Monday, March 23, 2009


Our society's progress on the rights of persons with disabilities is likely akin to what the rights of African-Americans were before Rosa Parks did her famous stand down on the city bus and refused to move to the back, as they were required then. African-Americans received a major boost with the election of President Barack Obama. I am not saying things are now perfect for this group, as still there is far too much poverty, too much racism and too much violence in this population. However, they are many steps away from the rights of persons who are differently abled?

In Hamilton, Ontario, a 22-year old man was lured to an address in a run-down neighbourhood in that city by four males, then subsequently locked up in the attic and beaten within a mere inch of his life. There are reports that he'd been raped, forced to eat his own feces and starved. It turned out this man was someone with various disabilities. An informant in my community told me he suffered from major epilepsy and mild intellectual disabilities. He grew up in several foster homes and of course, when he aged out of that system, they left him on his own. I am not sure of the background of this situation, how well the offenders knew this man and if they were aware of his vulnerability. Nevertheless, they certainly took advantage.

When I was younger, I used to do enumerating for the elections (yes, I am old enough to remember when actual humans used to go knocking on doors). One building on my route housed a number of adults with mental and intellectual disabilities. After I knocked, the woman who answered attempted to push me away by telling me that none of "these people" voted. I phoned the Returning Officer at that time, who then advised me that the owner of a residence like this cannot turn away enumerators, so we returned and pushed ourselves in and interviewed a number of people, many of whom wondered why the manager tried to chase us away.

Nevertheless, a few months after that, a man who happened to live in that home came to a club I was running at the time, complaining that he was fed only one meal a day which consisted of bologna sandwiches and tomato soup, sometimes weiners. When I stirred the pot on the issue (as I never go without stirring pots when I have the chance), some social worker came to my building to try to discourage me from acting further ... I hated social workers since, even though it is one of the professions I worked in for a time.

In another situation, another group home reached the news with workers on strike over what they found were appalling circumstances they found their resident clients living in. They brought attention to the media about spreading a single can of tuna over fifteen sandwiches and handing a man a bus ticket to get to the hospital when he was suffering from chest pains. This man was quickly diagnosed as having a heart attack, but it was too late. He died before anything could have been done for him.

Some of these incidents and many others sparked an enquiry led by Prof. Ernie Lightman, of the University of Toronto, who led the Enquiry on Unregulated Residential Accommodations. I did some work with this enquiry at the local level, interviewed many people who lived in these types of "homes" across the city and made policy recommendations. Steps were taken towards the implementation of a Resident's Rights Act and later under a subsequent government, board and care homes were given some protection under the then Tenant Protection Act.

While these incidents apart from the incident in Hamilton took place in the early 1990's, nothing has changed at all for persons with disabilities. People with disabilities are still viewed as being "less than", "less skilled" and "less valued". This dangerous thinking that preceded the Holocaust whereby hundreds of thousands of persons with various degrees of disabilities were experimented upon, then disposed of (well before the Jewish community was targeted) ... still exists in its most mildest forms. It remains in our laws. It remains in our government programs designed to "help" people with disabilities. It remains in how people with disabilities continue to be viewed by the "able-bodied public" that believe they pay taxes to people that don't want to work and use "disability" as an excuse, or at worst, they campaign for the re-institutionalization of many persons with certain types of disabilities, such as mental health.

Before we can truly address prejudice and discrimination against people with disabilities, we need to address our cultural assumptions. We need to address the pictures that come into our minds when we hear the term "persons with disabilities". For the able-bodied, most see the wheelchair, the walker or perhaps, even the white cane. They believe we should make sure people get access to buildings, restaurants and other destinations so they can go where able-bodied people go. This is the enlightened view. However, even among the enlightened, we fail to see how these same people, as well as many other persons with other types of disabilities that may prevent them from driving, as an example, can get to many of these places in the first place, even if such destinations represented the epitome of accessibility.

Able-bodied people take a lot for granted. They trust that when their brain directs their legs to move and to pick themselves up, they will be able to walk across the room, climb those stairs and read from a regular book or magazine with ease. It is when we lose some of this ability do we realize what we had, how precious, for example, our eyesight, mobility, agility and other physical attributes represent with respect to ensuring we have a quality of life. If this happened to you, I am willing to bet that you would want support services, assistive devices and other systems to "kick in" to allow you to take part in your favourite activities. If our home is no longer useable for us, we want somebody to help us set it up so that we can continue to live there. We don't want to be shunted off to some nursing home.

