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Toronto Star article
March 15, 2001 Page A29

Tories face tough fight on access for disabled

Ellie Tesher


You are encouraged to circulate it widely. Also, feel free to send the columnist your
feedback via Email at etesher@thestar.ca


Toronto Star
Thursday, March 15, 2001 Page A29

Tories face tough fight on access for disabled

Ellie Tesher

WHEN THE Legislature begins its spring session next month, newly
appointed Citizenship Minister Cam Jackson will face a grassroots
movement that's becoming a force.

Ontario's 1.5 million people with disabilities intend to hold
Jackson and the government to a resolution passed unanimously in
the Legislature in November, 1999, to bring in a "strong and
effective" Ontarians with Disabilities Act by Nov. 23 of this

To borrow from actor Peter Finch in the movie Network, people with
disabilities are mad as hell and they're not going to take it
anymore - no more of the government's broken promises, delays and
unconscionable neglect, all denying them a fair chance.

A lone person in a wheelchair may not seem a formidable foe. But
it will be political folly to ignore the groundswell of disabled
persons, their families and supporters who demand barrier-free
access to jobs, educational facilities, restaurants, public
transit and countless more aspects of daily life easily available
to the rest of the population.

After years of being put off by the Tories' tokenism (as, for
example, a flagrantly weak 1998 bill that made no mention of
removing barriers and died within days amidst outraged criticism)
these citizens, who have had to struggle alone for every step
gained, are preparing for a collective battle.

Premier Mike Harris will again be seen as a leader without
compassion unless he recognizes, to put it glibly, Disabilities R
Us. As former Supreme Court Justice Peter Cory wrote in The Star
last year, as people get older they may incur disabilities. The
baby boomer public is becoming aware of vulnerabilities ahead.

One only has to be hospitalized to understand. A disabled woman
staying temporarily at a Toronto hospital couldn't find one
washroom on her floor or the one below that had room for her
wheelchair to enter and turn.

What's needed can be done - witness the Americans with
Disabilities Act of 1990. Laws requiring barrier-free access to
all areas of life are mandatory and require uniform standards.
Costs can be phased in over time - parts of the U.S. changeover
are still going on. Ontarians who have visited the U.S. speak
enviously of wheelchair-access washrooms at every recreation site,
snack bars at reachable levels, Braille symbols on call buttons
beside hospital beds, taxi vans equipped to handle wheelchairs,
helpful drivers on call.

Similar laws here will benefit taxpayers and businesses, insists
David Lepofsky, a lawyer and disability activist. They'll end the
current situation that discourages disabled people from getting
jobs they can't access because of the way in which they are
advertised (Web sites using document formats that can't be
accessed by computers for the disabled) or because of physical
barriers. Such laws would also get many people off welfare
supports. Businesses will gain the skills of new employees, plus
the spending power of disabled people and their families and
friends, in some cases just by adding a simple entrance ramp.

Now, only patchwork regulations exist in the Canadian Charter of
Rights and Freedoms and Ontario's Human Rights Code. But the
former applies only to the government sector and the latter
involves lengthy investigative procedures that mean individuals
must sue or file complaints, battling barrier by barrier.

No longer, is the battle cry. Every person with disabilities faces
dozens of barriers daily.

Consider Carol Riback. Until her early 20s she could walk, ballet
dance, ski. Then multiple surgeries for a spinal cord tumour and
bowel obstruction left her a paraplegic at 32. Educated as a
counselling therapist and with some years as an income-earner, she
enjoyed more independence than many disabled people, yet she's
blocked at every turn.

The new ATM machine at her bank branch is unreachable from a
wheelchair, the buttons too high, the screen at an angle so it's
unreadable. Though she drives her own hand-controlled van to the
hospital, she had to miss some medical treatments this winter
because the curbs and curb cuts aren't kept clear of snow and she
can't get onto the sidewalk to the door - to a hospital, no less.

Outgoing and gregarious, she has limited her weekly gathering of
friends to the few restaurants she can get into by wheelchair.
Disabled people with fewer contacts often become isolated by such
barriers, she says. WheelTrans is often too booked to take people,
and such services are spotty across the province.

The Tories know the overwhelming public approval for mandatory
removal of these obstacles; their own poll tabled in the
Legislature last December told them so.

Ontarians are fair-minded. It's time for government to do the
right thing.

Ellie Tesher's column appears in The Star on Tuesday and Thursday.
She can be reached at etesher@thestar.ca



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