Toronto Star Article
Wednesday, May 24, 2000
Harris breaks promise to disabled
BY DAVID LEPOFSKY
Five long years ago today, Premier Mike Harris solemnly pledged in writing to enact the Ontarians With Disabilities Act (ODA) "in the first term in office." He promised the ODA committee, our province-wide non-partisan disability coalition: "I would be pleased to work together with your committee in the development of such legislation."
The Premier repeatedly proclaims that he always keeps his word. He has betrayed his word to Ontarians with disabilities. He did not pass the ODA in his first term or in his second term's first year. He has refused in five years to take a single hour even to meet with us. The ODA is Harris' biggest, longest, clearest and cruellest broken promise. Our simple message on this fifth anniversary of inaction: Half a decade is long enough!
At least 1.5 million Ontarians have a disability. We need this law and we suffer from the Premier's stalling and evasions.
Ontarians with disabilities face too many barriers - when trying to get a job, ride a bus, get an education, use our health-care system, buy products or just go to the park. Examples of barriers are steps instead of ramps, elevator buttons without Braille, lack of sign language interpreters for deaf patients in hospital emergency rooms and written application forms given to persons with dyslexia. Some barriers have been around a long time. Others
are being created right now.
We need a strong, effective ODA to achieve a barrier-free Ontario. Previous voluntary and legislative efforts have not succeeded in getting rid of existing barriers and preventing new
ones. These barriers hurt everyone. Everyone either has a disability now, or knows someone dear who has one, or will get disability in their lifetime.
Our society loses out on the contributions so many people with disabilities could make. Businesses lose customers. Governments lose tax revenues.
So here's today's biggest mystery: Why hasn't Harris kept his word? I can only speculate because he refuses to meet with us.It makes no sense. He wants to be a politician whose word is trusted. He cannot say the Legislature is too busy. After passing record numbers of laws in his first term, the media reports he's now short on new legislation to introduce. He cannot say an ODA is foreign to his party's philosophy. The world's best disability law was proudly enacted under former U.S. president George Bush's leader ship. He cannot claim that the economy is not ready. He says Ontario's economy is better than ever. The books are balanced ahead of schedule. There's enough surplus to mail taxpayers a bonus of up to $200.
The U.S. passed its pioneering disability law in 1990 in the pit of a re cession. It now has a far more accessible society than ours, and a booming economy to boot. Is it because Harris thinks an ODA is bad for business? He has said that removing barriers is good for business.
Is it because he doesn't care that he is hurting Ontarians with disabilities? That's poor politics for a cagey politician. No doubt Tory MPPs squirm when this issue is raised over and over across the province. Ontarians do not readily stomach cruelty toward people with disabilities. Ontarians won't think it wise that Harris now pours billions of tax dollars into new
infrastructure programs without a solid legislative guarantee that these will be barrier free. It costs little or nothing to prevent barriers in advance. Harris' plans inflict on the next
generation a new debt - a barrier debt. You wouldn't want him to leave you the tab for fixing the mess he is now creating, when this is so easy to avoid.
In response, the Harris Tories billow out a smokescreen. They tell us that last term they offered us a bill. Their widely condemned three-page bill was a cruel slap in the face of
Ontarians with disabilities. It properly died before being passed. It did not require a single barrier to be removed anywhere. They could not do less to achieve a barrier- free Ontario.
They say they need more time to consult. Five years? They refused to hold public hearings. The Premier and citizenship ministers refused dozens of invitations to public forums on the
ODA held across Ontario by the ODA committee and the Liberal party.
Premier Harris claims he is spending money on programs for people with disabilities. Those programs are no substitute for a strong, effective ODA to remove current barriers and prevent new ones. Among his shifting figures are old programs, reduced programs,
renamed programs, etc. He doesn't come clean on which ones were financed by cuts to other disability programs, nor on how many repeatedly announced dollars are ever actually spent.
Premier Harris - five years is long enough. Where is the strong, effective ODA we were promised? Why don't promises to people with disabilities count?
People with disabilities are used to overcoming challenges that others think insurmountable. We are committed to overcoming the barriers that Harris places on the road to a strong, effective ODA.
David Lepofsky is chair of the ODA Committee. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org