Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Poverty and Access are Intertwined ...

There seems to be a bilateral movement within the disability community when it comes to issues. The Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Alliance (AODAA) pushes for broad-based universal access. They were the primary motivators behind Bill 118, which passed by the Liberals in May 2005. This group has now moved onto other issues, particularly with reform of the Human Rights Code. I have no disagreement with the AODAA and in fact, their organization has been influential with respect to bringing some of the issues people with disabilities face on a regular basis. In some ways, they made important changes. I belong to the other side of the movement which demands "accessibility" in a broader sense of the term.

However, with Bill 118, the emphasis is on "access", while not understanding what "accessibility" truly is. As part of Bill 118, all municipalities with a population of 10,000 or more people have to set up an Accessibility Advisory Committee (AAC). There is nothing wrong with consulting with people with disabilities, but many times - members of such AACs become pre-occupied or "experts within their own realm" without understanding the broader realm of accessibility. They advise the municipalities on things like ensuring there are ramps on new municipal buildings or they are built on a ground level to ease entry for anybody using a wheelchair, how to ensure that people with mobility limitations can be notified and assisted in the event of an emergency, as well as making sure municipal websites are set up in a way that visually impaired and persons with certain neurological conditions can access them. This is good -- this prevents seriously embarassing ommissions that will likely be made if the typical politicians and civic staff are left to deal with these issues on their own, but does not bring a single person with a disability out of poverty.

However, my argument always was and continues to be that accessibility is a very broad issue. I can't do a job if I am unable to get there. I am unable to get there if the buses are not set up to transport people to the location of this job. I am unable to get there if politicians continue to believe that the only people that count in this Region are people who drive. Many people don't. Some do not drive for financial reasons. They may have had to give up their vehicles because they lost their jobs and in order to qualify for social assistance, had to sell that asset, or perhaps, they could no longer afford to maintain it. Some simply do not earn enough money to own and maintain their own vehicles. Some people -- regardless of financial status -- cannot drive for legal or medical reasons; maybe their license was suspended as a result of a violation or unpaid fines, or perhaps they cannot drive for reasons of their disability - either medically reported or recommended. Others may choose not to drive because of environmental or other personal reasons.

The AACs are there to advise politicians about the "accessible" transit service; that is, primarily the handi-trans service and to some extent, the community bus lines in our city that run low-floor and ramp ready buses. This is good and to a large extent, I am pleased to see more community bus lines and ramp-ready buses. There is no need for people to have to pre-plan their trips two weeks ahead all the time, when things can always happen in between. A life that lacks spontaneity is no life at all, it seems. However, very little has been said where there are no buses or the service of such buses is infrequent or not useful for the people that need to use them. It is nice to have all these low floor ramp-ready buses, but if none of them come near my house and take me to a job to an office ten miles out of town, I see no benefit. Who speaks for me around that AAC table?

Further, the AACs have not said much about the issues of employment. Employers breach the Human Rights Code with abandon and they get away with it for many reasons: (a) Some people do not know their rights under the Code or how to enforce them; (b) Some people who do know their rights know the Commission is very slow and cumbersome and is a difficult process to use to get anything done; and (c) People who know other ways to enforce their rights may not have the money or legal knowledge to access the judicial venue required to push for them. Employers know this too. That is why they don't care if they are in violation or not. As a result, many people with disabilities are not getting the jobs they would normally be able to get. Other employers may fear the Code, but find all kinds of ways around it by requiring attributes of candidates that are not necessary for the bona fide elements of the position. For example, they may require somebody to have an MSW to coordinate a program in a social service agency, when perhaps a related degree with relevant training would also do. They may require a candidate to own and maintain a "reliable vehicle". The CAA reported that it costs approximately $7,900 a year to own and maintain a vehicle. Therefore, the candidate must be free of most types of disabilities and be at least middle class (and as I would argue, equally ignorant about what people with disabilities really need). There are other issues too, such as requiring shift work for candidates - many of whom have disabilities that may not allow a person to do shift work. Do we hear anything from the AACs about these things, or even from the provincial government's own Accessibility Directorate? Of course not.

