Some gains for people with disabilities have turned out to be losses
By Douglas Todd, Vancouver SunMarch 13, 2010 3:07 AM
One of my first assignments as a reporter at The Vancouver Sun was to head out to a city parking lot to keep my eyes on the then-new spots with the blue
signs warning: “Disabled parking only.”
It was 1983. It did not take long for my story to materialize.
A woman and man came out of a supermarket and returned to their car, which they had nestled into one of the convenient disabled spots. They did not appear to have physical impairments.
As a Sun photographer snapped shots of them, I asked why they’d parked there. Not at all pleased to be in the spotlight, they croaked out an excuse about how they had just been there for a few minutes.
The Sun ran a prominent story the next day about how this couple and other people were not respecting the push for new rights for the disabled. Fortunately for the oblivious couple, editors decided not to run their photo.
With the Paralympics underway in Vancouver, it’s now extremely rare to see able-bodied drivers cruising into disabled-only parking spots. No one wants the public humiliation that goes with it.
The widespread acceptance of these special parking zones has been just one small sign of how the disability movement has spawned a quiet revolution in the wider culture in the past few decades.
In addition to disabled-only parking, North Americans have become familiar with such things as wheelchair ramps, sign language, mandatory elevators, cutaway curbs, door handles instead of door knobs and sonic walk signals. As well, the stigma faced by many disabled people has been reduced.
As the definition of “disability” has changed and expanded, the percentage of self-defined “disabled” people is growing in Canada, to the point where Statistics Canada reports more than 15 per cent of the population, or 4.5 million people, claims a disability.
Globally, United Nations organizations estimate there are anywhere from 100 to 500 million disabled people, most of them struggling in developing countries. Many are victims of war.
In 2010, the disability rights movement has become well-established and influential — and not without controversy.
Even though disabled people are getting more and more attention these days, how far have things really come?
The campaign for greater rights and recognition for the disabled — of which the Vancouver 2010 Paralympic Games are an example — began taking firm hold in the 1970s in the U.S. and Canada.
It was inspired by other human rights efforts, including for blacks, women and ethnic minorities; and influenced by the plight of thousands of Vietnam War
veterans returning home without limbs.
By the 1980s, the campaign for greater accessibility and inclusion of physically disabled people was really ramping up.
In 1985, Canada become a worldwide leader in the movement by specifically guarding disabled people from discrimination in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, as well as through employee protection legislation.
“The early eighties were a very lively and heady time in disability rights. Canada was ahead of the curve,” said Tim Stainton, a professor of sociology
at the University of B.C. who specializes in disability history.
The disability rights movement has now changed the consciousness of virtually everyone in the West. It has increased the pride of many disabled people, raised social expectations and, with issues such as wheelchair accessibility, literally changed the landscape.
The Vancouver 2010 Paralympic Games are for athletes with “mobility disabilities.” They make up a much larger proportion of the disabled than those with “intellectual disabilities.”
The Paralympics include people in wheelchairs, amputees, those with cerebral palsy, the visually impaired and others.
Without the kind of advocacy that made possible such developments as the expanded Paralympic Games and wheelchair-access legislation, one wonders whether a host of physically disabled people could have risen to prominence.
The world has come to admire those who accomplish great things while working from wheelchairs or without limbs, including B.C. marathoners Rick Hansen and the late Terry Fox, as well as physicist Stephen Hawking, violinist Itzhak Perlman, the late actor Christopher Reeves and Vancouver musician Jim Byrnes.
For their part, visually impaired people have excelled in the arts, including performer Stevie Wonder, the late Ray Charles, opera singer Andrea Bocelli,
guitarist Jose Feliciano and Sue Townsend, British author of the acclaimed Adrian Mole series.
When it comes to disabled politicians, Canada has former Vancouver mayor Sam Sullivan, one-time Quebec premier Lucien Bouchard, Conservative MP Steven Fletcher and Surrey Liberal MLA Stephanie Cadieux.
Even though Stainton said Canada has lost its place as a world leader in disability rights, the movement has challenged all of us on a number of charged
philosophical and political fronts.
With differing degrees of success, disability-rights advocates have urged Canadians and others to:
- Change the way we talk about and understand disabled people.
- Stop stigmatizing people with disabilities.
- Spend tax dollars on including the disabled in all facets of life.
- Force employers to accommodate people with disabilities.
- Oppose voluntary assisted suicide for those with severe disabilities.
- Respond to the connection between disability and poverty.
- Not forget the disabled in developing countries.
Focus on Language
The disability rights movement, since it began, has focused a great deal on language and shifting definitions.
Not without resistance, leaders in the disabled community were among the first to campaign for so-called “people-first” language.
That meant, when identifying a person with an impairment, they asked for the person’s name or pronoun to come first, with descriptions of the impairment/ disability to follow.
