About Canada: Disability Rights

By Thériault, Luc | Canadian Review of Social Policy, January 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

About Canada: Disability Rights


Thériault, Luc, Canadian Review of Social Policy


About Canada: Disability Rights Deborah Stienstra Halifax & Winnipeg: Fernwood Publishing, 2012.

The latest addition to Fernwood's About Canada Series is written by Deborah Stienstra, a professor of disability studies at the University of Manitoba. In this small book (125 pages), she introduces the reader to disability rights and policies in a Canadian context. From the start we are reminded that disability is a social construct created by attitudes and assumptions about difference and impairment rather than by the impairment itself.

Much progress has been made since the late 1970s in the fight for disability rights but much remains to be accomplished. Too often, social policies have been instituted without involving people with disability in the decision-making process. Faced with this situation, people with disabilities have learned to advocate for themselves and have set-up resources where peer support can be accessed to live more independently.

At the federal level, since the 1998 In Unison report, it is recognized at least in principle that disability is a social creation and that government and other actors must strive to remove stigma and ensure inclusion. Some interesting tax measures have been introduced, such as in 2004 with the Registered Disability Saving Plan. But, of course, the tax policy direction has its limits for people living with low income.

At the provincial level, since the 2000s, the programs and policies relating to disabled people have varied widely. Still, we can see some movements in the right direction in jurisdictions, such as in PEI, where disability support programs have be affranchised from the connection with social assistance. But again much remains to be done to treat people with disability as full citizens, regardless of where they live in the country. Too often, moving from one province to another will mean that you must return your wheelchair obtained under the aegis of a provincial support program and reapply elsewhere in the hope of accessing similar support. Negotiating the jurisdictional maze is likely to be more complicated if you are an Aboriginal person with a disability as was tragically illustrated by the case of Jordan River Anderson in Manitoba.

In chapter 2, Stienstra reminds us of the plights of people with disability who fall through the cracks of an ill-organized system. The tragic stories of Brian Sinclair, Ashley Smith, Cory Moar and Tracy Latimer speak to us about the deaths of "invisible" disabled people who were set aside, neglected, harmed or abused. While they were citizens, they did not seemed entitled to rights nor worthy of protections. Perhaps this is caused by the prevailing (but unfortunate) view that in some cases you are "better dead than disabled"? Here the author stresses how we need to shiftour thinking when she writes: "It is not about 'dying from' but rather living with disability." (p. 36)

To live a good life with disabilities is possible, however, and in chapter 3 Stienstra identifies education, employment, transportation, telecommunication, and health care as the five key areas that form the building blocks for full inclusion and participation of people with disability. The treatment given to the education issue is interesting because it touches briefly on what I would call the inclusion versus specialized education debate. Unfortunately, the author simply takes the now conventional view in favor of inclusion (which I share) without paying any attention to the arguments of those, like some parents of severely disabled children, who favor the specialised approach. This is a missed opportunity to address the fact that there are debates within the disability rights movement, that it is not a monolith and that it is worth looking at some minority positions within this movement.

The complexity and diversity of the situation is better captured by the author regarding (un)employment where age and type of impairments (among other factors) play a role. …

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