If your problem is mental health related, and yes -- one in five of us do experience mental health issues at some point or other in our lives. Of that one in five, 10% suffer from what one might identify as a "severe mental health problem", whether it be named schizophrenia, bipolar mood disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, etc. If you have never experienced the serious side of things here, it is too easy to believe the stereotypes ... those being that people with serious mental health problems are either violent and unpredictable, or they are bumbling idiots who are unable to care for themselves. These two are the predominant themes that describe people with mental health issues in the media.

In the 1990's, I managed a local mental health agency, then later moved to work in the policy area. Very few of the affected that came through my door were either violent or bumbling idiots. However, in many cases, their medications often made them look different, or their self-esteem was so low that they did not feel they were capable of ever working again. In my life, there are many examples of people I met even with the most severe of mental health problems who have picked themselves up and made themselves into community leaders. Bill McPhee, publisher of Schizophrenia Digest, and recently a publisher of another magazine geared to people with mood disorders, is not shy about talking about his beginnings ... as a man who was diagnosed as schizophrenia himself. While I may not necessarily take a pro-medical approach, as many of the articles in his magazine depict, he also includes lifestyle issues, advocacy issues as well as spiritual commentary. He has been a public speaker at numerous events before a wide variety of audiences.

Bill Wilkerson, previously an insurance executive, co-founded the Roundtable on Mental Health and the Economy. Former federal Finance Minister Michael Wilson was also part of this initiative. Michael Wilson's interest in the initiative was personal. His son Cameron was reported to have committed suicide at such a tender age when he became frustrated at not being able to find work, despite his education and skills ... he was apparently diagnosed as having a bipolar mood disorder. Bill Wilkerson engaged many others in his initiative and together with other coalitions, the federal government eventually set up the Mental Health Commission, which is designed to help educate, research and train people in this delicate area.

However, in a recent article in the Globe & Mail, Wilkerson began to disclose his own personal interest, a long-term diagnosis of depression, something he kept well-hidden from the media until he believed it to be the right time to disclose. If somebody like Wilkerson, who has been at the top of the business echilon, and with obvious skills to bring this Round Table together, was unable to disclose his personal interest earlier in this project's progress, one can only imagine how others without these significant personal resources would do it.

There are barriers to disclosure. There are too many Vincent Li's out there that commit heinous crimes that are well-publicized (e.g. Li was the man that viciously murdered and dismembered Tim McLean on a Greyhound bus last summer), and to make matters worse ... it becomes well-publicized that he is declaring to "hear voices from God" that apparently directed him to kill McLean. Whether this was true or not, this does nothing for mental health advocates who are attempting to work with those others so labeled to even get them to the door to get help ... we never hear of stories that counter these conclusions, such as how Bill McPhee overcame his disability to become a spokesperson and advocate for the cause, or Bill Wilkerson, who only recently disclosed his own interest in the issue, or Michael Wilson's recount of his son's suicide ... these latter cases are stories we need to hear more about and the Vincent Li's of the world, we need to hear less about.

In a recent edition of Mother Jones magazine, a section was devoted to photos taken of mental hospitals around the world (and yes ... these are hospitals that operate in 2009). In the words of the publisher, it seems that once one is labeled, many people think they can do whatever they want to persons with mental health issues, whether this be experimentation with dangerous therapies, such as ECT or insulin shock, or drugs with questionable benefits, such as haliperidol, lithium and thorazine. I'm not saying that there is no place for medications in the treatment and amelioration of mental and emotional distress. I am saying that the process or dynamic that leads to the labeling of such persons, and how such treatments often become drilled down, are in fact, done to as opposed to done with the person in mind. Often times, people can become further disabled by the treatments themselves.

Culturally, people with disabilities, including people with mental health issues, are not looked upon as credible people in their own right. As a result, many members of the public misunderstand who these people are and assume they either have no skills, or are incapable of learning new ones. Sadly, when I report my own personal knowledge of people in various professions who have had mental health diagnosis, people don't believe me ... and I shield their names, as these folks do not want it to be popularly known that they suffer. One lawyer friend of mine told me he wanted the "secret" sealed, as he feared public knowledge of his "condition" would lead to questions about his ability to practice. While many of these fears may be unfounded, they are realistic enough to know that members of the public may see it differently - that they'd rather not be treated by a doctor they know has been treated for mental health issues or to have a lawyer handle their civil case who was hospitalized a few years ago for a bout of depression ... there are surveys that prove that public opinion is real.

