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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.

Equitable Access to Print

Editor's Note: Beryl Williams is an AEBC member who lives in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. When she retired from teaching to raise her children, she became active in the disability consumer movement.

I have been unable to read conventional print throughout my adult life and have relied entirely on audio books, produced and provided through a number of not-for-profit, voluntary, charitable sources. Over the years, I have enjoyed a wide variety of classic and contemporary fiction and non-fiction. There has been a significant interest throughout the past two decades in increasing parity between print and alternate format collections in Canadian public libraries. There has also been a noticeable increase in audio books produced by commercial publishers; however, the largest proportion of alternate format titles is still produced through the benevolent auspices of that same voluntary, charitable, non-profit sector.

In compliance with Canada's Copyright Act, these non-profit producers are granted exempt status from copyright royalty payments. This requires that such alternate format publications must only be made available to registered, eligible non-print reading Canadians. This has effectively created special/segregated library services for those unable to read conventional print formats. This, in turn, has effectively restricted accessibility and availability of preferred reading choices for one specific segment of Canadian society.

In contrast, commercially produced titles, usually audio, not having the copyright exempt status, are available to anyone wishing to listen to, rather than read, a book. The market for commercially produced audio has exploded over the past five years, along with another growing trend towards provision of electronic digital texts online for purchase or loan. As a result of technical advances in production and publishing, individuals requiring audio formats also now have greater preferred reading options.

Public libraries have risen to the challenge of Inclusion and equitable access for print handicapped Canadians, and are prepared to put their collective support fully behind the concept of making a publicly funded and operated public library system a reality for everyone across Canada. As a public library patron for over 40 years, I have witnessed significant changes in the variety of services provided to enhance the library experience for those unable to access conventional print information. These include: personal assistance with locating specific titles; technologies to enable access to newspapers and personal print reading material; online availability of community, provincial and national information; and a genuine willingness to accommodate the needs of library patrons, regardless of differences or limitations.

It is important to recognize and acclaim the proactive involvement of both stake- and Rights-holder organizations in pursuing equitable access to Canadian public libraries for patrons who historically have been compelled to accept limited access to the services and benefits provided to other Canadians, through Canada’s National Public Library System. I believe that this is a very complex issue for all parties concerned, and will require serious cooperation and collaboration from every quarter--all three levels of government, commercial publishers and authors, alternate format producers, libraries and all end users--if Canadians unable to use conventional print information are to be afforded the Right and Responsibility to participate and benefit fully from equitable access to public libraries across the country.

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.

Human Rights Coverage: The Unrealized Promise

Editor's Note: John Rae, Robin East and Donna Jodhan are AEBC National Board members, and are experienced litigants in the human rights process.

In the 1970s and early 80s, the Disability Rights Movement in Canada invested a lot of time and energy to obtain human rights protection for persons with disabilities (PWDs) at all levels. We were seeking the establishment of an equitable legal framework, and in many jurisdictions governments were not willing to provide us with our rights. In many instances, we had to fight very hard, but in the end we succeeded, and today PWDs are covered by all human rights statutes across the country, though numerous differences exist from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.

John Rae had the great honour of participating in some of this tough work, and he remains convinced that this time and energy was well invested. However, we have not achieved as much progress as our movement had expected. We may have achieved an equitable legal framework, but we are still far away from achieving a similar level of substantive equality. Far too many PWDs continue to live on the sidelines in this affluent country.

An individual who feels discriminated against must first determine the correct body to which to complain. For example, when Air Canada introduced its inaccessible flat-screen entertainment system, should John Rae and Marcia Yale, former AEBC National Secretary, have complained to the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA), citing an "undue obstacle to travel," as CTA’s criteria requires, or was this a case of discrimination covered by the Canadian Human Rights Commission (CHRC)? Since they travelled on these and other airlines, it seemed like a clear case of discrimination. They filed with the CHRC, which took their complaint.

The Court Challenges Program (CCP), which once provided financial assistance for initiating challenges under Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms, was invaluable in giving all equality-seeking groups, including the disabled community, the opportunity to test some federal government actions, and to try to extend the impact of the law. The cancellation of the Equality portion of the CCP by the Harper government has greatly weakened our community's ability to test federal government actions. If we want to launch new Charter challenges, we must now seek the support of a legal clinic, like ARCH Disability Law Centre, or find lawyers who are willing to work with us on a pro bono basis.

We had hopes and expectations that Human Rights Commissions would make a profound difference in our daily lives, by helping to level the playing field between citizens and large organizations, but resource inequalities continue to plague the human rights process. In addition, their emphasis on complicated judicial-like procedures, individual complaints, and our misperceptions of how Commissions really operate, can get in the way of making maximum use of what they can offer.

A complainant must first succeed in filling out the forms and figure out how to get their complaint taken. Today, it often seems as if Commissions are making the process needlessly complicated as a way of discouraging new complainants from even filing. Many potential complainants, furthermore, believe that the Commission provides a lawyer to "represent" them, but this is not the case. Even when a Commission lawyer does get involved, this is only after the process is well underway.

When a Commission lawyer is involved, he is there to "represent the public interest." In cases where the complainant is seeking a systemic or public-interest remedy, you may be able to work closely with the lawyer, who may be extremely supportive in developing and presenting the systemic side of your case; however, he is not there to represent you as the complainant. You are basically on your own.

