each member of this organization needs to advocate and be part of the common voice of the blind. We, as a community, need to work together, speak out, and take action. We must work in our local Chapters, through our National Committee's, and as a national voice to ensure our rights are entrenched. Our advocacy must become focused, and yet we must continue to address the wide range of barriers we face.

Our rights and our future are in your hands.

Technology and Independence?

Editor's Note: Mitch Pomerantz is the President of the American Council of the Blind.

Recently, I was thinking about all of the tasks I perform as ACB president and how many of those tasks are done via computer and email. The catalyst for such thoughts was the failure of the primary ACB server and the resulting crash of our website. I then began musing over how ACB presidents prior to Paul Edwards handled their duties, particularly those which could be considered time-sensitive in nature: reviewing contracts, approving press releases, commenting quickly on governmental policy documents, to mention only three. Of course, we've conducted business on the telephone for as long as ACB has existed, but where printed material is involved, the phone is not a great option.

Next came the discussion on both Leadership and ACB-L of the announcement of the iBill, the low-cost electronic currency identifier. Would such a device help make blind and visually impaired people more independent? Does it further increase our dependence on technology? And would introduction of this device jeopardize ACB's efforts to get the Department of the Treasury to implement a non-technological solution to inaccessible currency? As a result, I've been engaging in an internal debate over whether the proliferation of such devices promotes or inhibits our independence.

Before going further, let me offer my disclaimer. Yes, I use a computer, but by no means do I consider myself a techie. Those who know me at all call me a dinosaur, a moniker which I grudgingly accept. My perspective is that I want the computer (or whatever the technology being utilized) to work when needed; I could care less how it functions. I don't want to be like those early operators of automobiles who not only had to know how to drive their horseless carriage, but also how to repair it when it broke down, something which occurred frequently. I neither have the time nor the inclination for that.

Having provided the foregoing as background, I'd like to explore whether the growing use of technology by blind and visually impaired people enhances our independence, or whether we are substituting one form of dependence for another. Clearly, widespread use of access technology has lessened--but certainly not totally eliminated--our need for sighted assistance to accomplish some tasks. Devices such as talking calculators, global positioning systems (GPS's) and microwaves allow us to do many more everyday tasks with minimal or no help from family members, friends, co-workers or strangers.

In the late 1970s, my employer purchased one of TSI's Speech-Plus talking calculators, which I used regularly to do the budget work that was a part of my job at the time. That device made it possible for me to perform what was an "essential function" of the job. Incidentally, several of my co-workers liked to borrow that calculator to do their own work as it meant they didn't need to keep glancing from the screen to the paper upon which they were writing. They simply listened and jotted figures.

Over the intervening decades, I've used a VersaBraille to draft reports and maintain records, and the omnipresent computer for reviewing and editing the work of my staff and communicating with employees in other departments. I am absolutely certain that I wouldn't have had the nearly 34-year career I recently concluded without access technology.

My reservations concerning our increasing dependence upon technology don't relate only to blind and visually impaired people, but to society as a whole. I can recall a number of occasions during the past several years at my former office when the city server went down and all our computers with it. What did I and my co-workers do during those two or three hours of non-connectivity? Absolutely nothing! We've all heard someone almost panic when discovering that their cell phone or PDA (personal digital assistant) wasn't with them. These days everyone must be connected at all times!

For blind and visually impaired people, more and more of us are going into serious debt in order to buy the latest and greatest access gadget. We feel compelled to keep up with the proverbial Joneses--in this instance, our friends who are snapping up accessible iPods, talking GPS units and cell phones that allow us to listen to music and browse the web, exactly like our sighted peers.

I question whether this rush to own ever-cooler technology is helping to make us truly independent. Can we do simple math without a calculator or spell a word correctly without spell-check? Can we get from point A to point B without relying upon something telling us where we are every block? Must we carry yet one more electronic gadget to identify our money? Have we traded one form of dependence for another? Personally, I believe that's just what we've done. And by the way, my misgivings apply to the broader society, not only to our relatively small community.

