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Equal Access: Integration of Persons with Disabilities

By David Kilgour, M.P. (Edmonton Southeast)
(published in Canadian Social Studies Magazine, Summer 1995, Vol. 29, No. 4)

During the late 1970s and 1980s, the cause of people with disabilities gained considerable attention in Canada and throughout the world. Over the following decade and a half, the growing awareness of challenges faced by disabled persons was further signified by the establishment of the International Year of Disabled Persons by the United Nations in 1981.

Like other Canadians who take for granted their rights of citizenship, persons with disabilities ask neither for special treatment nor special privilege, but simply equal access. Although there had been considerable study and advocacy in Canada before 1981, the symbolic act of the United Nations mobilized many disparate forces. The International Year brought forth a report tabled in Parliament by the Special Committee on the Disabled and the Handicapped, entitled "Obstacles". It contained 132 specific recommendations, targeting every aspect of Canadian life. It remains one of the most comprehensive studies by any parliamentary body on these questions and became the touchstone for significant change. But, on nearly every front, some difficult obstacles remain, and it will take a lot of co-operation if they are to be eliminated.

Public misunderstanding and negative attitudes towards persons with disabilities still present major barriers. Some people have been denied the opportunity to be productive members of society because of attitudes that view them as dependent and not capable of making independent choices.

The Reality

  • Disabilities cut across all cultural, geographical and socio-economic communities in Canadian society,
  • There are 4.2 million Canadians who have some level of disability (15.5 percent of the population) and of those there are only 2.3 million adults aged 15-64 are in our total working population, and
  • Persons with disabilities are among the poorest members of our society. 60% of working-age Canadians who have a disability receive under $10,000 per year in income.

In addition, disability acts as a complicating factor in the lives of Canadians already disadvantaged or marginalized because they are women, seniors, Aboriginal and/or members of an ethno-cultural minority.

  • The employment rate for women with disabilities is 40.7 percent, about two thirds of the rate for non-disabled women and about 15 percent less than for men with disabilities.
  • The low level of income levels of women with disabilities lead to an overall poverty level that is higher than for all persons with disabilities or for women in general.
  • The prevalence of disability increases with age; more than a million people over 65 years of age have a disability and family resources and community services will be strained even further as the population ages over the next 20 years.
  • The rate of disability among the Aboriginal population is almost double that for the rest of the Canadian population. The disabled Aboriginal community has difficulty gaining access to existing social and health services.

The overwhelming goal behind work on this area is to empower individuals to become contributing, responsible members of their communities and, as with the wish in all of us, to achieve their full economic and human potential. Canada's National Access Awareness Week (NAAW) has played an effective role in identifying barriers and setting realistic goals for the future. Established in 1988, the NAAW has taken action - targeting areas of economic integration and equal access which will bring people with disabilities into the social and economic mainstream. Specific areas targeted to work towards access for Canadians are:

  • Education - `special` education and integrative, educational programming.
  • Employment - training programs, counselling, affirmative action schemes, grants in aid and employment equity.
  • Housing - zoning restrictions for group homes, financial assistance and other forms of accommodation.
  • Communication and access to information - broadcasting and media, telecommunications, information resource centres.

NAAW's strength is its ability to build strong communities by pulling different individuals and organizations together to work toward the common goal for Canadians.

The philosophy behind partnerships for access is sound: local groups, be they local businesses, schools, community associations, service clubs, business organizations, unions, churches, youth organizations, and voluntary associations have an important stake in improvements that will benefit the whole community. A prerequisite for the social integration of a disabled individual is social and economic independence, which supposes access to gainful employment. In spite of some progress achieved over the past 10 years, a great deal still remains to be done. The majority of disabled persons are still economically dependent, often on social assistance because of the fact that there are still far too many barriers facing them.

Disabled people in our society are a substantially numerous and substantially disadvantaged minority. Their experience is typified by unemployment rates that are radically higher than those that would be acceptable to anyone in the mainstream of society. We are concerned when unemployment goes from 7 to 10 percent in the mainstream. For disabled people, there is data that shows unemployment to be from 50 to 80 percent. The most often cited reasons for not joining the work force were based on the lack of availability of employment, the loss of current income, and various obstacles in the work environment. Accessibility is key to participation and the work environment can be restructured.

Access in the Work Environment

  • job modification or restructuring;
  • flexible work hours;
  • Support to carry out work tasks;
  • the provision of information in alternate formats such as cassettes or Braille; and
  • the promotion of supportive working relationships with colleagues.

The obstacles individuals with disabilities face in attempting to take part in the labour force are many and interconnected. Major changes are required at the policy level. Canada cannot afford to exclude contributions, ideas, creativity and enterprise of our fellow citizens with disabilities. The Centennial Research Award aptly captures the spirit of life, hope and continuity which has been employed to recognize and publicize the achievements of Canadians with disabilities. The Centennial Flame demonstrates to the rest of the world that it is our abilities - not our disabilities - that distinguish us all.

Today, in 1995, there remain persistent problems and numerous barriers to full economic participation by Canadians with disabilities. For the most part, the issues are community-based. They cannot be solved in one "fell-swoop." They require the vision, the energy, the talent of a range of organizations and individuals.

In 1995, it's important to keep in mind the United Nations Decade on Disability is well behind us. It is important to forge ahead. The need for non-partisan leadership is real , yet at the same time economic constraints limit options and also test values and creativity everywhere.

With the election of approximately 200 new Members of Parliament in October, 1993, virtually all of those Members who had actively worked on the issue either retired, or did not return to the house. A new Permanent Standing Committee on Human Rights of the Status of the Disabled was struck early in 1994.

Canadians regard Parliament as their governing institution which reflects the interests and the values shared by people across the country. For Canadians with a disability, Parliament protects individual and collective rights and gives meaning to the concept "equality for all."

There is a definite role the Speaker, and elected officials to play, in a leadership capacity, well into the 21st century.

Indeed, under leadership of the Speaker, Canada's Parliament has, since 1985, been a leader in Canada in major, and concrete efforts to better serve Canada's disabled population.

It will be a milestone that provides us with the opportunity to look at what progress has been made to date, and to chart new courses to the year 2000. Many concerned Canadians have high expectations, enthusiasm and commitment.

Now is the time to harness this spirit and work together for lasting social and economic change.

The success depends upon all Canadians participating together and working towards an common goal.


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