After filing a complaint, you will likely be asked to participate in a mediation meeting, to which you may bring a friend, advocate or lawyer at your own expense. During mediation, the Commission may subtly, or not so subtly, encourage (or even pressure) you to settle.

Sometimes, there are good reasons to agree to a settlement. The facts in your case may not be as clear cut as you might like, for example, Or settling will be quicker and will alleviate the pressure cooker of going through a Tribunal, a quasi judicial hearing, where you may win or you may lose altogether. Settling, furthermore, will likely gain you something, such as systemic changes and/or a monetary amount in your favour. Sometimes, you may even be able to reach a substantial settlement, as John Rae and Marcia Yale did on March 12, which they hope will bring about an accessible onboard entertainment system on Air Canada and Air Canada Jazz flights.

For persons with disabilities who may be unemployed or live in chronic poverty, dangling even a partial victory in the form of a small monetary award may prove to be a carrot that is too attractive not to accept. Settling writes no law, however. Whenever a complaint is settled, it goes unreported and is of no help to others who have also been discriminated against. Thus, there is no indication as to which organizations are habitual respondents, information that would be useful in planning community actions.

In recent years, some settlements have not included the strict "cloak" clause, whereby the settlement is written in such a way to educate respondents and complainants. In such cases, neither the complainant nor the respondent is named. An example is a settlement on alternate formats that came out of the Canada Revenue Agency. This type of settlement can be useful but, again, most settlements remain entirely cloaked, in order to protect the respondent.

In the disabled community, the difficult task of filing complaints rests on the shoulders of too few individuals. It is easy for a Commission to say, "Oh no, here comes Robin or Donna or John again.” What should we be seeking from what often can seem like a David versus Goliath scenario? The process needs to be streamlined to prevent a well-resourced respondent from dragging out the proceedings because they can afford to do so. Before the human rights process in Ontario was overhauled, its Commission instituted a "fast-track" system that saw cases moving at a much faster pace, but this system was not in place long enough for us to know if it would succeed in the longer term.

Commissions need to devote more resources to cases that can bring about systemic remedies. While enabling an individual to seek personal redress in instances of discrimination will always be important, individual remedies do not help others confronted by a similar problem. Commissions also need to make greater use of the power that many possess to initiate complaints of discrimination that are in the public interest, and to try to extend the impact of important decisions that contain systemic remedies. Since David Lepofsky, a blind lawyer, won two cases against the Toronto Transit Commission concerning the calling out of subway and bus stops, the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) has used that decision to pressure most other Ontario transit providers to take similar action, thereby alleviating the need for additional community members to file separate complaints against their own transit providers.

We ourselves need to develop a group of individuals across Canada who are prepared to file complaints, as there may come a time when we will want to file a similar case in several provinces or territories simultaneously. And when we file, do we ever think of also alleging harassment, along with discrimination? When filing, if there are ever doubts on what grounds to cite, or what remedies to request, all ideas could be included at the time of filing.

Canada's Disability Rights Movement has fought hard to achieve human rights coverage, and disability, particularly in the area of employment, has consistently remained the number one category of discrimination complaints across the country. We must continue to support each other in taking cases to Human Rights Commissions, especially through the Tribunal process, where law gets written. After all, there was no point in securing this legal protection if we don’t use it.

Photo: Robin East, AEBC President
Photo: John Rae, AEBC, 1st Vice President
Photo: Donna Jodhan, AEBC, 2nd Vice President

Competing Models of Disability Must Continue to Evolve

Editor's Note: John Rae is AEBC’s 1st Vice President. This article is based on his presentation "From Invisibility to Rights Holders: Competing Paradigms of Disability," at Ryerson University, October 2009.

In his 1990 article, "The Individual and Social Models of Disability," Mike Oliver, an academic in the Disability Studies field, observes: "There is a danger that in discussing issues related to disability, we will end up with more models than Lucy Clayton [a modelling agency]. This is dangerous in that if we are not careful, we will spend all of our time considering what we mean by the medical model or the social model, or perhaps the psychological or, more recently, the administrative or charity models of disability. These semantic discussions will obscure the real issues in disability, which are about oppression, discrimination, inequality and poverty."

It is my view, however, that many of these paradigms themselves are a significant source of the current discrimination, marginalization and oppression that is still the life experience of far too many persons with disabilities (PWDs). Today, the primary debate in the field of disability revolves around the fundamental differences between the medical and social models of disability--between viewing the disability as the primary cause of our problems, and seeing policies, attitudes and barriers in the built environment as the real impediments to our full participation and equality. However, these are only two of many ways in which disability has been described over the centuries. As new paradigms emerge, they vie for predominance and sometimes supplant previous paradigms, but the old ways of describing disability continue to compete for the attention of the public and of PWDs ourselves.

Persons with disabilities have been present from time in memorial. In ancient times, they were often ostracized from their communities and left to fend for themselves in the wilds. In medieval and renaissance periods, they were often ridiculed, as the Catholic Church interpreted them as rejects, works of the devil, and punishments for parental mistakes. This led to being excluded from society.