What I'm advocating here is that no matter how many talking devices we choose to buy, we must maintain those skills which technology is making easier for us to perform. Keep up your braille, O&M, math and spelling and old-fashioned daily living skills. Don't become too dependent on technology; after all, power fails, batteries die, and devices stop working. Remain or become as self-reliant as possible. Let's distinguish between necessity and convenience.

Reprinted from the Braille Forum, Volume XLVIII, No. 6, December 2009.

Advocates for the Blind Take Aim at Touch-Screen Terminals

Have you seen those Visa commercials where everything in the store suddenly stops because some poor soul tries to pay old-school with a check? That's what it's like every time a blind person approaches a touch-screen terminal.

They have no trouble pulling out their debit or credit card, of course. But how can a sightless person conduct a private and secure transaction with a touch-screen ATM (automatic teller machine) or point-of-sale (POS) terminal that has no tactile keyboard, or failing that, an audio jack?

Jonathan Simeone, a blind lawyer who specializes in disability law, had just such a screeeeeech! moment at a grocery store recently. "I couldn't do debit because I wouldn't give them my PIN (personal identification number), so I had to switch from debit to credit. Since they had already rung me up, the cashier had to find a manager who knew how to print out a paper credit card receipt and I had to sign that. Because I couldn't do those things, it held up the line for a minute."

Blind People Often Prefer Plastic: Don't misunderstand: The nation's 3.3 million blind people are big on credit cards. In fact, many prefer them to cash. Why? Because the United States stands alone among 180 currency-issuing jurisdictions as the only country that prints its bills the same size and colour in all denominations, thereby rendering them inaccessible to the blind.

The blind overcome their payment challenges in clever ways: They organize or fold their bills differently to distinguish between denominations of cash, and apply braille stickers or use other tactile methods to identify their credit cards. But there's no easy workaround for a touch-screen interface; without a tactile keyboard or audio, the whole screen becomes one big stop button for the blind.

"We are not generally happy about the proliferation of touch-screen technology because it's not a technology we can use," says Chris Danielsen, a blind spokesman for the National Federation of the Blind (NFB). "At the very least, blind people need tactile buttons, where we know there's a raised dot on the 5 of a telephone keypad or bumps on the F and J of a computer keypad. If it's just a touch screen, we can't do anything with that type of technology unless it includes some other interface that allows the blind person to use it."

Entering PINs a Problem: Danielsen says debit transactions are particularly vexing because they typically require a PIN. "If the machine doesn't have a tactile keypad, then you can't enter your PIN and your only option is to recite your PIN to the salesperson, which is obviously not a good idea," he says.

But even credit card purchases carry additional risk for the blind.

Touch Screens Pose New Difficulties for the Blind: The problem: New payment technologies, such as touch-screen interfaces in stores, are often built without tactile cues that allow the blind to use them.

Who's affected: The 3.3 million blind people in the United States.

What's next: Advocates for the blind are seeking voluntary, and where necessary, legally mandated changes so that such technologies have alternative access for the blind.

"You have no way of knowing, when you sign the receipt, what they have charged on your credit card," says Melanie Brunson, executive director of the American Council of the Blind (ACB), who has been blind since birth. She found out the hard way: Her credit card information was once stolen, she suspects, by a sales clerk, leaving her with a half-dozen purchases to challenge.

Cut Off by the Cutting Edge: Blind advocates point out that public accommodations brought about under the landmark Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 have frequently benefited non-disabled Americans as well. For example, curb cuts make pedestrian travel easier for everyone. And you don't have to be deaf to enjoy closed captioning at health clubs and sports bars.

The ACB recently won a seven-year battle with the Treasury Department that is expected to finally make U.S. currency accessible in the coming years. Danielsen predicts that such a redesign will prove a particular boon to aging baby boomers.

"The baby boom generation is about to hit retirement and a lot of seniors lose vision," he says. "Diabetes is the No. 1 cause of blindness and that is commonly understood to be an epidemic in this country, so more and more people are experiencing this."