People who make up these Committees are usually picked from people who have physical or sensory disabilities, and are not necessarily those with other kinds of disabilities that are hidden but still can severely impact on that person's financial circumstances, e.g. heart condition, diabetes, epilepsy, certain kinds of mental health conditions, chronic fatigue, sleep disorders, learning disabilities, attention deficit disorders, etc. If somebody from the latter category is picked, I can assure you they probably never heard of Ontario Disability Support Program or lived in poverty themselves. All of these other people have accommodation needs as well as people who have the usual kinds of disabilities, yet the accommodation issues faced by the latter group are pushed aside. These people are invisible. This is probably why my own Region's politicians think the only people who have "real" disabilities are those that use wheelchairs, scooters, walkers and so forth, and then again - they also think these people are SICK and only need to travel for medical appointments and for no other reason.

I work with a variety of people with many different disabilities. I can count the fingers on both of my hands to come up with the number of people who have the types of disabilities that our city and region's fathers (and mothers) believe to have these "real" disabilities. The other 95% of people I deal with have other types of disabling issues, which to them are just as "real". This same 95% of people I deal with are not considered eligible for the Region's only answer to inter-city transit it is willing to set up. Even for medical appointments out of town, these same 95% of people continue to have to call and pay for taxis which for a single trip can cost anywhere from $55 to nearly $100, depending on where one is coming from and where they are going to. Should I ask the Regional politicians if these people must be put in a position to choose between a week's groceries, the hydro bill or transportation to an important appointment?

Approximately 25% of people with disabilities rely on Ontario Disability Support Program or Ontario Works as their main income source. Some of the others receive Long Term Disability Benefits, which more closely reflects what they previously earned and resembles the cost of living. However, those receiving Ontario Disability Support Program Benefits and Ontario Works are in severely straightened circumstances. Our lovely politicians want people to believe people are there because: (a) they have no work skills; (b) they are illiterate; (c) they don't have English as their first language; (d) they have or had addiction issues; and (e) they lack a high school diploma. What about those on O.D.S.P. or O.W. - which somebody told me - who are part of the 40% on these benefits who have completed a post-secondary education, many of whom may have two or more degrees? What about those who are quite literate, thank you very much -- and can read more than one newspaper cover to cover in a day, a novel a week, and even write for other publications? What about those who worked in positions in the past that were considered managerial, executive or professional in nature and earning a salary at least 10 to 20 times what O.D.S.P. or O.W. provides in a month?

Just like the Editor of the small town newspaper wrote to a little girl named Virginia in the 1800's about there being a Santa Claus ... yes, there ARE such people. In fact, there are MANY such people. These people are just not getting hired because employers are putting unnecessary barriers against them being hired, as well as in some cases, rules of seniority keep anybody new from EVER getting hired to the firm or government department. Those laid off last get first dibs on these jobs. The question I once asked about how I get laid off from such a job so I have access to "recall", was never answered. This means unions also have to give a little to ensure that these people have a fighting chance to have employment that is sufficient for them to build a pension when they are 65, as opposed to what is inevitable today: those who are poor will retire even poorer.

It is time that politicians stopped lying to people about who is not employed and who is actually getting the jobs ... as well as who they are getting their advice from. They must also stop pushing for more minimum wage or low-paying jobs to give to people with disabilities assuming they are all under categories a, b, c, d and/or e as described above. People with disabilities have the same range of job experience, intelligence, education and skills as the general population; in fact, perhaps in the past few years more people with disabilities have been acquiring post-secondary credentials, but still continue to fall short in the job market. The next time politicians start talking about the skilled labour shortage in trades, professional and service sector, they need to look where much of this potential continues to lie ... untapped. Comments?

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Watching the World

People who work in my field soon become jaded at the things they see. Every day, it is a heavy dose of adrenaline and sadness mixed to create a painful abyss. It makes me wonder if things are getting better or worse for humankind. I saw the news report on a study on global warming, that is an entirely man-made phenomenon. Commentators ask if people truly are willing to change their habits if they want to attempt to reverse this trend. I am not sure they want to or could. People still want to drive their SUVs to the corner store and work at smoldering factories that are killing the air that we breathe. At the same time, many of these same factories are being shut down as the price of energy skyrockets. The economy desperately needs to replace these jobs; sending people to call centres and retail work is not going to fix things, esp. if the cost of living continues to rise.

