Magazine article Canadian Dimension

Disabled People Take Charge

Magazine article Canadian Dimension

Disabled People Take Charge

Article excerpt


(HALIFAX) I came across an intriguing coincidence recently, while researching the history of the disabled consumers' movement in Nova Scotia. The Cape Breton group that was to become Consumer Involvement of the Disabled (CID) got organized in Sydney in the summer of 1976. With no communication or networking, Disabled Individuals Alliance (DIAL) of Halifax got its start a few months later, in December of 1976.

Meanwhile in Winnipeg, the Coalition of Provincial Organizations of the Handicapped formed as a national body to represent the handful of western provincial organizations in existence in 1976. COPOH found out about a year later that their US counterpart, the American Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities, had organized at approximately the same time.

Serendipity? Something in the water supply? "Well, there was no accessible transportation then> that got people organized," one disabled activist noted. But that problem existed in 1952 and 1965 and 1970 as well -- what's so special about 1976?

Why did women and men with disabilities choose the mid-70s to shrug off the oppressive role of passive patient or charity recipient to emerge as citizens demanding rights? Why was it then that disabled persons decided it was no longer good enough to accept whatever services charities or professionals handed them? Why was it then they decided they wanted a voice of their own, to make their own decision? How does self-empowerment grow? What precipitated this new consciousness, this paradigm shift?

The US movement looks to breakthrough legislation, the 1973 Rehabilitation Act, and to the 1972 formation of the Center for Independent Living in Berkeley, California as watershed events. Gerben DeJong (1979), a well-known interpreter of the US movement, also relates disabled Americans' activism to other social movements of the era, including civil rights, consumerism, self-help and demedicalization.

The civil rights movement, he says, had an impact far beyond racial minorities, making "other disadvantaged groups aware of their rights and how their rights were being denied." Nader's Raiders encouraged American consumers to distrust sellers of goods and providers of services. "Consumer sovereignty" for disabled Americans means the "customer" of rehabilitation services, for example, "is always right" in knowing her or his own needs.

The self-help movement embraces everything from childbirth to neighborhood crime to gambling addictions, but its basic tenet shared by disabled activists is the importance of giving people the opportunity to exercise control over their own lives.

Finally, demedicalization challenges the dominance of the medical profession. Ivan Illich (1976) argues that too many social problems and life conditions -- like pregnancy, for example -- are being unnecessarily medicalized. To take a now-obvious example, stairs blocking access for a person using a wheelchair are not a medical or rehabilitation problem> they are a social problem.

These condtions in the US, while recognizably influential, do not completely explain the Canadian movement's origins. Nova Scotians active in DIAL and CID say they were not engaged in conversations about the rights of American blacks, or even about the rights of Canadian women after the 1970 report of the Royal Commission.

De Jong believes the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 helped launch the American movement because it contained the seeds of an anomaly. Using Kuhn's (1970) analysis that an anomaly can lead to a paradigm shift, DeJong looks at the anomaly the severely disabled American presented in the 1973 Act. For the first time, severely handicapped Americans (those for whom a vocational goal was less feasible after rehabilitation) were eligible, indeed given first priority, for services under the Act. But severely disabled persons could not signficantly benefit from traditional rehabilitation -- they couldn't "change" or "improve" enough. …

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