Thanks to technology, the blind can surf the internet with the aid of screen-reading programs. Unfortunately, another technological marvel, the touch screen, has left the vision-impaired cut off by the cutting edge.

"I don't understand how touch screens make it easier for a sighted person," says Simeone. "I can't think of a practical advantage to why sighted people need to have touch screens. We have buttons on our telephones, we have buttons on our computer keyboards. I mean, what's the big deal?"

The big deal, of course, lies deep in the American appetite for wonderment and a consumer products industry that thrives on innovation, often for its own sake. For the sightless, the substitution of touch screens for tactile dials on everything from stoves and voting machines to elevators and iPhones seems like a giant step backward in functionality.

"Now that you have things going to touch screen, it's very hard for a blind person to set the temperature setting on an oven or what have you," says Danielsen. "The solution to that is to have tactile buttons and uniform settings, for example, so that you know that an oven always starts at 200 degrees, for example, and every time you touch the UP arrow, it's going to advance by 25 degrees."

Ending Design Dissonance: The NFB has a robust initiative surrounding "universal design" that encourages--or, if necessary, seeks to force--industries, including the makers of ATMs and POS terminals, to design products everyone can use. It recently convinced ATM manufacturing giant Diebold to voluntarily make its cash machines accessible with audio prompts. In a similar agreement, Cardtronics Inc., the nation's largest non-bank owner of ATMs, agreed to install audio jacks in some 29,000 ATMs nationwide.

Danielsen says significant progress has been made with bank-owned ATMs, most of which now offer a tactile keypad option or audio jack to complement at least some, if not all, of their touch-screen interfaces. But the sledding has been much slower with POS and non-bank ATM manufacturers.

"People wrongly assume the ADA solved all of this. It did not; it made clear what the legal requirements were. Unfortunately, the ADA isn't self-executing; the Justice Department is supposed to enforce it, but they have to receive complaints. And that doesn't happen automatically. We have a handful of agreements in which merchants have said they simply won't buy machines that aren't accessible, but those are few and far between."

Merchants, after all, are disinclined to pressure their equipment suppliers to make design changes for which they may ultimately pick up the tab.

Simeone says that unlike the one-on-one battle for accessible currency that pitted ACB against the Treasury, bringing the POS and ATM industry to adopt universal design might require numerous lawsuits and years of legal arm wrestling. "This may be more appropriate for a legislative solution, where point-of-sale devices would have to be covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act," he says.

If there's a positive note for the blind in this design dissonance, it's that they are finally being recognized as a consumer force worth accommodating--and courting.

"Thirty, 40 years ago, there weren't as many disabled people out and about doing stuff," says Danielsen. "We're not terribly far removed from the time when most disabled people didn't work and stayed in their home or some institution. It's our function at the NFB to say, 'Hey, we are out here. We would love to do business with you. We would love to spend our money. We just need some accommodation in order to be able to do that.'"

(C) 2010 CreditCards.com, all rights reserved. Reprinted with permission, October 8, 2008. Original URL: http://www.creditcards.com/credit-card-news/blind-advocates-target-touch-screen-terminals-1282.php

Photo: Touch Screen Terminal

Then and Now - Is Anyone Listening?

Editor's Note: Chris Stark is an AEBC member in Ontario and has received several AEBC advocacy awards.

One evening in 1990, my wife and I received a call from Irene Lambert, a founder of AEBC's Montréal Chapter. She said her phone company was going to charge for directory assistance but not give her a phone book she could read, and she asked if anything could be done. This request started a fifteen year struggle with the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), which culminated in the 2008 hearing and report on accessible phone and television services. While this particular need was solved and free directory assistance for persons who are blind was ordered early on, that was only the tip of the iceberg regarding inaccessibility. Since then, numerous telephone, cell phone and broadcasting complaints have been filed.

