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Toronto Star Article
March 27, 2001 Page A-21

Hold Applause on Plan for Disabled

Ellie Tesher

KUDOS TO Ontario's Human Rights Commission for taking the lead on
behalf of people with disabilities though the provincial government had
long failed them.

Little wonder Citizenship Minister Cam Jackson quickly supported
the commission's announced policy to crack down on
discrimination - at first blush, it diverted attention from the
government's protracted failure to provide legislation assuring
access to education, housing, employment and use of public
facilities by disabled people.

The public should not be fooled. Ontarians have shown in polls
that they want people with disabilities to have a fair chance
at participating in society. Chief commissioner Keith Norton is
to be commended for his proactive plan to seek out and take
action against businesses, employers and facilities that refuse
to eliminate discriminating barriers, but the commission remains
hamstrung without full support from Queen's Park.

Jackson is clearly canny enough to understand this - he's gone a
step further by contacting the disabled community in a letter
that arrived yesterday, saying his goal is to come up with
legislation soon. He notified the Ontarians with Disabilities Act
committee of his intent to hold consultation meetings with
stakeholders over the next weeks before the Legislature opens
April 19.

Jackson wrote, "You express concerns about the timeliness of the
ODA reforms and I would agree with you that we simply
must bring in legislation this year and have it completed."

Let's hope his government agrees.

Norton's approach relies on the complaint process - whether
initiated by a disabled person or by the commission itself -
ultimately requiring hearings and potential court cases. Though
a wake-up call to public awareness, it still leaves the disabled
community facing a vast battlefield to be fought one barrier at
a time.

The Tories have previously hobbled the commission's work, with
cuts in funding in 1996 and 1999. The commission is only
now able to be more aggressive because it has taken years to
clear a backlog of cases.

Unless there are laws on access for disabled, new policy goal is
mission impossible

Currently, 40 per cent of the 1,800 people who file complaints
each year cite disability as the basis. Imagine the increased
workload ahead as the commission searches out more instances of
"marginalization" by landlords, employers and trade
unions. Meanwhile, it has to enforce human rights in other areas
such as race, gender, religion, age, sexual orientation.
Unless there's political will and firm laws backing its actions
for the disabled, the new policy goal is mission impossible.

The areas of everyday life in which disabled people are ignored
or rejected are too many, too system-wide and too
institutionalized for the commission to take on alone.

Queen's Park owes the 1.5 million Ontarians with disabilities
more than the good intentions of an unelected agency.

It owes what Premier Mike Harris promised in 1995: to redress the
inequities facing people when they can't enter a building,
theatre or restaurant because it has no ramp, can't get a
WheelTrans booking to go to a job interview, can't take a course
because the school has no assistive devices for its computers,
can't hold a job because a boss has no tolerance for mental
depression despite a worker's competence, can't return to
previous work after an injury or illness leaves them disabled.

Only a strong and effective Ontarians with Disabilities Act (ODA)
can bring in the necessary changes - albeit over a
reasonable time to allow for costs. While it's understood that
retrofitting buildings, for example, can be expensive, it's not an
excuse for inaction. Government can work with various sectors to
plan improvements, new designs, incentives for
alterations. As Norton said last week, the experience in the
United States, which has had an Americans with Disabilities Act
in place since 1990, has shown the average cost of accommodating
a person with disabilities in the workplace is $100.

The rights commission developed its new policy guidelines in
consultation with over 150 stakeholders, including persons with
disabilities, advocacy groups, employers, service providers and

Though in six years the Harris government has not yet consulted
with the vast community of disabled people, Jackson has
signalled a fresh start. Perhaps, along with the dominant boomer
population, he recognizes the likelihood of increasing
disabilities, such as impaired vision and hearing, plus the
effects of arthritis, diabetes and other symptoms of aging.

The time for change is now, with Ontarians alerted to watch
whether Harris and his coterie of advisers are involved in this
welcome move forward or whether Jackson, like citizenship
ministers before him, is left flying on his own.

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


Previous Articles by Ellie Tesher
March 20, 2001
March 15, 2001

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