Instead of describing someone as a “blind woman,” for instance, disability champions have been urged everyone to talk about a “woman with a visual impairment.”
Although “people-first” terminology is in wide use, it has not entirely stuck, even among advocates. For instance, in Britain, the term “disabled people”
is generally preferred to “people with disabilities.”
A more crucial emphasis for disabled-rights proponents, perhaps, has been on the need to make a firm distinction between the “medical” and “social” models of disability.
The “medical” model, said campaigners, came out of science in the early 20th century. It was individualistic. The medical model acts as if a person’s disability, whether a missing limb or paraplegia, is medical “damage,” which places the disabled person outside human normalcy.
In response, advocates of the “social model” of disability have been arguing since the 1970s that the problem for people with disabilities is not that they’re in a wheelchair, without a limb or blind.
It is that society doesn’t accommodate them, whether with disabled-only parking or books in braille.
With the discussion thus shifting to communal rights for the disabled, people in Canada and much of the Western world began to put their emphasis on reducing social barriers to access and inclusion.
The complex debate over disability models continues to boil, as governments, businesses and employers in the industrialized world are increasingly compelled to do everything they can to accommodate disabled men and women.
Given that the Canadian Charter of Rights forbids any form of “discrimination” on the basis of “physical disability,” is there any limit to how far an organization must go to include a person who is visually impaired, in a wheelchair or without a limb?
Even while governments and businesses are being pressed by legislation to include disabled people in every aspect of life, Stainton said courts have been ruling there are financial limits to consider in providing “reasonable accommodation.”
For instance, he said, the courts are not asking small corner grocery stores to make alterations for disabled people that might cost tens of thousands of
dollars. Still, the push continues to end every kind of discrimination against the disabled.
Many steps are being made forward, with some possibly going backwards.
One problem disabled people have run into in the U.S. is that employment equity legislation has in some cases backfired. Some employers are trying to avoid legal mandates to accommodate the disabled once they become staff members by simply not hiring them in the first place, said Stainton. They do so, he said, because it is hard to prove discrimination in hiring.
The battle for disabled rights has had other unpredicted twists and turns.
One of them is over the so-called “right to die.” As advocates for the disabled have continued battling for recognition, they have clashed with people who
want laws in Canada and the U.S. permitting assisted suicide for those with severe disabilities and terminal conditions.
Even though polls show the majority of Canadians support regulated euthanasia, disability rights activists have strongly lobbied politicians to make sure
no one, regardless of the severity of their disability, should be able to choose an assisted suicide.
In this increasingly bitter debate, disabled activists claim legalizing assisted suicide would be an ethical “slippery slope” that would lead to all disabled
people, no matter the degree of their impairment, being devalued as human beings.
In turn, advocates for assisted suicide maintain the arguments of disabled-rights activists are a misplaced over-reaction to their proposals.
Since the 1970s, there have been other unexpected developments in disabled advocacy.
With the Paralympic Games drawing wide attention to the often-amazing feats of elite disabled athletes, Stainton said some campaigners worry that attention is being diverted away from the less exciting but more crucial issue of poverty.
In Canada and the U.S., Stainton said, there is a direct correlation between poverty and disability. “If you’re poor, you’re more likely to be disabled.
And if you’re disabled, you’re more likely to be poor,” he said.
“Poverty rates among people with disabilities are the highest of any group in Canada.”
Many disabled people have no interest in being top athletes, say advocates. They just want to have a decent life.
At the minimum, that means adequate food and shelter, which is often in short supply in Canada and other industrialized countries.
First World debates pale
How do Canadian issues compare with those in Third World countries?
First World debates over “people-first” language or the usefulness of disabled-only parking often seem to pale in seriousness when contrasted to the plight of disabled people in most developing countries.
The World Health Organization says most of the planet’s disabled live in poor countries, with many made that way as a result of war and especially abandoned landmines.
By some accounts, one million of the world’s disabled people survive in Afghanistan alone, victims of an continuing war with Western powers, including the U.S. and Canada.
To start facing the problems posed by half a billion global inhabitants with disabilities, Canada on Thursday announced it was becoming the 82nd country to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities. Advocates such as Stainton welcomed the new UN Convention.
However, paradoxically, Stainton said, it’s worth noting that Western solutions to disability shouldn’t be automatically imposed on poorer nations.
For instance, he said, moderately disabled people in some developing countries can have a slight advantage over those in more industrialized nations.
Since many people in the Third World reside in rural villages, Stainton said many who are moderately disabled can often be accommodated into community life.
Instead of hunting or working in the fields, for instance, they can be of use in the village mill.
That said, for most of those in developing countries who become severely disabled the situation is usually catastrophic, with many reduced to a life of begging, at best.
Without the kind of government, financial and technological support provided in many richer countries, Stainton said most severely disabled people in the Third World simply die.
“It’s not,” he said, “a very pleasant way to solve the problem.”
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