People are entering into more and more dangerous types of occupations in order to make a living. Workplace injury is common, esp. for people during the first few months on a job. Our social safety nets have become frayed to the core with people in need. People will not moderate their expectations in order to "downsize" to their new (lower) position in life; they will only become more angry at what they've lost. People come into my office everyday ... whether the cause is disability, family breakdown, long-term unemployment or some other type of loss (e.g. a workplace injury or motor vehicle accident), they come in expecting things to become the way they once were. Their lives for the most part have been forcibly taken from them. Many of them die before benefits are finally approved; others may lose their car, their homes and even, their families. As a professional disability advocate, I try to minimize these effects as much as possible, but I realize I cannot prevent all of it. Because of the increasing volume of need, primarily due to an ageing population, decreased size of bureaucracies and the general public's decreased willingness to pay more taxes - there is often no social safety net for many of these people, or if there is one - we must fight for it and fighting can take a very long time.

At the same time, businesses are becoming leaner and meaner. Even governments are charging "user fees" they never did before. With a growing portion of the population unable to withstand increasing financial strain and its impact on the lives of their families, family breakdown is becoming too common. People are finding themselves alone in a world that seems to be less caring. My practice includes people seeking various types of compensation from Insurance, Ontario Disability Support Program, Canada Pension Plan Benefits, Workplace Safety & Insurance Board, Criminal Compensation, among other things. We also deal with issues of wrongful termination, mediation of business and marital break-ups, as well as the occasional project management file (which might as well be the primary source of cheer in this otherwise negative industry). Don't get me wrong: I care immensely for the people I work with. In fact, I participate in a broader world of social change and fight on a number of human rights grounds.

As a practitioner in the justice system, I do not see where this is going sometimes. I yearn for broader change so I no longer see the pain in people's faces when these things begin to get too hard for them. It is not like these things never get better. They do, and I have a very long list of satisfied clients to prove it can. However, I sometimes wonder at what cost. Is getting hundreds of people on various disability programs really the long-term solution to what is befalling us? Is filing lawsuits against various employers that don't seem to understand anti-harassment and human rights principles going to change the shape of the labour force? When people go to court to acquire compensation for whatever breach they feel has been imposed upon them, does it really address the problems of humankind's inhumanity to others? Can we ever eradicate the serious problem of poverty among groups of marginalized citizens, including people with disabilities, new Canadians, single parents, working poor, etc.? To me, poverty itself is an abuse of human rights. Nobody has to raise a fist against you or force you to look down the barrel of a gun to make you feel scared, anxious and worried about your future, if they can make you poor or ignore the many factors that may contribute to it.

Some tell me that nobody has the power to eradicate poverty. I believe we do. As with resolving global warming even in part, we as a community have to drastically change our habits, expectations and how we do business in order to do so. In particular, this would apply to those that have leverage in the political, business and academic worlds. If I have power to give away, I also have power to give you more choices. In our society, we all have choices, you may say. However, the reality is that some people have more choices than others and the way our economy and labour market is shaped, those with the most choices are the least willing to share their opportunities with those that have less choices. As a society, we have to radically alter our visions of what is right and wrong, what is ours and what belongs to the community.

We have to stop believing that those who fall on hard times have done so because they made bad choices, or have something inherently wrong with them. We all hear the stories about "the homeless" being a group of hopeless addicts or people with mental health issues that are incapable of making decisions for themselves. We also speak ill of single mothers, wanting to believe that many of them choose to have more babies in order to increase their incomes. We also hear stories about people who are getting full disability allowances that do not appear to have anything wrong with them. As an advocate, I wish I dispell these myths outside of my own experience with dealing with anybody that walks through my door. I have yet to see these stereotypes among my clients, many of whom are referred to me by social agencies or walk in from the streets. I think the truth is as a society, we want to deny that we ourselves can be just as easily put into these situations.

