Keynote Speech at the National Committee of Federal Public Servants with Disabilities

Keynote Speech
By Peter Julian MP (Burnaby-New Westminster)
At the National Committee of Federal Public Servants with Disabilities

Came in last night and up at 3:00 AM, You can always tell a BC MP because at Monday morning meetings in Ottawa, they’re the ones asking plaintively – where is the coffee?

But I would have come to address this conference even if it was 3:00 AM Ottawa time, because the issue is so important.

Before I begin, I want to say a special hello to members of the Deaf community here today.

I am honored to be invited to speak at this year’s Congress.

The theme of this 2005 Congress is Our Community- Energized, Enabled, and Empowered. I believe that this theme is extremely important, because that is exactly what we will need from Canadians with Disabilities if we are to make progress on so many important fronts over the next few years – A Disability Community that is energized, enabled and empowered to seek equality in this country.

Now the theme of my Speech is A Vision for the Future of Canadians and Federal Public Servants with Disabilities. You’ll notice that I will talk a great deal over the next few minutes about the former – I’ll give some thoughts about where we are falling short, and what I believe we need. But you won’t see references to a vision for Federal Public Servants with Disabilities.

That’s where you come in- as I am hoping that in the question and comment period later, that some of you will share with me- with all of us your ideas about what the vision needs to be for Federal Public Servants with Disabilities.

Symbolic recognition of the situation of people with disabilities in Canada over the past few months

• December 3, 2004 marked the 12th Annual International Day of Disabled Persons. Proclaimed by the United Nations in 1992, this past year's theme was "Nothing About Us Without Us," a very compelling message about respect. It invites us to listen with attention to what persons with disabilities tell us about their challenges, with respect to independent living, with respect to participation in society, but also – vitally – about how we all can help to achieve the goal of full inclusion.

• We’ve also had this month the Anniversary of the inclusion of Section 15 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms

• Section 15 is one of the primary keystones of the Charter. The ideals expressed within S. 15, coupled with S. 7, are the basic building blocks of our democracy. Without these sections all other rights and obligations of the Charter, and the Government itself, would be meaningless.

The disability community recruited a number of important allies to support the inclusion of people with disabilities in Section 15 (1): Stanley Knowles; the all-party House of Commons Special Committee on the Disabled and the Handicapped; the Chief Commissioner of the Canadian Human Rights Commission; the Canadian Jewish Congress; the Canadian Labour Congress; and the Royal Canadian Legion.

The inclusion of protections for people with disabilities occurred between the third and fourth versions of the constitution, when it was sent to a Special Joint Committee of the Senate and House of Commons. The change came about because people with disabilities were not content to leave the content of the Charter in the hands of governments, bureaucrats and constitutional experts.

"The simple fact is that disabled people did a superb educational and lobbying job that politicians could not ignore," said Shelagh Day in 1983. "It is no surprise that when the fourth version of the Charter emerged from the Joint Committee, it included in Section 15 the words or mental or physical disability, and those words remained untouched through subsequent revisions of Charter language."

• S. 15 of the Charter, Nothing About Us Without Us, these are two central reference points that cry out for attention. All the while, the gap is only growing between the high standards these reference points have set, and what public policy has done (and undone), as we witness what I believe to be the declining quality of life and increasing exclusion experienced by persons with disabilities.

• That is why we need an Energized, Enabled and Empowered community, now more than ever, to bring to reality the vision of an equal, accessible Canada.

• So with all of these protections and observances what is the actual situation of people with disabilities in Canada today, and how does that compare with the ultimate vision of equality. I think the reality is that no one knows the reality of every Canadian with a disability. The disability community is far too complex and the realities far too different for us to speak for the complete reality, however, I will tell you my perspective. I believe, to my shame and the shame of most Canadians if they knew the reality, that in many aspects of quality of life for Canadians with Disabilities we are moving backwards, not forwards. At a time of record corporate profits, we are moving backwards, at a time when we have a record federal surplus, we are moving backwards, at a time when we to value fully the enormous contribution of Canadians with disabilities, we are instead not allowing those Canadians- you Canadians- to contribute even a fraction of their potential.

What’s the reality?

• Four million Canadians, roughly 13-15% of the population, have a disability.