Remember the story in the Gospel of John, Chapter 9, about the man born blind? As the disciples walked along with Jesus, they passed by a blind man (begging, of course) and asked, "Who has sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind?" In some cultures, PWDs are still seen as punishment for past sins.

Following Canada’s Confederation in 1867, the first residential schools for the blind were established in Nova Scotia and Ontario. While education for blind students was undoubtedly forward thinking at that time, these schools were established under the provinces’ respective Penitentiaries and Asylums Acts. In the early 1900s, the "hide us away syndrome" became even more prevalent, with the creation of various large institutions, usually in small towns, where many PWDs were housed, “out of sight and out of mind" from the rest of society.

In 1918, the CNIB was established, and later other charitable organizations were founded, to form the rehabilitation industry that is too often imbued with a philosophy based on the Charity Ethic. Training of medical professionals, furthermore, focuses on curing or fixing the sick, though most of us are no more ill than our non-disabled counterparts, and those of us with a permanent disability will never be "cured" or "fixed." Both the charity and medical ethics have some similarities to the Professional Ethic, where decisions about "what's best" for us are controlled by others, with or without our input.

In the 1970s, persons with disabilities, seeing the successes of the Civil Rights and Women's movements, began to establish our own organizations. The Consumer Movement, or the Disability Rights Movement, started partly as a reaction against the charity industry and partly to provide a vehicle for self-organization and self-expression, both fundamental rights in any democracy. This process gave us as citizens the opportunity to begin forging our own destiny. For many of us, the Disability Rights Movement was a source of empowerment, giving us our first chance to participate directly in developing policies and strategies that affect our daily lives. One of the lasting benefits of our Movement is the opportunity it has given many of us to develop skills that are so useful throughout our lives.

The Disability Rights Movement invested a great deal of time and effort to secure coverage under Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms and under federal, provincial and territorial Human Rights Codes. We succeeded in gaining an equitable legal framework, but even today we are far closer to achieving the Charter's guarantee of being "equal before and under the law" than to enjoying the anticipated measure of substantive equality of the "equal benefit of the law," which we are still far away from attaining.

Today, various paradigms continue to compete for prominence. Robin East, AEBC's President, has recently developed the newest way of approaching disability--the Rights Holder approach. Based on the idea of "nothing about us without us," this paradigm posits that we who have disabilities must no longer be lumped with all other so-called stakeholders, but must be given a pre-eminent role in determining the policies and legislation that affect our lives. Currently, we as Rights Holders are forced to fight hard to maintain the fundamental idea that our concerns should be viewed as issues of rights and not charity, issues that belong in the news and not the Life section of our newspapers.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) is a new and important international instrument recognizing the appropriateness of the social model of disability. Now, it is up to all of us to learn what the first human rights Convention of the 21st century means, and to learn how to use it, and other Conventions, to advance our equality, both domestically and internationally.

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

The Changing Shape of Disability Rights Work

Editor's Note: This article is based on remarks by John Rae in accepting the Centre for Social Justice's Lifetime Achievement Award in Toronto, Ontario, on June 9, 2007.

Picture: John Rae receiving his lifetime achievement award

Since the emergence of Canada's disability rights movement in the mid 1970s, much of its work has focused on eliminating old barriers and changing attitudes. Today this remains the case, but strange though it may sound, an increasing portion of its work now involves preventing the introduction of new barriers.

This is particularly true in the area of transportation. Smaller airplanes are appearing on a growing number of routes, and many of these cannot carry an electric wheelchair. Onboard airline entertainment systems are introducing flat screens with no buttons that are inaccessible to blind passengers. And the emergence of the environmentally friendlier hybrid automobile, called by some as the "quiet stalker," is so quiet that those of us who rely upon our hearing for safe travel throughout our communities simply cannot hear its approach on city streets or in a shopping mall.

The Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act 2005 was supposed to make Ontario fully accessible by the far off date of 2025. But an examination of the recently released Regulation on Customer Service and the draft Transportation Accessibility Standard, along with the emasculation of Ontario's Human Rights Commission, seriously calls this into question.

For example, at a time when Ontario's Human Rights Tribunal gave the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) only 30 days to begin calling out bus and streetcar stops, the Draft Transportation Accessibility Standard proposes an 18-year timeframe for accomplishing this simple move towards transportation accessibility for Ontarians.

No wonder groups like the Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians (AEBC) and the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance (AODA) are calling for this draft to be sent back to the drawing board to be re-written.

The disability rights movement is always looking for new allies, whether inside Canada's labour movement or at the community level.

Too often, social justice work gets fragmented. Human rights work is often equated with fighting racism, which continues to require our attention. Fighting for low-wage workers who need an increase in the minimum wage can overlook those groups like First Nations Peoples and persons with disabilities who are unemployed and searching for work. And the fight for a cleaner environment is yet to address the dangers of the hybrid automobile.

I look forward to the day when social justice and human rights work takes a more holistic approach to fighting discrimination so that all Canadians will be able to take their rightful place in our affluent country.

Note: A synopsis of these remarks appeared in the Rapaport Report, September 2007.

From Vision to Action: Building An Inclusive and Accessible Canada

National Action Plan 2007

Background: Exclusion, poverty and isolation are a shared reality for the majority of the more than 12% of Canadians who have a disability and the 33% of Aboriginal/First Nations Canadians who have a disability. The outcomes are predictable. We know that:

  • Canadians with disabilities are almost twice as likely to live in poverty compared to other Canadians.

