Milestone reached, but still so far to go

TheStar.com – Living – UN convention recognizes inclusion as a human right
Published On Sat Mar 20 2010.  By Helen Henderson, Disabilities Reporter

You cannot say 2010 has been without milestones on the human rights front for people with disabilities.

After years of hard work by advocates, last week Canada ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (www.un.org/disabilities). That means all communities should be open to everyone no matter how they move, communicate or process information.

The ratification came on the heels of a landmark Canadian Human Rights Tribunal (online at www.chrt-tcdp.gc.ca) ruling that enshrines the right of voters with disabilities to accessible polling stations. The decision applied specifically to federal elections but is expected to influence provincial and municipal votes as well.

Theoretically, all these rights already have been mandatory for a long time under both federal and provincial human rights codes. In practice, respecting the rights of people with disabilities is still a hit-and-miss affair.

Education, for example, may be inclusive on paper, but how kids with disabilities fit into classrooms is still very much at the discretion of principals and teachers. What’s more, spending for the necessary supports – from educational assistants to technological aids – is still considered discretionary rather than essential. And teachers are not necessarily given the training they need to know how best to help kids with special needs.

Access to health care is still fraught with peril for people with disabilities. Aging hospital infrastructures play a role but, more than anything, it is the attitude of some health-care professionals that needs a major overhaul.

Then there’s access to transportation, work and community activities. Accommodating needs too often falls victim to demands for budgetary constraints. But again, attitudes are most often at the root of problems.

So where do we go from here? Onward and upward, one can only hope.

The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, ratified at the United Nations headquarters in New York, formally recognizes belonging as one of our most fundamental human rights. Disability advocates were quick to issue statements extolling its promise.

As seen by Keith Powell, executive director of Community Living Ontario, which promotes the inclusion of people with intellectual disabilities, adoption of the treaty “will continue to shift our understanding of disability” from a deficit located within a person to a problem located within the environmental and attitudinal barriers posed by society.

“The convention is also unique for the way it was developed,” added Michael Bach, executive vice-president of the Canadian Association for Community Living. “It is the first time in UN history that people affected by a treaty were actively engaged in the development of its text. It is a convention that is informed by the lived experience of people with disabilities and their families.”

The ratification “signals the end of an era when people with disabilities were seen as objects of charity and passive recipients of rehabilitation and state-supported largesse,” said Steve Estey, chair of the international committee of the Winnipeg-based Council of Canadians with Disabilities and one of the key players in the framing of the UN Convention.

The agreement “is not simply another well-intentioned declaration without any teeth,” added the council’s national chair, Marie White. It requires Ottawa “to act and monitor progress … Canada’s actions to create a more accessible and inclusive society will be the subject of both domestic and international scrutiny.”

So how will all this play out next time Canadians go the polls?

Thanks to a formal complaint from Toronto’s Peter Hughes, who had massive problems voting in March last year, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal has re-emphasized polling accessibility rights. But the advocacy alliance that monitors the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disability Act warns that there is more to be done.

On March 24 and 31, Ontario’s Standing Committee on the Legislative Assembly will hold public hearings on Bill 231, an Act to amend the Election Act and the Election Finances Act. The alliance urges people with disabilities to take a stand. For more information, see www.aodaalliance.org.

Helen Henderson is a freelance writer and disability studies student at Ryerson University. Her column appears Saturdays. helenhenderson@sympatico.ca

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