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Please Support a Strong & Effective ODA

London Free Press Article

Saturday, September 11, 1999
Forum Section

By Christine Dirks

Subheadline: A group of disabled Londoners is convinced governments - at both the municipal and provincial levels - aren't doing enought to remove the barriers that prevent them from enjoying their equality with other citizens. Monday, they take their fight to city hall.

Photograph: Seated in her scooter is Paulette Séguin, standing is Judy Kraemer who is signing "support" and also standing is Jasenka Snajdar who is signing "oppressed". Lynda Mandziuk is in front standing behind her walker.

The photograph caption reads as follows: Disabled rights activists, from left, Paulette Séguin, Judy Kraemer (signing "support"), Jasenka Snajdar (signing "oppressed") and Lynda Mandziuk will press for changes to legislation.

A small photo of CHRISTINE DIRKS appears with her name underlined below.

Text: The environment most people live and work in is unfriendly to anyone with any type of physical limitation. Yet the truth is, as many people as possible should be able to use a building or a place or a product, if not in an equal way, at least in an equivalent way.

On Monday, London has a chance to show its support for an inclusive society when the Ontarians with Disabilities Act (ODA) Committee makes a recommendation to the community and protective services committee (CAPS).

It will ask CAPS to approve an 11-point resolution calling on the Ontario government to write and pass a strong and effective Ontarians with Disabilities Act (ODA) that will identify, remove and prevent barriers to employment, services, goods, facilities and accommodation - the very barriers that prevent the 1.5 million Ontarians living with disabilities from being full and equal citizens. The 11 points were unanimously endorsed by all parties in the Ontario legislature on Oct. 29, 1998.

To date, Port Colborne, Niagara Falls and St. Catharines have approved the ODA Committee recommendation. The ODA Committee, here and across the province, is a spectacular illustration of grassroots activism. The non-partisan, volunteer coalition that formed in 1994 to advocate for new legislation is now organized in 17 regions across the province. When this province finally gets strong disabilities legislation, it will be to the credit of the hundreds of persistent and hard-working ODA committee members.

Before the last provincial election, the ODA committee was offered a horrible piece of legislation. The three-page Bill 83 didn't specifically require that barriers be removed. Rather, it asked ministries and government offices to review how they could increase accessibility. It died after the first reading.

Bill 83 was drafted following a provincewide round of closed door, by-invitation-only, summer meetings. Some of the people and groups invited had no more than 24 hours notice. No report on the proceedings was ever published.

The ODA committee is smart. By focusing efforts provincially, it's hitting the areas of legislation where most barriers occur: employment, health care, education, housing, communications and transportation.

The committee is letting the public know that people with disabilities want to work and be functioning members of society. But if they can't get the bus to a job interview in order to get the job, they're less likely to live an independent life free of the government purse.

An Ontarians with Disabilities Act would be of practical benefit to countless businesses and individuals throughout the province, says Jean Knight, executive director of the regional office of the Ontario March of Dimes.

"It puts all issues relating to disabilities in one coherent and powerful package instead of having legislation in a piecemeal fashion."

With building code information in one place, for example, employment standards in another and human rights someplace else, it makes it difficult for even the most well-meaning person to know the state of the nation, says Knight, who is head of the ODA Committee delegation to CAPS. She'll be presenting the resolution with Paulette Séguin and other committee members.

Knight believes the current situation makes it hard for people who want to do the right thing to be proactive because they're "chasing around" from one piece of of legislation to the next.

"Ultimately it wastes time and accomplishes little. What's needed is strong, easily accessible, one-stop-shopping legislation. Then we'll start seeing changes that will benefit everyone."

Sandy Levin, Ward 1 councillor and CAPS member [NOTE ERROR PLEASE], expects CAPS will endorse the ODA committee recommendation for a number of reasons.

"London already has an inclusion policy for parks and recreation services and here is an opportunity for the city to make a stand for inclusion across the board and encourage the province to endorse legislation. If it's not mandatory, then all we have is a bunch of nice words. Volunteer advocacy will never achieve a barrier-free society. Any results will be far from satisfactory," he says.

