Letters to the Editor: Disabled and Displaced: Canada’s Need for a National Disabilities Act

By: Delaney Dunlop

Majority rules – a common phrase used to solve many an argument. This simple practice that parents and teachers employed to avoid conflict has become the cornerstone of our government system. Democracy refers to a form of government in which all eligible citizens have an equal say in the decisions that affect their lives. The reality is, within a capitalist society built on hierarchy, there are winners and losers. The losers – minority groups – are not considered in the game of life, where majority rules.

While we have already experienced a partial shift in power in the 21st century, with many minorities gaining majority status, there are still large numbers of individuals in society who have no say. People with disabilities are an “invisible minority” group because they are forgotten. While our government has improved treatment and accommodations for people with physical challenges, attitudes, stereotypes and systemic barriers are still present.

One woman with a physical disability discusses her struggles with institutional prejudice that infringes on her basic human rights:

I have a physical disability called cerebral palsy.  It may affect the use of my muscles and extremities, but not my brain.  My 23 years of life have encompassed daily struggles to prove I am capable. The majority of people have difficulty understanding and accepting that I CAN be a fully functioning member of society. My most recent struggle is with housing. There are only five buildings in Ottawa that are accessible and provide round-the-clock attendant services.  So, yes there are programs in place… I suppose I should count myself lucky.

The problem is – all of the buildings are full!  I am on the waiting list, and have been for a year, but lists for these buildings can have a wait of 5-6 years! I am going to be homeless as of April. Is that lucky? Clearly, there is a high need and demand for these services. The government must adjust to this change, or risk leaving me out in the cold.

I thought that someone must care about my plight. So I began to make some noise.  I wrote a letter to my Councilor Keith Egli. I wrote asking for guidance and action on my behalf. 

My letter began with a personal introduction. It explained that I am a well-educated 23-year-old woman with a physical disability, facing homelessness in a few months.  My letter was not a sob story. Instead, it commended the government for the positive changes already implemented or underway. Such as the Ontarians with Disabilities Act, which requires all businesses to be accessible by 2015, the existence of buildings with attendant services, and recent changes in the public transit system to make all OC Transpo buses accessible. 

I encouraged Egli to continue making Ottawa a leader in accessibility, by calling for the creation of more attendant services, fully accessible buildings, and a law stating that a certain number of apartments in all new building projects must be fully accessible.

I finished the letter and sent it to Egli with new hope and the satisfaction of taking political action.  When I received his response, my hope was shattered with the realization that as usual, this politician intended to dance around the issues.

The very person elected to represent her ignored this woman’s plight. Is that democratic? Does she have equal rights and opportunities? According to her story, she does not have access to her basic right to live under shelter, and she has no opportunity to put a roof over her own head. Shelter is a necessity of life, and yet this minority sometimes does without.

The woman’s dismissal may seem valid after a closer reflection of Egli’s letter, written by a member of his staff. The author discusses affordable housing and the difficulties in attaining it, and mentions the programs in place for rental housing and the construction of new low-income family units.

Only in the last paragraph does Egli mention the problem of accessible housing, stating that in the next two years, the government will invest in a program to help homeowners and landlords make their units more accessible. I can imagine what the disabled woman might have thought when she read the response:

Writing this letter was pointless! They did not address my issue at all! If I were writing about being homeless due to poverty, maybe the letter would have been useful. When he did get around to addressing people with disabilities, it was a mute point! People who already own homes are not my concern, and he didn’t even address attendant care! Maybe those programs will be helpful for the elderly but not for ME! This is just another example of how invisible people with disabilities are – especially young people. We are like a double minority: there are programs for the elderly and children but people in the middle are lost in the abyss.

The truth is, I do not need to imagine. I know the emotions this girl is experiencing: fear, sadness, anger, confusion and fatigue from fighting such a closed political system. Cut off from people they are supposed to serve, ministers of Parliament are only concerned with serving the majority, not achieving equality. After all, the majority rules. It is difficult to imagine a fully educated young adult facing this kind of injustice in the 21st century, but I can. My name is Delaney Dunlop, and in two months I may be homeless…