• Alarming Canadian statistics show a 41% rate of employment for men with disabilities and 32% for women. (and unemployment for the disability community has been growing at a 5% rate) It is safe to say that with over 50% unemployment, and household annual revenues that are more than $20,000 below that of other Canadians that Canadians living with disabilities simply do not enjoy the same standards of living that the general population is able to expect.

• Almost half of the growing homeless population in this country has a disability. Over 40% of those who use food banks in our country have a disability or a long-term illness.

• In a recent study, 53% of Canadians with Disabilities noted that there were adaptive features needed in their homes.

• Since 1993, Canadians with disabilities have witnessed either erosion and in some cases the elimination of many services across the country. We know, for example that there was a National Strategy for the Integration of Persons with Disabilities delivered via ten federal departments and dispersed throughout the country. In 1996, the Federal Government cut the program to a fraction of what is needed to do the job.

• The latest Speech from the Throne stated that the federal government is a steadfast advocate for the inclusion and defending the Charter. However the Government has never developed a national agenda and investment for disability programming in Canada. The biggest measure taken was the announcement of the $30 million Opportunity Fund for Disabled Persons in 1997, which in fact was a $15 million cut to the Job Strategy Fund it replaced.

• The federal government has not provided stable long-term sustainable funding for the Independent Living Initiatives. We have been fighting with communities to establish long-term sustainable funding for the Independent Living Initiatives, now perpetually threatened with closure because of inadequate federal funding.

• What we saw in the federal budget, in my opinion, was yet another year of the message – maybe next year for Canadians with disabilities. Maybe next year there will be a labour market strategy, maybe next year adapted housing, maybe next year transportation accessibility maybe next year communications accessibility maybe next year a reduction of poverty, maybe next year home-care supports. Canadians with Disabilities can’t afford to wait, and Canadians can no longer afford the waste and short-sightedness of marginalizing the abilities, energy and talents of four million Canadians. Enacting the tax initiatives for persons with disabilities that this year’s budget does, while the majority of the disability community does not have a taxable income, only starts to address the issues in the community.

At the same time the Government of Canada is cutting funding to disability organizations like CAILC who are working to help people with disabilities get jobs and become taxpayers. One such initiative, Navigating the Waters, has supported over 6,000 persons with disabilities to date by helping them upgrade their skills and find jobs, at a cost of only $950,000 per year. The lives of thousands of people with disabilities and their communities would change for the better if this proper investment in Independent Living Initiatives could be secured. We need meaningful measures to bring about the vision of a Canada that is truly equal.

Soyons clairs, seule une meilleure éducation pourrait assurer la véritable autonomie des personnes handicapées physiquement, et il n’y a rien a cet égard dans ce budget pour rendre cette éducation plus abordable et accessible.

Seule une stratégie de marché de travail pourrait faire en sorte que les canadiens handicapés puissent entrés au marché du travail.

Seuls des efforts obligatoires, et non pas volontiers, peuvent apporter un système du transport qui est plus, et non pas moins, accessible.

• The government has not only been cutting back employment programs, but it has scaled back accessibility in transportation, in health even in the fundamental right to vote... Many electoral offices are not accessible to people with wheelchairs. How effective are the provisions for blind, deaf-blind and visually impaired Canadians for voting?
• As we know, the federal government has moved away from regulation to mere voluntary compliance on accessibility in transportation. According to the Council of Canadians with Disabilities, Canada has been:
“…Quickly regressing from a position of world leadership in accessibility to a position more consistent with the complete absence of regulation such as prevails in third world countries… Canada is alone amongst the developed countries studied, in its reliance on voluntary standards. Clear evidence of regression is evident. Responsibility for action clearly lies with the federal government.” (From Council of Canadians With Disabilities report, “Moving Backwards”)

Moreover, in the words of Marie White, National Chairperson of the CCD, in a letter to the Minister of Transport:
“We are withdrawing from participation in ACAT because at the present time we time do not see it as a vehicle that is advancing the full inclusion of persons with disabilities. We do not do this frivolously. CCD has been involved with ACAT since 1979, and for many of those years, representatives of our association provided considerable leadership to ACAT. We remain open to discussions with you and your officials, but at this point participation in ACAT is not a good use of our time and resources.