  • Over two million Canadian adults with disabilities lack one or more of the educational, workplace, aids, home modification or other supports they need to participate fully in their communities.

  • Over 55% of working-age adults with disabilities are currently unemployed or out of the labour market. For women with disabilities, the rate is almost 75%.

  • According to the International Labour Organization, the annual loss of global GDP due to the exclusion of persons with disabilities from the labour market is between U.S. $1.37 trillion and U.S. $1.94 trillion.

  • More than 10,000 persons with intellectual disabilities remain warehoused in institutions across this country.

  • Slightly more than half of Canadian children with disabilities do not have access to needed aids and devices.

  • Rates of violence and abuse against people with disabilities, in particular women with disabilities, are among the highest for any group in Canadian society.

  • We know that for Aboriginal Canadians with disabilities these rates are even higher.

While progress has been made over the past 25 years, many Canadians with disabilities and their families continue to experience daily barriers to their full and equal participation in Canadian society. The personal, social and economic costs of exclusion are too high to be ignored. Immediate action is needed to address the high rates of poverty facing Canadians with disabilities and its causes and the lack of access to disability supports that perpetuate barriers and exclusion and keep people with disabilities and their families invisible and marginalized.

Vision Is Not Enough--Action Is Required: A turning point has been reached. New ways of thinking must be adopted by employers, governments and providers of public services. A comprehensive national disability strategy is needed. Solutions are known and innovative policies and programs do exist. It is time to take action and implement solutions. Solutions are complex and multi-jurisdictional; however, this cannot be an excuse for inaction.

There are many opportunities to improve the status of Canadians with disabilities. Domestically, the current government has made a number of commitments to addressing issues facing people with disabilities and their families. A national strategy is needed to ensure these commitments work in concert and contribute to building an Inclusive and Accessible Canada.

Internationally, with the adoption of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), the issue of disability is receiving significant profile. Canada demonstrated leadership by signing the CRPD on the first day it was open to signature. Ratification and implementation of the CRPD in Canada is an opportunity to take concrete steps to demonstrate the depth of commitment to people with disabilities and their families. The CRPD creates a new opportunity to demonstrate Canada's leadership in the world and confront the poverty, unemployment, lack of support, social exclusion and denial of basic rights of self-determination faced by so many people with disabilities.

On November 2, 2006, 300 Canadians with disabilities, family members and allies gathered in Ottawa at End Exclusion 2006 to support a Vision for Building An Inclusive and Accessible Canada. Over 80 organizations and 5000 individuals committed to this vision and to working together to make it a reality.

On November 22, 2007, at End Exclusion 2007, more than 300 supporters of an inclusive and accessible Canada will gather again to discuss what is needed to make our vision a reality. Canadians with disabilities and their families have developed the following policy framework and National Action Plan on Disability to guide the End Exclusion 2007 discussion and to provide a road map to help policy makers, politicians and interested Canadians in advancing a national disability strategy and in moving from Vision to Action.

Shared Vision for an Inclusive and Accessible Canada: There is a shared vision for an inclusive and accessible Canada and unprecedented consensus exists among the Canadian public, governments, the disability community and experts about the need for national action on disability issues. An Inclusive and Accessible Canada is a Canada where:

  • Canadians with disabilities--children, youth, working-age adults and seniors--have the necessary support to fully access and benefit from all that Canada has to offer.

  • Independent Living principles of choice, consumer control and autonomy are made real.

  • Canadians with disabilities have safe, adequate, accessible housing in their community and live free from residential institutions and confinement.

  • Canadians with disabilities and their families have the income, aids and devices, personal supports, medications and environmental accommodations that make social, economic, cultural and political citizenship accessible and inclusive of all.

  • Women with disabilities, Aboriginal People with disabilities, persons with disabilities from visible minority communities, and those from other marginalized communities are equally able to access all aspects of and benefit from Canadian society.

  • Canadians with invisible disabilities, chronic illness, episodic disabilities or environmental sensitivities, or living in rural or remote areas are equally able to access and benefit from Canadian society.

The result is that people with disabilities are able to contribute to, and benefit from, Canadian society in the same way as other Canadians. This is our Canada.

A Framework for Action: The Government of Canada can make An Inclusive and Accessible Canada a reality by initiating concerted efforts to develop a joint strategy with provincial/territorial governments and First Nations to meet the needs of Canadians with disabilities. Significant overlap exists between the federal and provincial/territorial roles for disability. As the government explores strengthening the Federation and the economic union, there must be discussion on how we, as a country, ensure that supports and services needed for the full inclusion and active citizenship of people with disabilities and their family are being provided.

To be effective, a National Action Plan on Disability must transcend our traditional fragmented, reactive approach to disability. It must involve comprehensive short- and long-range plans and decisive action to create a national environment in which people with disabilities can and do achieve their full potential.

The Government of Canada has committed to bringing forward a Federal Disability Act. Canadians with disabilities will support a Federal Disability Act that moves forward quickly, encompasses the issues identified below, allocates significant resources for improving access and inclusion, and ensures a mechanism for strong enforcement of access and inclusion.

