Canada’s patchwork disability supports system will not be fixed unless the federal government takes responsibility for its obligations to persons living with disabilities

Honorable Thomas Mulcair, Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition (Huffington Post) – Wednesday marked the 23rd International Day of Persons’ of Disabilities.

Much has been achieved around the world to promote understanding of disability issues and to mobilize support for the dignity, rights and well-being of persons with disabilities. Here in Canada, we celebrate these achievements, but we know that there is still so much to do.

As just an example among so many, Marianne found herself relying on credit cards to pay for food and other essentials after rheumatoid arthritis wreaked havoc on her body leaving her with extreme pain. She no longer could keep up with the demands of her bookkeeping business, beginning a spiral that left her in poverty.

Unfortunately, for people like Marianne, her family and loved ones, and the one in six Canadians who are directly affected by disability issues, her story far too common.

Persons living with a disability in Canada are nearly three times more likely to live in poverty than other Canadians. They are more likely to live in a home that needs major structural repairs. Two million Canadians lack the supports they need in order to carry out what others view as simply daily activities.

Canada’s first report to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, submitted last year — two years late — admitted that despite Canada having signed the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities four years ago, “there continues to be challenges, including barriers to language and communication, learning and training, and safety and security.”

From delays and backlogs at the Social Security Tribunals to the elimination of home delivery by Canada Post to the failure to take decisive action on the ongoing affordable housing crisis — it is clear that the current federal government isn’t interested in dealing with the challenges that persons living with disabilities face every day.

Emblematic of the Conservative approach to disabilities — all show and no substance — is the failure to fully implement the UN Convention.

By signing it, Canada made a commitment to the progressive implementation of the rights of persons with disabilities, eliminating barriers that marginalize and discriminate against Canadians living with disabilities.

A key principle recognizes that discrimination on the grounds of disability is a human rights violation. Yet, last year over half of the cases received by the Canadian Human Rights Commission on the grounds of discrimination were disability complaints.

What’s more, the Conservatives have failed to appoint an independent review body monitor the implementation of the Convention and ensure that civil society participates fully in the monitoring process.

Lip service is not enough. Canada must work with the people living with disabilities, with provinces, territories, Indigenous communities, experts and civil society actors to full implement our commitment.

The federal government should also ask the UN Special Rapporteur on Disability, Mr. Shuaib Chalklen, to make an official visit to Canada to assess what progress has been made and provide advice so that Canada can meet its obligations to support 4.4 million Canadians living with disabilities.

Less than half of people living with a disability in Canada work. This is not because persons with disabilities don’t want to work, or can’t work. It is primarily because of a lack of action to remove barriers.

The obstacles to employment for persons living with disabilities are well known and documented. In the last thirty years there have been over twenty parliamentary studies on the subject. Regrettably, successive Liberal and Conservative governments have failed to implement their recommendations.

The Conservatives narrowly focus on voluntary measures for the private sector to increase employment for persons with disability, while ignoring deeper structural barriers.

It is time for a comprehensive strategy for persons with disabilities: not just training and assistance devices, but also support for affordable housing, transportation, and increasing income security to help individuals reach their full potential.

Canada also lags behind on investing in people living with disabilities, spending less on disability benefits than most other OECD countries.

The Conservatives likes to pat themselves on the back for their work on tax credits and the Registered Disability Savings Program (RDSP). While the RDSP is a positive innovation, it can only help people who have income to save or families who can afford to save for them and so fails to help the vast majority of persons living with disabilities.

It is time re-examine existing programs and expand access to those who need it most. Federal leadership is needed to streamline and coordinate benefits between jurisdictions. Canada’s patchwork system will not be fixed unless the federal government takes responsibility for its obligations to persons living with disabilities.

Honorable Thomas Mulcair, Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition (photo NDP)

Honorable Thomas Mulcair, Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition (photo NDP)

The federal government needs to do a better job of identifying barriers to the full participation of persons living with disabilities, of coordinating efforts across governments, and to work consultatively and collaboratively with persons with disabilities on moving forward together.

Canada must do better.

Follow Thomas Mulcair on Twitter: @ThomasMulcair