October 9, 1997
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
LANDMARK SUPREME COURT OF CANADA DECISION HERALDS BREAKTHROUGH FOR RIGHTS OF PEOPLE WITH DISABILITIES - RENEWED CALL FOR HARRIS GOVERNMENT TO TAKE IMMEDIATE ACTION
The Supreme Court of Canada today released a landmark constitutional ruling marking a dramatic breakthrough for the 17% of Canadians who have disabilities. In Eldridge v. Government of B.C., the court held that governments across Canada have the constitutional duty to ensure that deaf people have sign language interpreters provided to them when they receive publicly funded hospital services, if needed to ensure effective communication with their doctor. The Charter of Rights guarantees the right to equality to persons with disabilities. If a government offers a specific program such as publicly-funded health care, it has a constitutional obligation to take positive steps to ensure that people with disabilities can equally use and enjoy those services and programs. Though the case arose out of British Columbia, it directly applies to governments across the land.
"This is an amazing breakthrough not just for deaf people, but for all people with disabilities," said David Lepofsky, co-chair of an Ontario disability rights coalition pressing the Harris Government for a new law to remove the barriers which persons with disabilities face in all sectors of society. "Canada's highest court has declared in resounding, powerful terms that governments must remove the barriers which Canadians with disabilities face in gaining access to government programs, even where governments choose to let private organizations like hospitals deliver the programs for them. Where a government privatizes a government program, they cannot escape their public obligations to people with disabilities under the Charter of rights," added Lepofsky. The Ontarians with Disabilities Act Committee, for whom Lepofsky spoke, secured an election promise from Mike Harris in 1995 that a Harris Government would pass an "Ontarians with disabilities Act" in Harris's first term. However, the Harris Government frittered away half of its term in office before even starting recently to look seriously into this matter, and even then, only after relentless pressure from the disability community.
"The Supreme Court's decision demonstrates the pressing need for Ontario, and all provincial governments, to immediately develop and enact strong and effective new legislation to identify and tackle the barriers we face in important areas like health care, education, public transit and education," said Lepofsky. The Court has given the B.C. Government six months to solve the problem in that province for deaf people seeking medical services. Only through a strong and effective new law can Ontario meet its similar obligation. "The Harris Government recently set late fall 1998 as its target for introducing the Ontarians with disabilities Act, but has not yet written the law, nor has it even confirmed any plans for consulting with the public on it. After this important decision, the Health Minister should meet as soon as possible with leaders of the disability community. We need him to commit to identify the barriers which people with disabilities face in the health care system, and to plan for their prompt removal. This can play an important part of the Ontarians with Disabilities Act which his Government has yet to deliver," Lepofsky urged.
Contact: David Lepofsky