Struggle for a Voice

National Post Published: Wednesday, February 18, 2009

For well over half a century, the Canadian Association for Community Living (CACL) has waged an uphill battle to ensure the basic human rights afforded
all Canadians are also extended to an oft-forgotten group – the estimated 600,000 men, women and children who have some form of intellectual disability.

But while the CACL has achieved much that struggle is far from over, says its president, Bendina Miller.

“There is still tremendous disparity across Canada,” she says. “Access to education, employment, accommodation and basic support services depends largely
on where you live. For instance there are still between 2,500 and 3,000 people with intellectual disabilities living in institutions, essentially being
warehoused and without the support they need to grow and learn and achieve.

“What CACL is about is extending full citizenship to all Canadians. We want national recognition that an intellectual disability does not make you a second-
or third-class person. Yet despite being a society that embraces diversity, we still have a paradoxical approach to hose with intellectual disabilities.
And if a family who has a son or daughter with an intellectual disability wants to imigrate to Canada it’s downright exclusionary.”

The overall goal of CACL is to change attitudes, to make all Canadians and their governments understand that those with disabilities can grow, prosper,
learn and enjoy a quality life if they become fully integrated members of their communities, says Michael Bach, the Association’s executive vice-president.

“All the research done to date has shown inclusion always leads to better outcomes, especially in areas such as schooling,” he says. “Yet, despite the research,
children with intellectual disabilities are too often placed in segregated ‘special needs’ classes. In the workplace, those with disabilities are overlooked
when it comes to suitable employment.”

At the same time. there are countless stories of individuals and families who have so benefitted from inclusion that they shine like a thousand points of
light across the country.

Audrey Cole’s son Ian is one such example. Ms. Cole, now 81, was one of the earliest supporters of CACL, then known as the Canadian Association for Retarded
Children (the name was changed to better reflect the association’s expanding membership in 1958). Ian was born with Down’s syndrome.

With the support of CACL, she battled first to get him into school, then to get him out of a segregated classroom and to win respite care and support for
her family. Again with the help of mothers and fathers in similar situations, she found Ian an adult centre and most recently, she achieved what had been
her ultimate goal: Through the nearby Brockville and District Association for Community Involvement, a local member of CACL, she found Ian a home of his
own, one he will share with a roommate, about 10 minutes’ drive from the home near Smith’s Falls she shares with her husband Fred, 90.

“To my mind, the Brockville association is among the most progressive in Canada,” she says. “CACL groups across the country have fought long and hard to
get where we are today. We still have a way to go but there has been great progress.”

Inclusion is not just a goal at the CACL; it is also a way of life, Dr. Bach says. The association is made up of 13 provincial and territorial associations,
400 local associations and 40,000 members – those with intellectual disabilities, their families and community supporters.

While in its early days the association’s focus was simply finding or creating local schools where the children of members could gain an education – even
in segregated classes – today its mandate embraces all activities a community can offer. To achieve that it lobbies, educates, informs, researches and,
in fact, takes on any activity that will level the playing field for the men, women and children whose interest it represents.

To date it has achieved major successes. One year ago, the United Nations passed the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities that, importantly,
not only recognized that they have the same rights as any global citizen but went further, offering what is in effect a blueprint of what actions must
be taken to ensure those rights.

In Canada, CACL allied with other groups representing the entire range of disabilities and presented the federal government with a national agenda setting
out what must be done to ensure equal treatment across the country.

While the struggle continues, Ms. Miller points out that the message is starting to be heard. Institutions are being closed in favour of community living
across Canada, school classrooms are increasingly integrated and some provinces have abandoned one-size-fits-all support programs in favour of those tailored
to the specific needs of individuals.

At least 10 universities and a handful of colleges have created programs where those with intellectual disabilities can benefit from the milieu of college
life and all its activities without being subject to the usual academic rigours.

Employment continues to be a challenge. Dr. Bach points out that the percentage of men and women with intellectual disabilities in the work force is far
lower than those with physical challenges.

But Ms. Miller suggests demographics may prove an ally in the fight for employment equity. As the Baby Boomers age demand for workers will increase, she
says, and many people with intellectual disabilities are suited to service jobs that may go unfilled unless Canadian employers take a more supportive and
creative approach.

Now is the time for action across all fronts, Ms. Miller says. That will be the message of a national campaign to be launched this year. The theme: No excuses.

It is a phrase that accurately captures what Canada must no do to ensure equity for all its people, Dr. Bach says.

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