The development of a Federal Disability Act cannot preclude action in other areas nor can Canadians with disabilities and their families wait for a Federal Disability Act to implement reforms that are desperately needed now.

For an Inclusive and Accessible Canada to be a reality, the Government of Canada must show leadership by enhancing their role in four key areas:

  • Enhanced disability supports to enable Independent Living, active citizenship and full participation;

  • An enhanced Federal role in alleviating poverty of persons with disabilities and their families, thus freeing up dollars at provincial/territorial levels for new investments in disability supports;

  • Labour force inclusion measures;

  • A national social development role to promote accessibility and community inclusion.

A Framework for a National Action Plan on Disability:

  1. New Investments in Disability-Related Supports

Properly executed new investments can bring change to the lives of people with disabilities. An appropriately targeted investment in disability-related supports would assist Canadians with disabilities to participate in early learning and childcare, become educated and employed, live more independently, and look after their families.

Such an investment is the priority of the disability community and is the foundation upon which a comprehensive National Action Plan on Disability must be built. Central to this initiative is a commitment to deinstitutionalization and removing the stigma attached to disability.

The Government of Canada must:

  • Create the national social, economic and political conditions for people with disabilities to empower themselves and to achieve their full potential.

  • Work with provinces and territories to explore ways of increasing access to and improving the range of available disability supports.

  • Work with provinces and territories to provide support for the building of safe, affordable, accessible and supportive housing.

  • Acknowledge that residential institutions have no place in the lives of people with disabilities and support provinces and territories to finish the process of closure.

  • Work with Band Councils to ensure equal access to disability-related supports for First Nations people with disabilities living on reserve.

  1. New Initiatives to Alleviate Poverty

The poverty of Canadians with disabilities is a national disgrace. Canadians with disabilities and their families are twice as likely to live in poverty as other Canadians and the incidence of poverty among Aboriginal People with disabilities is even higher. Existing systems of income support are failing Canadians with disabilities. The Government of Canada must commit to addressing poverty and reforming Canada's income support programs for Canadians with disabilities.

First steps could include:

  • Making the Disability Tax Credit Refundable.

  • Making those eligible for Canada Pension Plan Disability Benefits automatically eligible for the Disability Tax Credit.

  • Making Canada Pension Plan Disability Benefits non-taxable.

  • Expanding Employment Insurance Sick Benefits to 52 weeks.

  • Ensuring new federal benefits such as the Registered Disability Savings Plan are not clawed back by provinces and territories from those on social assistance.

Long-term reforms could include:

An expanded federal role in income support for Canadians with disabilities, thus freeing up resources at provincial and territorial levels for re-investment in supports and services.

  1. New Supports to Increase Access to Labour Force Participation

Through Advantage Canada and the recent budget, the Government of Canada committed to increasing access to training, education, accommodation and labour market attachment for people with disabilities. We believe this would be done most effectively by establishing a two-track strategy:

  • Establish specific targets for Canadians with disabilities in Labour Market Development Agreements (LMDA) negotiated with the provinces. Having a specific target for Canadians with disabilities should be a requirement of transfer of both EI and Consolidated Revenue Funds to the provinces/territories.

  • Transforming provincial/territorial labour market systems to address barriers to people with disabilities will take some time. In the meantime, both the Multilateral Framework Agreement on Labour Force Participation of People with Disabilities and the Opportunities Fund should be expanded to ensure greater capacity at the provincial/territorial level to address barriers, and through the Opportunities Fund to demonstrate innovation in labour force inclusion. These funds must not be rolled into the LMDAs or new labour market transfers to the provinces and territories until it is demonstrated that LMDAs are capable of addressing disability in a substantive way; and that the lessons, incentives and strategies are being incorporated into these generic systems from those developed through the Multi-Lateral and Opportunities Fund programming.

  1. New Initiatives to Promote Access, Inclusion and Full Citizenship

To achieve positive outcomes within the building blocks of employment, income and disability supports, investments are also needed in other related and complementary areas. To this end, the Government of Canada must commit to addressing the following:

  • Transportation: Develop accessibility regulations for all federally regulated modes of transportation and restructure the Ministerial Advisory Committee on Accessible Transportation to be consumer controlled and representative of disability organizations.

  • UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD): Initiate a transparent process of work with the provinces/territories and the disability community to ensure ratification of the CRPD within the next two years.

  • Accessible Technology: Establish a Procurement Policy for the Government of Canada that would ensure purchase only of accessible technology, thus increasing employment opportunities within the public service and accessible service to the Canadian public.

  • Support Disability Community Knowledge Mobilization and Knowledge Transfer: Renew for 5 years and expand the Social Development Partnerships Disability Program, including the enhancement of the Community Inclusion Fund, to ensure that the wisdom gained from living with disability is accessible to public policy developers. Support the establishment of a disability community controlled and directed national research institute, which would develop new knowledge about disability based upon a social/cultural theory of disability rather than a bio-medical model.

  • An Accessibility Design Centre: Create a Universal Design Centre that would act as a cross-departmental focal point of responsibility to harmonize, track and deliver results in the area of barrier removal. It would become a centre of excellence in universal design and become a resource to governments, community and the private sector.

