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?

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