By Helen Henderson Disabilities Reporter
Published On Sat Oct 24 2009
How is it possible for more than 4.5 million Canadian citizens to go missing? Did they just drop off the map? Did anybody organize a search party?
Michael J. Prince went looking for evidence that those in positions of power give any thought at all to people with disabilities when formulating and assessing policies. He found little beyond empty words.
Vast gaps in public awareness. Vacant promises from governments at every level. Charitable platitudes from the corporate sector.
It all adds up to almost five million citizens effectively disenfranchised, relegated to the farthest margins. When it comes to real, substantive inclusion in policy-making decisions, they are simply missing.
Prince, a social policy professor at University of Victoria, has documented it all in his latest book, Absent Citizens: Disability Politics and Policy in Canada (University of Toronto Press). It is a bleak picture of policy failure that translates into exclusion from workplaces and community involvement.
Advocacy groups point out that Canadians with disabilities are more than twice as likely to live in poverty as those without disabilities. More than two million lack one or more of the supports they need for daily living. More than half of children with disabilities do not have access to the aids and devices they need.
“By ignoring people with disabilities, public and social policy builds disablement into social structures and social programs,” Prince points out.
Prince also found emerging voices from within the disability community determined to shed light where it belongs. They are putting to rest old notions of the disabled as sick, tragic figures struggling heroically to overcome their shortcomings.
Dignity, worthiness, insight and ability are what it should be about, they point out. Slowly but surely, they are influencing legislation and empowering others. But there’s a lot of work to be done.
“By ignoring disabilities as a central feature of structural inequalities in Canada, social scientists naturalize disability-based inequities,” Prince notes.
Disability is emphasized as being biologically determined. But what about the role played by a political system, and a society, that constructs physical and attitudinal barriers rather than dismantling them?
Why don’t we pay more attention to universal design, design that makes physical and intellectual structures accessible to anyone who moves, or communicates, or processes information differently from the majority?
“Rather than identifying clients as recipients who are dependent and labelled `unemployable,’ public programs should relate to clients as individuals, as participants with identifiable skills who desire independence and often work,” Prince says.
“In addition to providing necessary income support, they should have active measures to promote training and skills development, employment and volunteer opportunities.”
Canada needs to “mainstream disability into public policy and administration,” Prince argues. We need to build national statistics and an “inclusion index.” We need budget statements that commit to improving lives for disabled people, and we need the media to report on the implications of budgets and other policies for people with disabilities and their families.
Twenty years ago, there was hope that federal employment equity legislation would lead the way to a more level playing field in the job market. But progress under federal employment equity legislation has stalled, Prince argues. As has progress toward a federal disability law.
Prince believes Canada needs more “positive-action legislation” in contrast to anti-discrimination legislation that forces disability activists into the courts to fight prejudicial practices one barrier at a time.
A federal disability act, promised for years by every party of every political stripe, would be a good start to positive action. But, so far, nothing has materialized.
On the subject of a federal disability law, the promise of the Stephen Harper government – as it likes to refer to itself – is “vague, somewhat muddled and incomplete,” Prince argues.
“If the Harper government is developing an act, then the disability community needs to engage in that process,” he points out.
Couldn’t agree more.
Helen Henderson is a freelance writer and disability studies student at Ryerson University. Her column appears Saturdays. firstname.lastname@example.org