Towards a Just Society for Islanders with disabilities

Rotary+40mm Towards a Just Society for Islanders with disabilities photo@ Rotary International

June+Rotary+crop Towards a Just Society for Islanders with disabilities photo

Ed: presentation given to Charlottetown Rotary, PEI on June 4th by Stephen Pate a Rotarian, Paul Harris Fellow and the founder of PEI Disability Alert.

When Pierre Elliot Trudeau said “Canada must be a just society” he was voicing a common view after World War II. Too long left out because of their disability and society’s attitudes, Islanders with disabilities must join that Just Society.

Trudeau’s vision of a Just Society is partially a product of his Jesuit education which emphasized Christian values of sharing and caring for our fellow man.

It is also a product of post-World War II Western democracies. After WWII, the United Nations developed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which said in part,

“…inalienable human rights …Among these rights include the right to life, the right to not be tortured or enslaved, and to not be unfairly persecuted. The Declaration also grants freedom of thought, expression, and religion.”

Various western nations including Canada adopted the UN Charter. It also formed the basis for Prime Minister Diefenbaker’s “Canadian Bill of Rights”

The social welfare legislation sponsored by the Trudeau government was part of Trudeau’s vision of a Just Society, such as universal medicare, unemployment insurance and the basket of social programs that we identify as Canadian.

Canada was in the mood for Human Rights. However, Canadians with disabilities were left out of the Just Society for the most part.

In 1981, Trudeau was able to achieve his ultimate goal with the signing of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which says in the preamble

“the only way to provide equal protection to everyone is to enshrine those basic rights and freedoms in the Constitution. …”

With those rights and freedoms came the protection of persons with disabilities, namely

“15.1 Every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination and, in particular, without discrimination based on race…mental or physical disability.”

For the first time persons with disabilities achieved equality under law. Achieving that equality in society would be a struggle that is ongoing today.

Towards a Just Society for Islanders with disabilities

Disability is defined by the United Nations

“Any restriction or lack resulting from an impairment of ability to perform an activity in the manner or within the range considered normal for a human being”

Loss of hearing requiring a hearing aid is a disability, small hearing loss isn’t. A learning disorder that impairs the ability to learn is a disability. A developmental disability such as autism is. A limp isn’t a disability, walking difficulty may be.

According to Statistics Canada, one in 7 Islanders has a disability. That means 19,000 Islanders have a disability.
Who are they – people in this room, members of your family if your family is moderately sized. They are often shunted aside in society.

Disability is not a childhood problem. Only 1 in 20 children have a disability while the total age demographic is 1 in 7, a magnitude of 3 times higher.

Most disabilities occur from middle life onward. They are level until one’s 40s – then rising in later years of life. Disability is often a factor of aging. By age 65, 1 in 3 are disabled. By age 75, that’s 1 in 2.

Most Common Disabilities (some multiple disabilities) are mobility 50%, hearing 30%, seeing 30%, agility15%, and learning or speech 6%.

Practicalities of a non-discriminatory society

While Canadians with disabilities are protected from discrimination by the constitution, the practical realities are difficult to overcome. Governments have been studying the issues since the Kirby report in mid 90’s proposing various structures at the Federal and Provincial level.

By 2000, they had issued 2 studies: In Unison A Canadian Approach to Disabilities and In Unison 2000.

What was agreed upon is that Inclusion of Canadians with disabilities is not a simple task. If you give some one an assistive device, wheelchair, hearing aid, will they still have access to non-disabled society?

Governments have come to understand the complexity of the problem includes both hard supports (assistive devices) and soft supports (community, employment, education and home care supports).

Some provinces already had disability support programs like Ontario, Saskatchewan and BC. In 2001 PEI inaugurated the Disability Support Program.

The DSP was severely under-funded. Problems started appearing right away with Human Rights and Privacy cases. Exclusion of seniors who make up 45% of disabilities population was an obvious omission.

A 2004 study funded by the Provinces and the Federal government found persistent unmet needs for assistive devices with 1/3 of disabled. Unmet needs on PEI included: 550 hearing aids, 500 bathroom grab bars, 500 Wheelchairs and scooters, 550 pairs of glasses. Islanders are also in need of community access, transportation access, employment and education supports, home care, and respite care.

The problems were acerbated last year with a $1 million cut back to the DSP and harsh new rules to contain costs.

PEI Disability Alert

At this point, frustrated by government inaction and cut-backs, we formed PEI Disability Alert. We believed that if you could capture the attention of Islanders they would respond to the inequality of treatment of those with disabilities.

With virtually no money, we began a program of street protests handing out flyers, Internet Blog stories, YouTube video stories, letters to the Editor, newspaper stories and TV coverage.
Ours was a grass-roots education program that attempted to shift the public mindset about 19,000 Islanders with disabilities who deserved to be treated better.

We lobbied elected officials and candidates for office of all parties, their party leaders, backroom political operatives – virtually anyone who could influence the process. Some of them promised to help. Luckily for Islanders with disabilities, some of those who promised just got elected to form the new government.

The Road Ahead towards a just society for Islanders with Disabilities

The new government has committed in writing to carry out reform of the DSP, including:
• A full review of the Disability Support Program (DSP)
• Use the results of this review consider broadening the current definition of disabled used under the DSP to accommodate a fuller spectrum of those living with disabilities, including seniors
• Use the results of this review to define new funding levels and provincial commitments for Islanders with disabilities
• Increase home and vehicle modification funding for Islanders with disabilities
• Establish a Standing Committee of the Legislature for Seniors and Islanders Living with Disabilities
• Advocate for increases to the Health and Social Transfer that
would target increased federal transfers to address the needs of Islanders living with disabilities
• Commit to making it part of the mandate of the PEI Housing Corporation that it retrofit a certain percentage of existing seniors and family housing units to make them accessible
• Commit to the construction of $3.2 million in new social housing units by 2009
• Look at making part of the mandate of the PEI Housing Corporation the establishment of fixed percentages of accessible units in new construction.

It is not merely up to the new government. It is up to all of us because the government only expresses the will of the people. If we collectively don’t maintain that desire to see Islanders with disabilities as part of the Just Society the effort will fail.

What can Rotary Do? Rotarians are known to support various disability charities. This is a good place to be coming from. However, we need to move beyond the charity model where the disenfranchised are given part of their needs, but only periodically.

We need to adopt the Social Justice model, the Just Society, where every citizen can be assured some basic minimums values like food, shelter and most of all dignity. For Islanders with disabilities the problem is more complex and involves special needs that society has identified. We need to make sure we follow through and help them obtain their needs.

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