Historic moment for nation’s disabled
Published On Wed Mar 17 2010. By Carol Goar, Editorial Board
It took seven years of patient, painstaking work. The initiative survived a change of government, three elections and half a dozen ministerial changes. Party politics never got in the way.
Last week, Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in New York.
“This is a historic moment,” said Laurie Beachell, national coordinator of the Council of Canadians with Disabilities. “We believe it turns a new page in the history of equality of Canadians with disabilities.”
He realizes a UN treaty won’t wipe out the barriers that constrain people with disabilities. He acknowledges it has no timetable or enforcement mechanism. And he knows Canada has failed to live up to the standards of other UN conventions it has ratified: on climate change, the rights of the child, the elimination of discrimination against women and the protection of the rights of migrant workers.
Nevertheless, he and other disability advocates consider this a turning point. “If people read it, they’ll see a new vision of a more inclusive and accessible Canada,” Beachell said. “It sets out the rights and responsibilities of people with disabilities and requires the government to file progress reports to the UN every four years.”
The treaty calls on signatories to:
- Change or abolish laws, policies and practices that permit discrimination against individuals with disabilities.
- Eliminate barriers to accessibility so that schools, medical facilities, parks and playgrounds, workplaces and new housing are open to all.
- Ensure that people with disabilities can participate, on an equal footing with others, in the justice system.
- Facilitate the mobility of people with disabilities in a manner of their choice at an affordable cost.
- Protect the privacy of people with disabilities, regardless of their living arrangements.
- Require health professionals to provide the same quality of care to people with disabilities as they do to others.
- Recognize the right of people with disabilities to earn a living through freely chosen work in an environment that is open and accessible.
- Accommodate students with disabilities in elementary and secondary schools in their community.
- And foster respect for the rights and dignity of people with disabilities.
Canada has a long way to go to meet these benchmarks. Many people with disabilities still live in rundown rooming houses, homeless shelters or the streets. Many youngsters with disabilities are unwelcome in neighbourhood schools. Many courts, government offices, even medical facilities are off-limits to people who use wheelchairs or motorized devices.
In Ontario, an individual with a serious disability receives a monthly support payment of $1,042 – 8 per cent below Statistics Canada’s low-income cut-off.
But the fact that all 10 provinces endorsed Ottawa’s decision to ratify the treaty indicates a willingness to be judged by its terms.
The cabinet minister who got the ball rolling back in 2003 was then-social development minister Ken Dryden. But he doesn’t want any credit. “It was the natural, normal, appropriate thing to do,” he said.
The minister who championed the initiative in the Conservative government was Peter MacKay. He made it a priority as foreign affairs minister and continued to push for it as defence minister.
But it was Cannon, along with Human Resources Minister Diane Finley, who finished the job. “The ratification of this agreement is just further acknowledgement that Canada is a world leader in providing persons with disabilities the same opportunities in life as all Canadians,” Finley said.
That’s a bit of a stretch. Canada was the 82nd country to ratify the convention.
But thanks to a rare display of non-partisan resolve, Canada is now formally committed to making life fairer for its 4.4 million citizens with disabilities.
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