  • Access Principle: Update the National Building Code to ensure Universal Design principles are respected. Ensure that universal design principles guide all infrastructure program initiatives.

  • Accessible Elections: Reform the federal electoral process to ensure that persons with disabilities can participate in all aspects of election campaigns and vote in an independent and secret manner.

  • Amend the Official Languages Act: Recognize ASL/QSL as official languages.

  • Re-establish a specific Parliamentary Committee on the Status of Canadians with disabilities to address the ongoing concerns of Canadians with disabilities and submit to Parliament an annual report on the status of Canadians with disabilities.

Towards a Long-Term Comprehensive Strategy: Steps outlined above provide the foundation for a longer-term comprehensive National Action Plan on Disability by the Government of Canada to address the issues of Canadians with disabilities and their families. Budget 2007 signalled that the federal government would be re-examining the roles, responsibilities and arrangements between the two levels of government on social policy issues. This presents an excellent opportunity to consider the most effective means of addressing disability issues today. The longer-term strategy should be about striking a new balance in federal and provincial/territorial government roles, in particular in the inter-relationship between income/disability supports programming. Striking a new balance will require leadership, allocation of new resources and ongoing dialogue with Canadians with disabilities about their needs and aspirations. We share a common Vision. We now must make that vision real through a National Action Plan on Disability.

The Making of The Quebec Law to Assure The Handicapped in The Exercise of Their Rights

Editor's Note: Irene Lambert is a founder and the current President of AEBC's Montreal Chapter.

Moving from Philadelphia to Montreal in 1969 with my husband, two guide dogs and three young sons was a major adventure and an exciting time. Bob had just completed his Ph.D. in Mathematical Psychology and I had just completed studies in political science and psychology for my baccalaureate at the University of Pennsylvania. A faculty appointment at Loyola College felt like the right position for Bob to take considering that Montreal had been my hometown. Colleges and universities were expanding with young academicians and the Quiet Revolution in Quebec was in full swing.

Before long we were enjoying the French culture, eating in French restaurants and attending live events, but we soon discovered that two blind people with guide dogs were not always welcome, especially not at Place des Arts where many of the symphony concerts and big-name artists performed.

Along with the embarrassment it caused us and our friends, it was also shocking to discover that there were no laws in the entire province to provide us any equal access or rights. There was only one small proviso buried in a city bylaw that permitted restaurants to keep fish in aquariums or allow seeing eye dogs (with no capitals).

In all of our travels in the United States, the only serious rejection we had experienced was with some taxi drivers or the odd Oriental restaurant. We had attended many of the major concert halls in New York, Philadelphia, Washington, San Francisco and even smaller cities such as Miami or Santa Barbara.

Realizing that something had to be done, we met with the chairman of the Board at Place des Arts to discuss the situation. They offered us a sighted guide and a place to store our dogs if we wanted to attend a performance. They were quite proud of the fact that they gave free tickets in the front row to the CNIB.

Thanks to our good friend, Toni Gardiner, in New York City, we collected dozens of notarized testimonies from guide-dog users who all attended the American major concert halls regularly with no problems. We even enlisted the support of Jeff Locke, director of training at Guiding Eyes, and John Byfield, director of training at Guide Dog Foundation.

But no amount of persuasion could change Place des Arts's policies.

Our next step was to enlist the helping hand of Armand Shepard, a major human-rights attorney in Montreal, who believed he would be able to attain an injunction based on the balance of convenience principle. This legal principle declares that it was more inconvenient for us to be denied a seat of our choice without our guide dog than it would be for a person who did not like sitting next to us to change their seat.

Maitre Shepard provided his time for consultation free of charge, plus the use of one of his young assistants to do the necessary research and paperwork. We were unable to meet the court costs and, being new in town, were not able to raise the human or financial support we felt we would need.

There were no consumer advocacy groups in those days and the best we could determine from the couple of blind people we knew was that there was not yet any appetite for the exercising of rights.

It was more than a year or so later, while we were having dinner with a couple of Bob's students, that more ideas began to percolate.

One of the students was from Quebec City. He believed he had a personal family friend in the plannification office of the Ministry of Health and Social Services, who could conceivably be convinced to take an interest in investigating conditions for the blind in Quebec.

At that time, there were no direct government services for the rehabilitation of the blind. Private organizations such as the Montreal Association for the Blind (MAB), the CNIB and religious institutions provided all of the existing services.

Thanks to Mark Lachance and his contact, M. Neveu, in MSSS (Ministaire de Santee et Services Socioux), The Ernest Girard Commission was established in 1974. An appropriate budget was allocated for meetings, hearings, visits to service providers, transportation and office staff. Bob was appointed to the commission along with Lloyd McLintock, manager of the Montreal CNIB, and Paule Everard, a CEGEP teacher, who were all blind. There was an ophthalmologist whose name I have long forgotten who never could learn not to refer to blind persons as "les maladies"(the sick). There were several young socially minded secretarial types and a very bright researcher. Ernest Girard, an optometrist, chaired the meetings with friendly competence and a totally open mind.

Bob wrote dozens of briefs on the need for government services, the psychology of blindness, equal rights in numerous domains, public-access rights for guide dogs etc. I attended the meetings as his interpreter, although Ernest was very good about allowing Bob to express his views in English. We soon became good friends with Lloyd McLintock while travelling back and forth to Quebec City for the meetings.