Another lawyer I know has a severe physical disability; shortly after he passed the bar, many of his colleagues challenged his ability to work as a professional, simply because they saw the wheelchair and the breathing apparatus, but not the man. Some people say we need a champion, but nobody wants to be the first one. Nevertheless, the prejudice and stereotypical ideas about persons with disabilities continue.

Even when it is known what education and skills a person with a disability has, employment workers can often be their worst enemy when they attempt to work with them at their career development or transition (in the case of an injured worker, for example). Telemarketing and call centre work seems to be the most sophisticated work a person like this is referred to, as the worker believes the person with the disability wouldn't handle the "stress" of a more advanced position. Well, did they ask? Likely not. This is so analogous with the scene where a person in a wheelchair and a temporarily able-bodied friend are in a restaurant together and the waiter approaches their table, only to ask the able-bodied person what the friend in the wheelchair wants ... something like this happened when I brought a friend of mine who was severely visually impaired, guide dog and all, into a restaurant and the waiter attempted to make me her interpreter ... I just told her, "Why don't you ask her what she wants?". Yet this kind of scene is repeated everyday in the social work and employment agency world when it comes to persons with disabilities ... they don't know what to do with those that know exactly what they want, nor do they know how to deal with employers that seem to deliberately screen people with disabilities out of jobs they can otherwise do quite well. To me, I always wonder why they have these jobs if they are doing nothing to connect the persons with the disability with the employer, but then again, I must be naive.

One person I know that uses a wheelchair felt that those with invisible disabilities had nothing to worry about, but after I gave him a little history of how people with mental health problems, intellectual issues, even autism, were treated, he was shocked ... and realized the importance of working in a cross-disability alliance. All people with disabilities experience discrimination, humiliation, stereotyping and marginalization, although different disabilities may attract different kinds of prejudice. Persons with mental health issues are believed to be stupid and irresponsible at best, or violent and unpredictable at worst. Persons with physical disabilities are sometimes seen as demanding, when they ask for accommodations, when in fact providing them with the same actually puts them on a level playing field with the able-bodied. Scary.

One of these days, I will write about the dangers of ODSP income support and how in itself, it acts to marginalize and isolate persons with disabilities, as well as perhaps, even shorten their lives. As an advocate for persons with disabilities, I am often a lightning rod for comments, as I always try to get people to understand there is always more to every story than meets the eye. I hear all the time from members of the so-called able-bodied public about how people with disabilities can just do "desk work" or they often exaggerate their conditions to get welfare and then not lift a finger to "help themselves". I hear from some people who outrightly say that "at least half of those on ODSP" are not really entitled. I always ask them how they know this -- are they a doctor? Do they know everything about the people of whom they speak? The most interesting thing, however, is when something happens to them and they reach out to our dwindling welfare state to find help to keep them from sinking, they seem to change their minds relatively quickly about what they used to say about so-called "disability people".

The only thing we can do is to iterate the facts, which I will attempt to do in another post later on, so that the reading public can understand what hardships people on ODSP really do endure and how unintended (or intended?) consequences are killing their spirit.


Monday, March 16, 2009


The global stage is going through a major recession, unlike anything seen since the Great Depression. Every day, we are hearing about how thousands upon thousands of jobs are being shed by company after company. We hear stories about people walking away from their houses in the States, tent cities being set up after people lose their jobs and the sudden need for billions of dollars in corporate bailouts to save what few jobs are left.

On the street, people are getting cranky. Public servants, frustrated by an increase in their respective workloads, are talking back to their customers in ways that provoke, instead of provide insight. People are butting into lines everywhere, worried that the last scrap of whatever folks are after will be gone by the time they get there. Pensions, investments and other trusts we once believed were safe are rapidly disappearing, leaving many pensioners the choice of living their "golden" years in poverty or returning to work.

We hear more about school shootings, rampages where gunmen go crazy shooting up everybody in their home and then move on to random people on the street, or work rage, where the same thing can happen at the place of a former employer. Last Christmas, we heard about a man who dressed up as Santa Claus, drove up to the home of his former in-laws and began to throw pipe bombs and tried to torch the home, as well as shoot anybody else who got in his way. In the end, he blew himself up, when one of his home-made weapons set itself off too soon. We learned the shooter in this case was laid off from a well-paying job as an engineer, then his wife sought and won a court order against him for more money ... He planned to come to Canada. God only knows what he had planned for us up here.