People who are in receipt of welfare, or Ontario Works, they call it here, are believed to be primarily receiving it because they are illiterate, substance abusers, high school drop-outs, unskilled and other rather encompassing terms. It is true that many people on welfare do fit these descriptions; however, it is also true that many people who are working also fit these descriptions. I can tell you that more people who are illiterate, substance abusers, high-school drop-outs, unskilled, and so forth, are working and not on welfare, than those who are. I can also tell you that in many regions, almost half of those on welfare are well-educated, most of this group possessing at least one university degree. In my own professional life, I have worked with many people who are on welfare or O.D.S.P. who have been trained as doctors, lawyers, dentists, nurses, social workers, tradespeople, etc. These people did not just suddenly become lazy and want to take the easy way out. They - like everybody else - want to work and move out of poverty as much as anybody else would.

However, what the public doesn't realize about many of these people is that the process of going on welfare or O.D.S.P. has impoverished them to such an extent that they can no longer AFFORD to work. Many people have lost their homes, professional support networks, their health and most do not have motor vehicles. With a community such as the one I practice in requiring every job candidate for any meaningful, better paid jobs to have a driver's license and a vehicle, these people are not going to get ahead. One way of changing the way we do business is to look at this issue and turn it on its head and try to find ways to provide better paid jobs to qualified individuals that do not drive. Employers would have to be somewhat creative, as well as critical of their own processes, in order to make this change. I don't know if it would cost them money. It might, or it may even save some employers money, when they discover they don't have to pay for mileage and parking for their new employee - just occasional taxi trips or bus passes, when required to go somewhere on "business". That is just one example of how to change the way we do business to protect what I am seeing as the declining middle class and prospective skilled workers.

Transportation issues are still only believed to affect unskilled workers. In my Region, there are some employment agencies that offer unskilled jobs that provide workers rides to the job site, but there are no skilled jobs that have rides or transportation provided in the same way. A "job bus" was also provided to transport relatively low-paid hospitality workers from one city to another to find work at hotels, tourist attractions and restaurants. While this strategy works to help some unskilled persons get off welfare and join the ranks of the growing numbers of working poor, it does absolutely nothing for my unemployed or disabled professionals or persons whose skills and work experience are too complex to take on low-paid entry-level work. Nor does this strategy work for people with lower levels of skills to move them out of the low-paid job market. Most of these jobs do not pay a person enough to allow them to purchase their own transportation or to take courses that will enable them to move up the employment ladder.

Transportation is only believed to be a charity in my Region. Transportation is only for the elderly, people with severe physical disabilities and those with certain health conditions (e.g. requiring dialysis) to get to medical appointments only. Thought is not given that these same people, or perhaps others with disabilities that find themselves ineligible for this assistance, to go to work, take a course or to even visit family or friends. People with disabilities are not thought of as people. They are thought of as charitable cases, people to be pitied ... people to use as a foundation to raise money for, etc. They are not our co-workers, our neighbours, our friends, our relatives or even bosses. They are people to feel sorry for, people to relieve our guilt every time we contribute to one of many charities that "serve" this group, people who are invisible. In my Region's mind, everybody else drives, or after all - they can hop the "job bus" and take a low-paying job. This way of thinking has to be turned on its head and transportation must be considered as much of a public service as medicare is. If millions of dollars are spent on roads, maintaining parking spaces for vehicles at malls or city lots, extracting fossil fuels in order to run vehicles and later pollute the environment, etc. we can also pay more money to create and enhance public transit services. Research has shown that if transit services can be developed so that they are readily accessible, available, convenient and efficient, people will use it - even many people who normally drive.

In my view, I want people to consider their attitudes, beliefs and values, and how community attitudes, beliefs and values, contribute to our growing problem of poverty and indignation. Yes, poverty is a complex problem and will take many different strategies to reduce and resolve; however, as a society we have to take this path and prioritize it, alongside with the path that many of us are now finding crucial: global warming. Until later, I sign off.