When the Girard Commission Report was published, we could not have been more pleased. It recommended that a law be passed assuring the handicapped (and that was an acceptable term in those days) have rights to equal access in just about any domain, such as education, housing, employment, public access etc. It recommended that a government department be established to provide rehabilitation services and assistive devices.

The piece de resistance for us was that no person with a disability should be discriminated against because they are using a device to ameliorate their handicap.

We were rather surprised with that wording, as we had never considered guide dogs as devices, but rather as living beings to be protected and cared for.

The Liberal government in power at that time wrote the weakest and most watered down bill pertaining to the Girard Commission recommendations. Public hearings were held in early 1976 but an election was called before the bill could be passed, and the Parti Quebecois came to power.

In less than two years, the new Bill IX was passed into law. It was clear and inclusive, and had teeth.

Public access for guide dogs was guaranteed with no caveats about being a resident or holding any specific card of identification. That was meaningful and inclusive for us, as we had personally trained our own dogs and they had been approved by Guiding Eyes and Guide Dog Foundation. This was one beautiful law and the best we had seen from anywhere in North America.

The law has been amended several times in the past few years. Now, for its thirty-year anniversary, it is time to dust it off and take another good look at it.

Epilogue

During the 1970's, Bob and Irene Lambert worked with John Byfield and Second Sight to help Quebecers get quality guide dogs that would be expected to lay quietly in any concert or restaurant.

When their sister golden retrievers, Lambda and Corey, were retired, they decided to attend the guide dog school they had so highly recommended during the past ten years. They were assigned another set of sister goldens named Zest and Zonta. Their third set of sister goldens, Finesse and Fiat, were acquired at Guide Dogs for the Blind in San Raphael, California. Fiat was returned to Guide Dogs for the Blind for reassignment following Bob's untimely death, November 12, 1990, at the age of 57.

Bob was a professor at Loyola and Concordia University for 21 years. In 1979, he established the first graduate program in North America at Concordia University in the Psychology department for the study of Sensory Deficits. Both clinical and science students learned vision and perceptual psychology, about eye pathology, technical and assistive devices, rehabilitation services and life experiences with a blind professor.

Irene Lambert moved to West Island after Bob's death and is involved with the Low Vision Self-Help Association as program director and past president. She is also a member of the board of directors at the MAB, and president of the MAB users Committee.

From "lunatics" to Citizens: Tracing The Emergence and Growth of Disability Politics in Ontario

Editor's Note: The following article is reprinted from Abilities Magazine, Fall 2005: www.abilities.ca

In 1885, the Ontario government began construction of the new legislative building--known as Queen's Park--located on Toronto University Avenue. To make way for the huge red building, the government tore down one of Torontos largest "lunatic asylums" and transferred its occupants to existing institutions in Amherstburg, Orillia and London. Since this time, much has changed for people with disabilities and their families in Ontario.

Beginning in the 1970s, in Ontario as in other places, people with disabilities began to organize on their own behalf, forming local and province-wide organizations to reject their status as so-called second-class citizens.

"In the 1970s and early 1980s, there was a rising tide of consumerism in Ontario", says Harry Beatty, a founding member of ARCH: A Legal Resource Centre for Persons with Disabilities and long-time member of the disability community. "This meant that, in part, you saw the self-assertion of people with disabilities over the services that affected their lives."

By the 1980s and into the 1990s, provincial and local organizations led by people with disabilities were working both inside and outside Queen's Park, using strategies and tactics aimed at pressuring policy-makers for changes in policy and politics that would further the citizenship rights of people with disabilities and their families.

ARCH: A Legal Resource Centre for Persons with Disabilities (originally called the Advocacy Resource Centre for the Handicapped) has been at the forefront of disability politics in Ontario, and indeed, in Canada. This year, ARCH is celebrating its 25th anniversary. Given this auspicious occasion, it seems appropriate to this writer to gaze into the past, as well as into the future.

A Brief History of Disability Organizing in Ontario

Beginning in the late 1960s, cracks in the dominant response to disability had begun to appear in Ontario. Facing pressure from parents caring for children with disabilities and from progressive professionals, the dominant ideas associated with disability began to shift as people with disabilities began to assert their right to control their own lives and destinies.

Throughout the 1970s, shifts in attitude were most evident towards people with intellectual disabilities. These shifts were due largely to the introduction of the principle of normalization, which was developed by Wolf Wolfensberger in 1972, while a visiting scholar at the Canadian Institute on Mental Retardation (now the Roeher Institute).

Normalization called for a breaking down of those forms of institutional segregation that were stigmatizing and resulted in inferior services for people with various forms of intellectual disabilities. Further, it called for the creation of new forms of service delivery in which individuals would live in "normal" settings. In Ontario, as in other jurisdictions, normalization led to radical shifts in policies affecting people with intellectual disabilities, including the deinstitutionalization of people with intellectual disabilities and the creation of community-based services.

In the 1980s, a new stream of disability organizing, called the Independent Living movement, emerged in Ontario. Fuelled by ideas from the United States, the Independent Living concept rejected the dominance of the medical establishment and rehabilitation services, calling for community-based systems in which people with disabilities themselves are in control and can exert choice and flexibility. It was also during this period that the psychiatric survivor and mental health movements began to organize in Ontario, asserting the rights of those individuals who faced involuntary treatment and institutionalization.

