Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Sociology

Canadian Disability Policy: Still a Hit-and-Miss Affair

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Sociology

Canadian Disability Policy: Still a Hit-and-Miss Affair

Article excerpt

Abstract: When the Canadian record on disability policy-making is reviewed a deja vu discourse is clearly evident. Assessing disability policy reform over recent decades evokes a strong sense that we have been here before in terms of the problems identified and the promises made. From interviews with disability community leaders and documentary analysis, five explanations for this frustrating pace of reform over the last 25 years are examined. These are public attitudes and the lack of information; the relative powerlessness of the disability community; the constraints of economic thinking and public finances; federal-provincial jurisdictional issues; and the absence of robust accountability mechanisms for disability policy within Canada's welfare state. Drawing on Foucault's concept of governmentality, the article argues that governance arrangements and discursive techniques, and not only programs and benefits, need to be the focus of advocacy and scrutiny by the disability movement and by scholars in disability studies.

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A quarter century ago, a major Canadian study on policies and programs for people with disabilities was aptly entitled A Hit-and-Miss Affair (Brown, 1977). Prepared for the Canadian Council on Social Development, the inquiry sought to discover what was happening in services and programs for people with physical disabilities across the country. Looking at the total policy system, Brown found that the network of policies for Canadians with disabilities was not functioning effectively. Gaps in service provision, late referrals and inadequate follow-up programs, insufficient linkages among social programs, and incomplete information systems were among the barriers. Brown concluded her study with two strong impressions: "The first was that there is a lively awareness of the many deficiencies in policies for disabled people in Canada together with a desire for constructive change. The second was a strong sense of frustration that the need to change is not being given an adequate priority at the level where decisions must be made" (Brown, 1977: 548). A growing awareness of the need for change coupled with a strong frustration with inadequate policy action meant that addressing the needs and rights of Canadians with disabilities was a hit-and-miss affair.

This description of the policy setting, I will argue, remains a fair portrayal of Canadian disability programs and services, especially so from the perspective of groups of, and for persons with disabilities. Why has there been relatively slow movement on the disability agenda in Canada in recent decades? To explore this question, the paper examines reports and observations by various disability community groups and parliamentary committees that critique the Canadian government's disability policy record since the early 1980s, spanning the International Year of Disabled Persons of 1981 to the current context in the early 2000s. (1) The slow pace of reform is evident by what I call the deja vu discourse on disability reform and the disability issues circle.

Traditionally, disability studies as a field of inquiry included relatively little analysis of public sector governance and related policy processes. Canadian social science was a clear example of this custom that, happily, is changing with major contributions to problematizing the way people with disabilities and their experiences have been studied or ignored (Bickenbach, 1993; Enns, 1999; Titchkosky, 2000 and 2003; Cameron and Valentine, 2001). A key premise of this article is that matters of governance and public policy are major determinants of the sluggish pace of reform. The paper therefore identifies several interrelated factors for why we are still a long way from meeting disability policy commitments on the Canadian government's agenda. Foucault's concepts of bio-politics and governmentality are used to inform the analysis and interpretation of this state of affairs. …

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