People living with disabilities have long been accustomed to asking for inclusion without results:
- We needed telehealth appointments to make receiving health-care easier but the system didn’t allow for this;
- We needed access to remote work and other accommodations to ease the strain on our bodies and enhance our work performance but companies claimed in-person attendance was required;
- We needed accessibility in the built environment to make it usable for us but that request was treated as a “nice to have.”
- We needed our children to have individual education plans in schools but these were not followed.
Yet when COVID-19 hit, much of what we had previously been told was impossible was implemented quickly and efficiently. Virtual health-care was offered to reduce face-to-face contact and, for disabled people, these virtual medical appointments also reduced barriers such as travel, scheduling accessible transportation, parking costs and time off work. Remote work was quickly normalized with no “special approvals” needed, thereby saving limited energy for work and increasing productivity.
For years, Canadians with disabilities have been asking for inclusive policies and programs but have been routinely rejected, creating significant barriers to participating equally in our communities like our friends and neighbours.
Barriers to education and employment have led to an employment rate of only 49 per cent for people with disabilities. And when accessible employment is unavailable, financial support programs are woefully inadequate. For instance, the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) pays only $1,200 a month to a single adult, a rate that is far below the poverty line.
The stigma and lack of understanding associated with disability was reflected in a statement by Ontario Premier Doug Ford recently when he said: “The best way to help people in Ontario Works or ODSP, if they’re healthy and they’re able to work, get them a job, help get them a job.”
To qualify for the ODSP, one has to prove a permanent inability to work. Although some are able to work part-time, they can only make $200 a month before the program claws back their benefits and many have lost their jobs due to COVID-19.
Legislation such as the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) mandates accessibility in a number of areas, including playgrounds and transportation, yet it does not cover housing – disabled people can participate equally in their communities, yet they cannot live there. In the rare instances when accessible housing is available, there is a paucity of supportive services in the community to assist us to live independently.
The health-care system is also rife with barriers for those of us who live with chronic illness and disability. Clinics and equipment, even basic things such as exam tables, are not accessible; communication supports such as American Sign Language (ASL) are rarely provided; and few health-care professionals understand disability.
When the pandemic began, we discovered just how profoundly our lives are devalued. The Ontario’s government’s initial ICU triage protocols to be used in times of scarce resources were leaked, showing that when health-care would be most needed, disabled people could be the first to be denied critical care.
Other COVID-19 initiatives exposed disabled Canadians to more risk. Although many rely on personal support workers (PSWs) to assist with the activities of daily living, it took far too long into the pandemic’s first wave before PSWs were restricted to working only in one location. As well, despite seeing the preventative success of mandated masks in other countries, provincial governments initially refused to mandate masks in public spaces, relying on municipalities to create bylaws, and leaving those at high risk even more exposed. For many in the chronic illness and disability community at higher risk for COVID-19, the refusal to mandate masks echoed so many other instances in which their needs were not included in decision-making, leaving them in greater danger.
Canadians pride themselves on diversity, inclusion and publicly funded health care. However, people with disabilities are consistently being left behind. The COVID-19 pandemic laid bare how profoundly insecure the lives of disabled Canadians are. It has demonstrated how much lip service has been paid to the needs of the disabled.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stated that the pandemic represents an opportunity to change and invest in our future. Let us take this opportunity to enable disabled Canadians to live their lives fully and equally by eliminating a paternalistic system that does not respect their basic dignity. Now is the time to implement system-wide change and re-evaluate how our society values and supports disabled people.