Taken together, these various streams of disability organizing solidified a new set of principles for disability politics in Ontario: self-organizing, self-advocacy and cross-disability. As they did at the federal level, these principles would come to define this period in disability politics, as governments began to accept and implement rights-based legislation and policy frameworks.

"Independent Living and consumer-led movements were amazing in terms of bringing forth the idea that people with disabilities could have both voice and choice," says John Lord, an academic and participant in Ontario disability politics. "These were critical ideas to get across to policy-makers, to politicians and to professionals."

Indeed, by the end of the 1980s and into the 1990s, the emphasis on cross-disability frameworks had contributed to creating a disability identity and culture. The introduction of a cross-disability framework to disability politics helped form a collective identity that rejected the medically created disease types. Around this time, we also saw the beginning of discussions about how disability intersects with factors such as sex/gender, race and sexual orientation.

Among the most prominent cross-disability groups to emerge were the Advocacy Resource Centre for the Handicapped (ARCH) (1980) (renamed ARCH: A Legal Resource Centre for People with Disabilities in 1993); Persons United for Self-Help in Ontario (PUSH-Ontario) (1982); the Disabled Women's Network (DAWN-Ontario) (1985); and the Ethno-Racial People with Disabilities Coalition of Ontario (ERDCO) (1993).

ARCH's Contribution to Disability Politics in Ontario and in Canada

Spurred by legislative developments at the federal and provincial levels, in particular the adoption of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (1982) and the amended Ontario Human Rights Code (1981), the Ontario disability movement started to become engaged with mainstream political institutions. During this period, litigation became a feature of the disability movement, especially with the opening of ARCH in 1980--an organization responsible for acting as counsel on several precedent-setting disability test cases at the Supreme Court of Canada, as well as playing an influential role in improving access to legal services for Ontarians with disabilities and their families.

In fact, along with allies in the province's legal system, ARCH was instrumental in working closely with then-Attorney General, Roy McMurtry who, among other things, commissioned a report on the accessibility of legal services in Ontario to people with disabilities. In her landmark report, Access to Legal Services by the Disabled (1983), Judge Rosalie Abella (now a Justice at the Supreme Court of Canada), undertook the first comprehensive study on barriers to people with physical and mental disabilities in seeking access to the legal system. Her report played an important role in opening up the legal system to people with disabilities, and legitimizing ongoing funding to ARCH through the Ontario Legal Aid Plan.

Under the leadership of David Baker, its founder and first executive director, ARCH developed into one of Canada's leading organizations, focusing on disability law reform, litigation and public legal education. At the Supreme Court of Canada, ARCH has been instrumental in bringing a critical disability perspective to numerous prominent disability rights cases.

Two important cases which advanced disability policy and law are: Eaton v. Brant County Board of Education, [1997] 1 S.C.R. 241 (S.C.C.), in which the court found that integration of children with disabilities in regular classroom settings should be recognized as the norm of general application because of the benefits it generally provides; and Eldridge v. British Columbia (Attorney General), [1997] 3 S.C.R. 624 (S.C.C.), in which the court unanimously ruled that failure to provide sign language interpretation in the delivery of health care services, where it is necessary for effective communication, violated section 15 of the Charter.

Beyond the courts, ARCH has developed expertise in providing the disability and legal communities with a critical disability perspective about legal rights, responsibilities and entitlements affecting people with disabilities and their families. As well, ARCH's mandate includes providing a summary advice and legal referral service and law reform activities to thousands of Ontarians with disabilities and their families with respect to numerous areas of law, including income tax, income support and disability benefits, telecommunications, transportation, employment, education, human rights, issues related to abuse, and immigration.

It is people with disabilities themselves who created ARCH and, indeed, who continue to ensure that its mandate responds to the needs of Ontarians with disabilities. Currently, ARCH's membership has grown to include more than 60 disability consumer and service organizations. And, ARCH continues to be governed by a volunteer board of directors, of which a majority must be people with disabilities.

Looking Forward to the Next 25 Years

Disability politics have made an important contribution to Ontario's fabric and will continue to have influence in the years to come. It is perhaps symbolic that ARCH is celebrating its 25th anniversary the same year the Government of Ontario will move forward with closing its three remaining institutions housing people with disabilities. This is also the year that the Government of Ontario passed into law the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, which has as its long-term goal a barrier-free Ontario. As well, this year the Ontario disability movement has witnessed the emergence of a new Ontario-wide consumer-controlled disability organization, Citizens with Disabilities-Ontario, to advance the voices of all Ontarians with disabilities.

"We might have hoped and expected that, after three decades of action and advocacy, Canadians with disabilities would already be living in a fully inclusive society. Not so," says Phyllis Gordon, ARCH's executive director. "We still need countless more doors to open, profound institutional changes to occur, and public spending to be reallocated so that people with disabilities can participate fully and with the dignity to which they are entitled. We at ARCH and activists everywhere still have much more to accomplish."

Fraser Valentine has proudly served on the ARCH Board of Directors since 1999 and is an Adjunct Professor at the School of Disability Studies, Ryerson University.

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