by Colette Acheson
Last week was Disability Awareness Week in the Yukon, tying into International Disability Awareness Day on Dec. 3 which is recognized in many countries around the world. Because of this, our office at the Yukon Association for Community Living has been involved in connecting with other organizations to raise the profile of our collective work. We attended the workshop series on the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Person with Disabilities and the recent Convention Summit at Kwanlin Dun Cultural Centre.
The UN convention, created in collaboration with the leading nations of the world, was signed by the Canadian government in 2007 and ratified (signed by all the provincial and territorial governments) in 2010.
The majority of the event was focused on training people with disabilities to understand their rights under the convention, and to learn and practise the process of interviewing other people with disabilities as part of the monitoring process. This in itself was an exciting exercise in empowerment and possibility for many of the participants.
But another recurring theme presented by Professor Marcia Rioux from York University is the critical distinction that will be necessary in order to create any meaningful change in the lives of people with disabilities.
According to Rioux, we as a society must move from seeing disability as a “person’s problem” to seeing it as a systemic and environmental problem. She promotes the belief that creating an accommodation on behalf of a person with a disability to access their rights as outlined in the UN convention is not a kindness, optional, or an act of charity.
To change the question from “Does your disability cause problems in your work?” to something like “Is your workplace able to accommodate people of varying capabilities?” puts the responsibility on the workplace rather than making it the fault of the person who is seen as creating a “burden” on the system.
After all, who has the greater potential to access or create resources, to educate, change attitudes of others, make accommodations in software, processes or training? The person, or the organization?
All week I heard so many dramatic, tragic and often inspiring stories told by people about disability, and about their lives. These stories are floating through my mind and landing on one of two piles.
The ones that inspire and give me hope include:
* The simple fact that people with disabilities are being empowered by the United Nations (actually written into the convention!) to monitor their own rights and that this process is not being handled solely by our governments or handed off to professional “experts.”
* To see several representatives, including top level decision- and policy-makers from our territorial, First Nations and municipal governments attending the summit.
* Hearing from the deaf parents who are (finally!) able to access an interpreter provided at no charge by the Yukon government to support their family in medical appointments, meetings with their hearing-able son’s teachers, and take in community events.
* Hearing that one school teacher teaching a new self-determination program in a Whitehorse school resource room is seeing unexpected progress from his students because of this new approach.
Other examples show me we still have work to do, including:
* A person from Carmacks who recently died because of the infection caused by long neglect of abscessed teeth. Really? In this time, in this country?
* A woman with an intellectual disability, a lifelong smoker, who in her mid-sixties is being forced by caregiving staff to quit smoking because last week they forgot her outside in -30 weather in a N.W.T. long-term care facility. I’m not defending smoking, but I do defend the individual’s right to be supported in their choices rather than having to change their lifestyle because of a staff mistake!
* A gentleman in Whitehorse whose permanent home is a metal shed lined with cardboard and blankets.
* The fact that it is not currently possible to rent a car with hand controls in the Yukon, in spite of an international airport regulatory body which requires every international airport with a car rental agency in the building to ensure an accessible vehicle with hand controls to be available within 24 hours.
Another recurring theme throughout the workshop and summit has been the idea of “progressive realization,” the notion that change doesn’t happen overnight but can be measured and positive as long as we are generally moving in the direction of the desired change.
In that light, there is much to celebrate as our governments and communities have made many positive strides in creating a more inclusive society. It is also important to acknowledge that these trends can only continue if we as a society work to become more tolerant of each other’s differences. We must be deliberate about making it possible for those who represent our most vulnerable citizens to be vocal and not keep these shameful examples hidden.
Colette Acheson is the executive director of Yukon Association for Community Living and an active member of the Yukon Anti-Poverty Coalition.