Last frontier of legal prejudice [mental & other disabilities]

TheStar.com – Opinion – Attitudes toward people with mental disabilities are based on myths
Published On Sat Apr 24 2010.  The Dream Team

Until the Supreme Court of Canada abolished the practice in 1951, many Ontario neighbourhoods were kept exclusively white by a long-standing tradition known as real estate covenants.

Somebody wishing to buy a house typically had to agree that their property “shall never be sold, assigned, transferred, leased to, and shall never be occupied or used by any person of the Jewish, Hebrew, Semitic, Negro or coloured race or blood, it being the intention to restrict the ownership, use, occupation and enjoyment to persons of the white or Caucasian race not excluded by this clause.”

Today, although racism and anti-Semitism still exist, most Ontarians find these forms of bigotry abhorrent and are embarrassed that the law of the land once permitted them in the interest of “preserving the character” of local neighbourhoods.

Yet in 2010, there is still one form of prejudice that remains perfectly legal — zoning bylaws that target people with mental and other disabilities.

Using much the same rationale that racists did three-quarters of a century ago, such laws are enacted to “preserve the character” of neighbourhoods and keep undesirable residents out. It is the last frontier of legal discrimination and society barely raises a fuss.

In February, eight members of the Dream Team — a collective of Toronto-based psychiatric survivors who lobby for supportive housing — were the lead applicants in a case filed by the Human Rights Legal Support Centre against the municipalities of Toronto, Kitchener, Smiths Falls and Sarnia. The case targeted restrictive zoning bylaws governing where group homes for people with disabilities could be located.

In early April, we experienced a major victory when the City of Sarnia agreed to voluntarily amend its bylaw to remove the restrictive provisions.

In announcing the decision, Sarnia Mayor Mike Bradley declared, “These antiquated bylaws had to go and we’ve been working on it for some time. We moved decisively to remove portions of our bylaws that placed arbitrary restrictions on group homes — those restrictions had nothing to do with planning and everything to do with negative stereotypes about disabled people.”

We are deeply gratified by the mayor’s statement, his acknowledgment that the bylaws were discriminatory, and particularly his call for other municipalities to follow Sarnia’s lead.

We have urged Toronto to heed his call and eliminate similar anachronistic zoning bylaws that still exist from pre-amalgamated municipalities such as Scarborough and Etobicoke, which require supportive housing units to be located as far away as 460 metres from other residences or care homes. These districts also prohibit rooming houses, which often are the only housing available for low-income people living with mental illness.

The Toronto Housing Charter has already committed the city to erasing barriers by declaring: “All residents should be able to live in their neighbourhood of choice without discrimination.”

Yet we watched with dismay on Thursday when the draft of the long-awaited amalgamation zoning bylaw was unveiled at city hall and it still failed to eliminate discriminatory distancing provisions. The politically charged discussion on city-wide rooming house regulations has now been postponed until 2011, after the next municipal election.

Since 1999, the Dream Team has battled against stigma and discrimination while advocating for more safe, secure and affordable supportive housing for people living with mental illness in Toronto and throughout the province.

We have found that existing NIMBY attitudes toward psychiatric survivors are based on stereotypes and myths that don’t reflect reality. To that end, we have been working to educate Ontarians about the real facts in order to eliminate discrimination based on ignorance or fear.

In 2008, we released a study, We Are Neighbours, in partnership with the Wellesley Institute, showing that the existence of supportive housing for people living with mental illness doesn’t increase the crime rate or lower property values in neighbourhoods where it is located.

On the contrary, the study found that tenants in these buildings contribute a modest but significant amount to their local economies; contribute to the vibrancy of their area through their street presence and watchfulness; contribute to the friendliness among neighbours; and contribute to the collective efficacy of their neighbourhoods through civic action around issues such as noise, tidiness and crime.

We are confident that, armed with the facts, most people will view discrimination against people with mental illness equally as repugnant as they do bigotry against other groups.

The Dream Team is group of psychiatric consumer/survivors who advocate for more supportive housing in Ontario for people with mental health issues.

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