According to the CRTC, Canadian carriers must provide, upon request, billing statements and inserts in braille, large print or on computer diskette. The Commission further found that a carrier may also provide billing information in any other alternative format(s) agreed upon between the carrier and its customer. In addition, customers must be advised of the availability of new services. In Order 96-1191, the Commission ordered Bell to send an insert in braille to its blind subscribers, and to report on other steps taken to advise them of the availability of billing information in alternative formats.

Canadian carriers providing public pay phones are required to install sets that include, at a minimum, certain functionalities, when they replace or upgrade their existing sets or when they install pay telephones in new locations. These include: larger buttons spread further apart on the keypad; bright, contrasting-colour coin and/or card mechanisms; a feature enabling the user to start the call over if an error is made; a screen displaying context-sensitive dialling instructions in a larger size than possible with printed instruction cards; a card-reader for a variety of telephone cards; and voice prompts for placing calls or using features. The CRTC observed that same functionality would help with cell phone and terminals sold to the public. However, most of these mandated services, particularly notice of service change and enhancements, are not regularly provided today.

With regard to TV, the CRTC's Report on Interactive Television Services states, in 6.6 Accessibility (for persons with Disabilities):

"Two parties, the Starks and the (AEBC) raised concerns about the accessibility of new technologies, equipment and services for people who are blind or partially sighted. They pointed out that digital set top boxes now provide detailed information in a print format that is unusable to people who are blind or partially sighted.

"They stated that digital terminals should be able to provide on-screen information in an accessible format, both in large print and synthetic speech. It recommended that if such technologies do not already exist, the introduction of interactive digital services should be stopped so that the industry can ensure that the equipment used to provide such services is accessible.

"The Starks called upon the Commission to take a more proactive stance when it comes to addressing accessibility issues. They were critical of the Commission for not addressing the need for access in its public notices and proceedings.

"The Starks recommended that no digital service should be licensed or renewed, and no set-top box should be allowed to be attached to the broadcasting system until the ability of the company and the technology to serve people who are blind has been put in the equipment."

Nearly a year after this CRTC report was released, little improvement has been seen. The CRTC must bear most of the responsibility and accountability for the shocking lack of access for people who are blind and partially sighted. The Commission could have, and should have, made accessibility a condition of its decisions to forbear regulating telephone terminals, cell phones, and TV set-top boxes. Furthermore, when we go to the Commission for help, our experience is that it fosters an adjudicative confrontational environment, where citizens are pitted against gaggles of company lawyers, service provider associations, and those types of profiteers. The CRTC has treated filed complaints as nuisances, even though it knows blind people pay more for services, or go without them altogether, because of inaccessible features. Canadians who are blind and partially sighted still face the technological barriers of Canada's telephone and broadcasting services as informationally disadvantaged citizens.

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

Looking Out/looking in

Two winters ago, I was involved in a project called "Looking Out/Looking In", Women, Poverty, and Public Policy. This photovoice exhibit offered me and nine other women living in poverty, the opportunity to express ourselves through photographs and words--to portray our negative and positive viewpoints and feelings about what living in poverty is like for each of us.

"A vision-impaired person taking photographs?" you say. Yes, indeed.

Although I have enough sight to point the camera and take pictures, I have no doubt that someone without any sight could also have participated in the project, as did one of the women who did not have use of her hands.

Women involved with the project were from a variety of backgrounds and included women who were: single, Aboriginal, mothers, disabled, wives etc.

A couple of goals of the project were to hopefully bust some of the negative stereotypes that society has about poor people. Some of the people we were hoping to influence with our photos were the front line workers of service agencies, as well as the commercial and business sector. We also wanted to influence the policy makers to change policies around the issues affecting the lives of women and their families who live in poverty.

All that aside, I as a vision-impaired person found it to be a unique challenge and opportunity to not only express myself verbally on something deeply personal, but also to express myself through a visual medium.

Each woman was given a disposable camera for a couple of months and asked to take pictures of what was meaningful to her. I found that I was more inclined to express my feelings and thoughts about the economics of my life, rather than the vision-impaired angle. I guess that makes sense, since the overlying theme was poverty.