In Germany, a 15-year old suddenly takes a gun and goes to his former high school and begins shooting. His targets were mostly female students and teachers. Though reportedly treated for depression two years earlier, one would question how relevant that is to this mass explosion. Another man in Alabama came home, took the lives of most of his family, as well as took down a few random people on his street, before ending his life at a metal plant (possibly where he might have been recently laid off). Two parents in Quebec had a suicide pact, whereby they were to kill their children, then one another, after leaving a detailed note as to why the economy was hurting them. This goes on and on and on ...

People are more likely to sue or get sued in these rough times, or fall behind in their debt payments, subjecting more folks to the ire of collection agencies. Family law disputes are taking on a more bitter tone, leaving many to the courts in what are known as the "high conflict" family files. Government agencies undergoing cutbacks experience an increased rate of error and declining rate of empathy, as payers of support payments end up with less than 50% of their income and often, end up in dire straits themselves. One man called me from his car, which is where he is living these days after he lost his job and then his home.

Many times, the only thing we can do is make appropriate referrals, or provide encouragement and moral support. Many of these people do not have money for legal services, nor do they fall under the purview of Legal Aid Ontario. On paper, their income is too high, but after the garnishment, they cannot even meet basic needs. Their only choice these days is to approach Family Law Advice Counsel at the court house, or to phone Lawyer Referral Service, with respect to how to best represent themselves in what will likely become a battle of a lifetime. They need to vary the court orders, amend visitation or even seek custody of children, or reduce or eliminate spousal support payments. Unless they can pay a lawyer, most of them end up representing themselves.

This has always been part of the problem, even before the chaos of the present recession began. The present recession is just wearing people down more. People talk to me more about how much they hate, as opposed to how upset they are. I lost someone to suicide in January 2009, and then somebody else to so-called 'natural causes' in his forties in February 2009. If the second one had access to a family doctor, medications and transportation, I am sure he would have survived (which is all I can say publicly). Poor people die, while rich people thrive.

Policy makers know the poor are worst off. They know that poverty is costing us more than $30 billion annually. They know that poverty is a good part of the reason our health care costs are skyrocketing. The growth of poverty seems to coincide with the growth of methadone clinics in urban areas; unfortunately, they too are responding to demand. I hear stories about how a few have sold their weekend carries on the street, or prostitute themselves to get the "real" thing ... or turn to booze or another drug of choice. Tenants get evicted more now for illegal drug use or for dealing from their units.

My work is to evict them. There have been cases when I met the same tenant time and time again, through different buildings, after a repeat performance of the first time they were evicted. The public and private interest is to get these people housed and protected, but at the same time, one must ask where ... living on the street can only exacerbate whatever problems they created when they started with my buildings. The problem only leaves one building, only to land on the doorstep of another. One thing my mother was right about was that things started to go really bad when drugs were introduced in society. Trying to remain impersonal and objective throughout this chaos is difficult to do, but one of my responsibilities.

I know there is a huge increase in addictions and drug dealing in general, as I see it in the streets, hear about it through various people I speak to, and learn of it from the coffee shops. But it is not just the low income people on Ontario Works or even ODSP that are using; many of the people who are using get no formal income, as well - many are fully employed. There are also wealthy professionals who also find themselves entangled. They just go to better places and are able to hide their habit better. People cry for a war on drugs, they cry for prohibition, when we know this will never work ... esp. when the world is falling apart at its seams.

In my building where I work, I often have to chase people out, feeling bad at the same time as many of these people have nowhere to go, except the streets. Many of these people do not have any income, as they were kicked off Ontario Works a long time for some misunderstood transgression. Perhaps, they lost their identification and did not have the funds to renew it, or they happen to be living rough and their OW worker can't really communicate with them, nor can any employer for that matter.

As an advocate, I am a lightning rod for people that feel strongly about things, from both the right and the left. The right wants to believe in the existence of the welfare queens, that continue to procreate with impunity to increase their income. Of course, they have no evidence of this except from "a friend of a friend who knew somebody that had fourteen children so she can make a mint off the 'system'". I have worked with low-income people as well as middle and upper income folks for years, and I have yet to meet anybody that would even want to have more and more children, particularly when they could not even feed themselves. There were a few teen mothers who never heard of birth control, as some might add, but they were referred to programs where they learned how to become successful parents, as well as finish high school.

