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Pushing doors open: while addressing the problems of people with disabilities is on government agendas now, advocates say they're not moving fast enough to remove barriers that make equality impossible.

In March 1998, Canada was given a prestigious United Nations award for its work for people with disabilities. But, the same year, the Canadian Human Rights Commission started to investigate two of Canada's big banks for breaking agreements to hire people with disabilities. The Bank of Montreal and the Royal Bank of Canada had set targets years earlier for recruiting disabled people. This was part of a deal to settle human-rights complaints, but neither bank came anywhere near their goals.

The settlements were drafted after a coalition of disability groups filed human-rights complaints in 1988 against nine federally regulated companies including all five chartered banks. At the time, the two banks were praised for their progressive approach to sitting down and hammering out settlements while other complaints went nowhere. Under the agreement, the Royal Bank agreed to increase its hiring of people with disabilities to 12.5 percent of all new recruits over five years, starting in 1996. The Bank of Montreal pledged to boost its hiring of disabled people from 5.1 percent of new employees in 1994, to 10.2 percent by 1998. In both settlements, the ultimate goal was to have people with a disability comprising 6.5 percent of employees--the same proportion of the working population identified in the 1991 Census as being disabled but ready and able to hold down a job. (Questions about disability were dropped from the 1996 Census.) Executives at both banks say they've been unable to find prospective workers with disabilities despite extensive recruitment efforts.

By 1999, advocates for the disabled were getting impatient: eight national organizations that work on behalf of the disabled fired off an angry letter to Prime Minister Jean Chretien. They accused Ottawa of failing to keep its promises to improve accessibility for the disabled. Most of the people who signed the letter also attended the ceremony that honoured Canada with the international award. They were part of a special delegation invited by the Prime Minister. But these same people said the federal government's subsequent budget included only token measures for people with disabilities, and didn't measure up to the commitments Ottawa had promised. The groups criticized the Liberals for being slow to move on many of the 52 recommendations produced by a task force of four cabinet ministers who toured the country in 1996 to study disability issues.

One of the reasons Canada won the international award was a five-year, $160 million national strategy to improve access for people with disabilities. But, that was introduced by the Progressive Conservative government of Brian Mulroney, and the Liberals replaced it with a $3 million job fund. Instead of helping the disabled, the Liberal government of Jean Chretien cut program funding and transfer payments to the provinces. Services for people with disabilities such as home care and special transportation were among the first to go. The groups said those cuts left many aging parents to care alone for their disabled children.

The Council of Canadians with Disabilities (CCD) says one of the most important social phenomena of the latter half of the 20th century has been the emergence of the Disability Rights Movement. But, it also says governments have been slow to act on implementing a comprehensive disability policy to remove barriers to those with handicaps and include them as equal participants in all aspects of society, The CCD says that more recent federal government policy documents "contain a recognition of the denial of rights, lack of basic supports and exclusion which are part of the day-to-day lives of far too many Canadians with disabilities." And, although the government acknowledges their rights to equality, the Council says that's only a starting point for developing a national strategy. It says that governments continue to "regard accessibility arrangements as discretionary and optional, rather than as required by Charter rights," adding that "systemic discrimination against persons with disabilities is the rule rather than the exception in our society ..."

SUGGESTED ACTIVT1TES:

1. In March 2003, blind people with seeing-eye dogs were banned by Ottawa's National Capital Commission from taking their animals into parks. In December 2001, a federal agency ruled that obesity is not a disability that entitles an overweight person to an extra seat on a plane or train. On the other hand, a Quebec woman who was fired for being overweight went to court and got her job back: Sylvie Bouchard was let go even though her employer had no complaints about her work Discuss these cases, and how you think they should be handled.

2. Do a report on some of the issues that the Council of Canadians with Disabilities deals with by checking out their website at http://www.ccdonline.ca.

FACT FILE

According to Statistics Canada, disability-free life expectancy is estimated at 68.6 years in Canada, compared to a life expectancy of 78.3 years; so, most people can expect to live almost a decade with a significant physical or mental disability before dying.

FACT FILE

In developing programs, the Council of Canadians with Disabilities says governments also need to "consider the double disadvantage experienced by many people with disabilities. Aboriginal people with disabilities, people with disabilities from multicultural communities, and women with disabilities experience an especially profound level of social and economic disadvantage."

Websites

Disability WebLinks--http:// www.disabilityweblinks.ca/

Federal Task Force on Disabilities (1996)--http:// www.hrdc-drhc.gc.ca/hrib/ sdd-dds/odi/documents/ taskForce/english/report/

Opportunities Through Rehabilitation and Work Society--http://www.orw. ca/findex.html
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Title Annotation:Minorities--Accessibility
Publication:Canada and the World Backgrounder
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Oct 1, 2003
Words:912
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