One cannot help wondering how being a person with a disability, and specifically a vision disability, played into my perspectives, and into my being involved in a project on poverty in the first place. This project also reinforced the fact that lack of eyesight is not all of who I am, and surprisingly--yet fortunately--being poor for over four decades is not all of who I am either.

Since the exhibit was put together, we continue to show it publicly at conferences, churches, organizations etc. I hope you will appreciate a few of my photos and the messages that I am trying to convey.

Photo: A dark gray cat with white chest and face sitting upright facing forward with one paw slightly raised

Captions: Suicide Prevention

I live alone and often suffer from depression and yet I am not allowed enough money to feed and care for my ?antidepressant.' If I commit suicide, who will take care of her?

Photo: The a full length silloette of a woman in dark clothes with her face covered. She is wearing her bra and panties on the outside of her clothing.

Caption: Walking Around In My Underwear As a person who has had to rely on social programs most of my life, I feel like public property. I have very little privacy and freedom to control myown affairs and create my own identity. I also don't get to participate equally in my community.

Photo: A pair of women's low healed dark dress sandals

Caption: Comfortable Shoes/Scared For My Life If I want to go out at night, I walk. Most people do not want their mother/daughter/sister/wife walking in the streets after dark, but it is okay for a partially sighted woman in poverty.

Photo: An empty coffee cup lying on it's side

Caption: My Cup Doth Not Runneth Over/I Have Nothing to Offer

I get the impression that society thinks that I have nothing to offer and it turns out that is true. I am so occupied using my energy surviving below the poverty line that I don't have anything extra to give.

Photo: A white push-button telephone

Caption: Waiting by the Phone

Surviving below the poverty line means being isolated from loved ones in good times and bad. I do not have any money to put toward long distance calls. I cannot reciprocate; I just get calls when other people feel like calling.

Photo: The view of a city skyline through some vertical and horizontal bars

Caption: Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood

With the amount of freedom and privacy taken away from me by the welfare system, it is difficult for me to appreciate a beautiful day without feeling like I'm looking at it from behind the oppressive bars of the prison of poverty. In order to survive, I cheat a little from time to time and pay the price of feeling like a criminal.

Poverty: The Poor Are Sick and Tired, Study Says

More money in people's pockets creates more opportunities

Being poor will make you sick or send you to an early grave at alarmingly higher rates than if you are a middle- or upper-income earner. That was a key finding of a report released Monday at a community forum on health and poverty held at the YMCA in downtown Toronto.

While the report, called Sick and Tired, looked at the health risks faced by welfare and disability recipients and the working poor across Ontario, Toronto's high levels of poverty result in more low-income earners (experiencing) medical problems, Toronto medical officer of health Dr. David McKeown said.

About 25 percent of Toronto residents live below the poverty line, twice the provincial average. A third of Toronto children are living in poverty compared to 19 percent nationally. Looking at different income increments, the report found residents living in rich neighbourhoods are less likely to (experience) health problems than those living in middle-income areas, who in turn are less likely to be sick than residents of poor communities, McKeown said.

The study found the median household income for social assistance recipients is $13,000 a year compared to $21,000 for the working poor and $80,000 for the non-poor. For almost every measurement--from suicide and depression to heart problems and arthritis--welfare recipients and the working poor are more at risk of health problems and death than the non-poor, said Andy Mitchell, one of the report's three-member research team. "When you have a higher income, you know how to get things done for yourself and your family," he said, adding higher-income earners are more adept at navigating medical and bureaucratic systems.

Raising a poor person's annual income by just $1,000 enables them to escape hundreds to thousands of chronic health conditions. "To me, that was very powerful," Mitchell said.

Meanwhile, while new immigrants come to Canada healthier than Canadian-born residents, they become sicker as lack of opportunities forces them into poverty, the study found.

The report's authors admit their findings tying poverty to health risks are nothing new. But as the economy worsens, they are calling on the province to address the issue in its spring budget. "The budget is an opportunity for the province to make a down payment on a poverty reduction strategy," said Michael Shapcott, Director of Community Engagement at the Wellesley Institute, which helped fund the study.