From the left, they want governments to spend, spend and then spend some more to get us out of this global crisis. Spending more in a recession is not a sin, but indiscriminate spending can make the problem worse than when it started. While building "affordable housing" will create some construction jobs in the immediate term, money is still going to be needed in the future to maintain these units. The City of Toronto has a half a billion dollar backlog in repairs to its own housing stock, let alone thinking of building new stock. At the same time, poverty groups are pressuring the City to fix their units, which are more than just a mere "leaky tap" ... many have ceilings falling down, bad foundation, vermin, mould, as well as other problems that make their unit uninhabitable. We have to decide if we want to spend billions and billions of dollar propping up these buildings, many of which should be razed and rebuilt anyways, or whether the money can go somewhere else that might increase the incomes of all of the poor to encourage greater local investment, and thus, more capital to invest in the private market.

Today, an interested observer noted that "half the region is on Ontario Works or ODSP" and now more people are trying to get Employment Insurance. He suspects a secret government conspiracy that the powers that be simply want to put everybody on welfare, where they can control them. Others say they are attempting to make people so desperate that they will take any job, even jobs that do not pay minimum wage or follow health and safety standards, just to keep oneself one step ahead of starvation. Other theories are more foreboding; one has shared with me the idea that there is a policy of "slow genocide", whereby the weakest of society will be forced to slow starve to death or die of many of the diseases the poor are more likely to get, just so we can save a few tax dollars. Well, we all know they cannot directly put us all in the gas chambers anymore, or put us all against a wall and shoot us. That is too humane.

But billions of dollars have been handed to large companies ... people are becoming wary of how the executives are getting paid, even union workers in such industries as the auto sector. People are rightfully concerned that the majority of taxpayers that earn much less than these people collectively should continue to fork over money to keep these relatively wealthy classes alive. In the Toronto Star today, there was a story over "pension envy" where people in the private sector get no defined benefit plan (as these are slowly moving to the status of the dodo bird) are continuing to be forced to pay into secure, relatively high pensions of those in the public sector or even GM workers. Pension reform certainly needs to be on the table. I wouldn't want to be old right now; I would not be able to retire, as what is given to those without a private pension plan is peanuts. Again, we will be forcing our seniors to choose between housing and eating.

People are wanting greater controls over CEO salaries and perks, as well as some control over certain sectors, whereby it seems that wage hikes beyond inflation, plus retention pay, seem to be the order of the day, even when times are tough for everybody else. President Barack Obama has taken a great interest in a story of AIG executives receiving bonuses all of a sudden, right after receiving billions of dollars in taxpayer handouts ... I say, fire them all and make them pay it all back. Never going to happen, of course. But if somebody on welfare got a little more than what they were entitled to, you could bet your life that this individual will be hauled before the courts, charged with fraud and then thrown to the wolves. To me, what is good for the goose is good for the gander. Maybe Barack Obama represents a change in direction. We can hope.

As for seeing our way out of this chaos, I am not sure. Some economists, such as Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of Canada, and Prime Minister Stephen Harper, see this as being a short, sharp dip, whereby Canada will be less scathed than the many. Others are not so optimistic; Don Drummond from the TD Canada Trust, is saying about 500,000 jobs may still be lost ... it is going to get a LOT worse before it gets better.

In the meantime, some communities are getting together and holding rallies. I wish there'd be more of them in Niagara Region, but nevertheless there are more rallies ... politicians need to stop playing Chicken Little, as the sky is truly falling, but they can't simply run, scream and point their fingers at everybody else. They need to take action.

How positive action would certainly help me ... I would stop feeling so much in chaos. It is so bad that our building got its water cut off, then it was followed by a flood and now the plumbing on the second floor washroom (the only "public" washroom in our building) has no water and we can't even flush the toilets ... and we go downtown, walk down the street on my side and then we see construction job after construction job, whereby holes are dug up and filled up again ... I am pleased somebody gets to do the digging and the filling, but they are ensuring people's essentials are getting cut off, people are commuting in chaos and it has become rapidly known there really is no definite street I can walk through in my own neighbourhood ... too many holes, too many tractors, too many excavators, too many shovels ...

Now, if we would only get that shovel in the ground for that hospital we are supposed to build in west St. Catharines. To me, this chaos and crisis was orchestrated; it was certainly not something that would come out in the end to harm the elite ... just put us old runts through yet another rough patch. I just look forward to the day that this is finally over and I can actually talk to people about something else once again, instead of the havoc this world is wrecking on our little world.

Your thoughts?