Subtitled: INCLUSION WANTED: Act a 'huge priority' for cabinet minister

[Sandy Levin continued] "It's an investment. We're talking about laying the foundation for a society where everyone has access to a quality of life, and where there aren't barriers to employment that people from contributing. I would like to see London take real leadership. I think we should even be planning now to become the most accessible community in Canada."

Steve Peters, Liberal MPP for Elgin-Middlesex-London, will be pushing for new legislation when the legislature resumes. As critic for disability issues, Peters wants to see ODA as a government priority. He believes the ruling Tories have some work to do.

"In all the accounts of their caucas retreat, there was nothing about the disabilities act. Considering that the previous legislation they attempted to pass was totally flawed and nothing more than a quick attempt to keep an old election promise, and considering the public had been led to believe the legislation would reflect their contributions and it didn't at all, I would think they would want to make some real strides. But I haven't seen any evidence of it yet."

Peters says there is no reason why the government can't have the act written and legislated by the end of the year.

"It's dragged on far too long now."

The public is "extraordinarily supportive" of new legislation, says David Lepofsky, chairperson of the ODA Committee. The Toronto lawyer says it's time the government caught up with the public.

"What we're hearing is people saying they're surprised there are as many barriers as there are."

In the last election, the ODA Committee caught public attention by publicizing that many polling stations and places where all candidates meetings were held were far from barrier-free, making it difficult for people to engage in public dialogue and exercise their right to vote.

"The public told us time and time again they thought the government was taking care of things so public places would be barrier-free. People want to see things change. There is a strong social conscience out there. The government, though, has yet to listen to the people."

As Séguin knows, design can either put up a barrier or take one down. Séguin has multiple sclerosis. She faces barriers every day - super mailboxes she can't reach from the seat of her scooter, public washrooms that are difficult to even get into, never mind use, heavy and hard-to-open doors and counters and elevator buttons that are too high. She had to use the loading dock at a furniture store because she couldn't get in the front door to look for a new sofa.

As an ODA committee member, she believes new legislation would allow her to participate more fully in life.

"I don't expect home builders to build every home so it's accessible, but I do want to see more accessible public and government buildings and more stores and businesses designed to welcome us as customers."

Séguin looks forward to the day when it will be "no big deal" that some peple need a wheelchair to get around, or that others cannot see or hear.

"Regardless of one's abilities or disabilities, we all deserve to be treated fairly under the law."

A strong disabilities act is neither left wing nor right wing. It is non-partisan. The U.S. has the best legislation, the Disabilities Act signed into law by former president George Bush, says Lepofsky. He recalls a recent television interview with Bush where Bush spoke proudly of the accomplishments of the act.

"Here was a conservative president who does not generally believe in regulations. But he had the boldness to do it, and he was proudly talking of how he signed it into law, and how happy he is that he did."

The provincial ODA committee will be watching Monday's events at London's city hall with great interest said Lepofsky.

"We are looking to London to send a signal to other municipalities and to the province how much this important urban centre values the chance for its residents with disabilities to fully participate in life."

A new strong disabilities act is a "huge priority for me" says Helen Johns, Minister of Citizenship, Culture and Recreation and MPP for Huron-Bruce.

Johns says she is "listening to stakeholders to get a clear picture of what is going on and to make sure I understand the issues. I want to hear from people what they think should be in the act."

The 11 points are under review, she says.

Johns expects to have either completed the consultation process or be ready to proceed with one by Christmas.

"Right now I'm very flexible," she says.

SIDEBAR: Anyone wishing to send suggestions for the new Ontarians with Disabilities Act can contact Minister Helen Johns by fax at (416) 325-6195, by e-mail at onttc@ontla.ola.org or by mail at 400 University Ave., sixth floor, Toronto, Ont., M7A 2R9. More information about the ODA Committee is avalable through its Web site at www.odacommittee.net



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