The report also laid out ten recommendations, including urging Queen's Park to establish an independent panel to set social assistance rates that reflect the actual cost of living in Ontario communities, and demanding the federal government introduce a national poverty reduction strategy with concrete targets and timelines.

John Rae, First Vice President of the Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians, and Mike Yale, Co-Chairperson of the ODSP (Ontario Disability Support Program) Action Coalition, are hoping politicians don't shelve the report like so many studies in the past. "Too many of the disabled community are marginalized and live in poverty. These reports confirm that fact again and again and again," Rae said. "We're looking for action, not just more studies. It (this study) confirms if you put money in people's pocket, it creates more opportunities to buy better food, to buy health care, to participate in the community, to go to entertainment. These things all benefit people's lives."

Yale, a North York resident, also doesn't want to see the study gather dust. "It won't mean anything unless it becomes part of government strategy," he said. "When a family has to decide between feeding itself or buying a winter coat, it is a serious problem and the government, in my view, hasn't shown it is serious about dealing with the disability pension."

Reprinted from Toronto Community News, February 10, 2009: www.insidetoronto.com

Demanding Dignity, Not Deprivation

Editor's Note: Mike Yale is Chair of AEBC's Poverty Committee. This is reprinted from the Huntsville Forester, September 26, 2007, just prior to the re-election of Ontario's Liberal government.

More than 232,000 Ontarians with disabilities have incomes of less than $1000 each month from their disability pensions. I have noted with interest that out of the 26 billion dollars worth of campaign promises made by the present Ontario government, not one dollar is applied to help raise recipients out of the mire of poverty in which so many attempt to survive.

Such poverty leads to isolation, ill health and hopelessness for many.

Did you know that if a disability pension recipient is lucky enough to find work, 50 percent of that person's wage is deducted from the next benefits cheque? While called an incentive, such a scheme is clearly a disincentive and a dignity reducer.

Why are the disabled singled out and punished by such a ludicrous strategy?

I demand that all candidates commit themselves to introducing a comprehensive poverty reduction strategy, based on the following key points:

  • Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) and Ontario Works (OW) rates need to be raised to provide for the real costs of living.

Despite the cost-of-living adjustments that have been made in the last few years, income support levels under ODSP have not recovered from the 12 years of decline in real purchasing power that occurred from 1993 to 2005. During this period, the value of ODSP monthly income dropped by 18%. The value of OW rates dropped more than 43%. Even with the latest increase, which recipients will only get at the end of 2007, people on social assistance will still not be able to afford safe housing or eat healthy foods.

Social assistance rates should reflect average market rents (as determined by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation); the average cost of a nutritious food basket (as determined by municipal boards of health); and other basic needs such as utilities, transportation, telephone, personal hygiene, etc. The rates should also be adjusted annually to inflation.

  • An Independent Commission should be established to make recommendations for setting social assistance rates.

ODSP and OW rates are not currently based on rational criteria such as the above measures, which would tie rates to the actual costs of living for individuals and families in need. With growing evidence of the long-term costs of poverty, experts--not politicians--should develop objective measures for determining social assistance rates. When the provincial government decided to raise MPPs' salaries, they relied on the recommendations of an independent review to determine the amount of the raise. There should be a similar process that is independent of government to recommend the appropriate criteria for determining social assistance levels.

The provincial government should establish an independent committee to develop rational criteria for determining the rates for OW and ODSP, based on the real costs of living, and commit to implementing the recommendations. This committee should include representation from recipients, disability and anti-poverty groups, and other stakeholders.

  • Low-income families need to get the full amount of the new Ontario Child Benefit more quickly, rather than getting only gradual increases over the next five years.

The new Ontario Child Benefit is scheduled to be implemented in July 2008 and is to increase gradually from $50/month/child to $90/month/child by 2011. $2.1 billion will be invested in the Ontario Child Benefit in the first five years, helping almost 1.3 million children annually, including children on OW and ODSP.

Families on OW and ODSP are struggling just to meet their basic needs. A single parent with one child on ODSP receives only $685 for shelter, while the average cost of a two-bedroom apartment in Ontario was $1153 in 2006.

A single parent on OW receives even less--$538. No one should have to choose between paying the rent and feeding the kids.

Families working for low wages and those struggling on ODSP and OW need the full $90/month/child now, not in 2011.

  • Accessibility of ODSP must be improved.

The Ministry of Community and Social Services is responsible for the delivery of ODSP. This is the same Ministry that introduced the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA, 2005) as a tool for achieving accessibility for all Ontarians with disabilities.

The experience of many persons with disabilities who have applied for benefits under ODSP, or who are currently in receipt of ODSP benefits, is that despite the AODA the ODSP is a program that is not fully accessible.

ODSP applicants and recipients report experiencing many barriers to access in applying to the program in receiving all the benefits that are available to them, and in receiving employment supports.

The provincial government needs to undertake a thorough accessibility audit of the entire ODSP system, as well as an audit of each individual office, including both income support and employment support. The audit must include consultation with stakeholders, including recipients, and should result in a comprehensive accommodations plan for ODSP service delivery.

An accessibility audit is a full review of how ODSP programs, services and activities are delivered to identify and remove all barriers in order to ensure that all applicants and recipients have equal opportunity to access all benefits and supports available to them under the ODSP Act. Examples of some of the barriers the audit should consider would be:

  • Are there policies or procedures that prevent someone with a disability from applying for benefits (such as requiring applicants to use the telephone to make an initial appointment, which excludes people who have no phone or have difficulty using one)?

  • Do caseworkers have a good enough understanding of the various disabilities of recipients to be able to provide any necessary accommodations?

  • Are there any eligibility requirements that tend to screen out people (such as requiring people to have large numbers of documents returned within a short time period)?

  • Does the language or format used in forms and letters make them inaccessible to some people with disabilities?

If Ontario is truly the province of prosperity and opportunity, as we are repeatedly told, then it is time to bring people with disabilities into the economic mainstream. All of us will have to deal with disability eventually, either experiencing disability ourselves as we grow older or with a member of our families. It is beyond time that we share our vast resources with the thousands who are marginalized by being forced to live in chronic poverty.

Parents With Disabled Children Need to Think Ahead

Editor's Note: This article is reprinted from the Daily Gleaner (Fredericton), May 24, 2006.

Lorraine Silliphant never wants to leave her son, but she knows someday she and her husband won't have a choice. Her 38-year-old son has Down syndrome. While he can do a lot for himself, he needs to live with his parents. That's fine, Silliphant said, until she and her husband pass on.

"Where's he going to live? How's he going to be financially secure? How's he going to have the things that he's used to?" she said. "How can he continue to live the life he's living without us being here?"

The New Brunswick Association for Community Living (NBACL) wants to help parents such as Silliphant find the answers. It will offer a program to help them plan for the futures of their children with disabilities.

Krista Carr, NBACL executive director, said leaving money and estates to children with disabilities is different for parents who have children with disabilities who receive government funds.

"It's much more complex than it is for the average family," she said. "[The children] are only allowed to have a certain amount of money and it has to be protected in certain ways in order for it not to be taken back by government."

Carr said families don't know how to best leave money for their children so they can continue to receive government support. Professionals such as lawyers and financial planners don't know either, she said. The new program will inform families about financial planning, but it will focus on educating professionals on how to deal with parents who have children with disabilities.

"We will be able to give families people they can turn to, who have the expertise to do what needs to be done," said Carr.

The families will still have to pay for the professionals' service. As for low income families who don't have a lot to leave to their children to begin with, Carr said the program can still help them plan for where their child will live, and help them find the funding for it.

Silliphant said this will help relieve the anxiety she feels when thinking about her son's future without her.

"It gets scarier as you get older," she said.

cumby. meghan@dailygleaner.com

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