To sum up, again from the report “Moving Backwards”:
“CCD believes Canadians with disabilities are entitled to more than a ‘no comment’ from the Minister responsible for Canada's Transportation system at a time when a serious erosion of their rights is occurring.” (From “Moving Backwards”).
I am reminded when Via Rail refused to provide accessible rail cars and justified it by saying that The railway had less than l per cent of its passengers from the disability community. They didn’t get it! You’d think that someone, somewhere would have figured out that when the trains aren’t accessible, it’s no surprise that most people with disabilities don’t use the train.
So it is clear to me that we are far from the vision that I believe we all share of a Canada that is equal in access and opportunity and where Canadians with Disabilities receive the support needed.

We have a minority government and that means there is critical timing issue here. We have an energized, enabled and empowered community and crying needs. All politicians need to be asked – how are you contributing to the vision? That’s legitimate, because I believe that what we need is action – not words, and you need to expect from any political parties action. If they are not taking action, they are part of the problem, not the solution. In answer to your question, here are my modest contributions as a rookie MP to that vision.

Initiatives that we have taken jointly with the community:

• I opened the first fully accessible constituency office last fall in Burnaby and after a battle with the House of Commons was able to obtain a TTY for both riding and Ottawa offices. We do not yet have a power door for the front door, however, I believe that we will be able to win that battle. Jack Layton, national leader of the NDP, was the second MP to acquire a TTY.

• We have launched the “Time to Act” Campaign for People with Disabilities, last December. This campaign marks the nearly 3,000 days of Government inaction since the Task Force on Disability Issues tabled its report ‘The Will to Act’ in 1996. It’s time the government took this report off the shelf and, with the involvement of the disability community, actually acted on it.

• We lobbied successfully for the creation of a Parliamentary subcommittee on persons with disabilities. So far, the committee has not had a chance to prove itself. I am pushing for and ultimately hoping that the subcommittee would review the 1996 Andy Scott Task Force recommendations (Equal Citizenship for Canadians with Disabilities) with the intent of adding pressure on the Government to implement those recommendations. We are still trying to create a portrait of what the reality is for Federal Public Servants with Disabilities – so any comments that you have for me about your reality as public servants will help to further the Sub-committees work.

• I have been developing legislation as a private member’s initiative, in consultation with community representatives. I am hopeful that this draft legislation, once completed, will be a sound basis for a Canadian with Disabilities Act. Such an act will provide better protection to persons with disabilities and empower them to more easily find employment, shelter, and a functional and independent place in society; in short, to access a better quality of life, a true embodiment of the intended effects of Section 15. This we know, has been a subject of debate in the Disability Community for some time, and I believe, this kind of sea change is needed.

That is the ultimate vision of Canada, and here is one area where we have fallen short. The American with Disabilities Act and related acts prohibit discrimination in Employment, State and local government, public accommodations, commercial facilities, transportation and telecommunications. This needs to be our comprehensive vision.

I also believe that we should also be pushing for as part of our ultimate vision of an accessible and equal Canada where Canadians with Disabilities have needed supports:

• Development of a labour market strategy for persons with disabilities, including a plan for their increased participation within the federal government’s own workforce, as well as expanded measures to enable other employers to make their workplaces accessible and accommodating to this community.

• Expansion of the Special Opportunities Grant Program (SOG), which makes non-taxable grants for accommodation of students with disabilities, to include the costs of accommodations for training, post-secondary education and job opportunities.

• Making the Disability Tax Credit and Medical Expenses Tax Credit fully refundable so that all persons with disabilities even those on a low income can receive equal benefit from these tax credits, rather than just those with a taxable income, as is currently the case.

• Dans le document "L'alternative budgétaire pour le gouvernement fédéral en 2005: Le temps est venu" préparé par le Centre canadien de politiques alternatives fait état de changements qu'il aurait été souhaitable d'inclure dans le budget de 2005. Par exemple :

Le Centre canadien de politiques alternatives suggère de rendre remboursable le crédit d'impôt pour personnes handicapées afin que tous les Canadiens et Canadiennes qui ont une incapacité puissent en bénéficier.

Le Centre est aussi d'avis qu'il serait souhaitable de développer un Plan national de soutien pour les personnes handicapées et que pour ce faire il aurait été nécessaire que le gouvernement fédéral affecte des fonds aux provinces et territoires.

Et comme j’ai mentionné le Centre recommande aussi l'établissement d'une stratégie globale d'intégration des personnes handicapées au marché du travail.

We also need as part of this vision:

• Establishing an independent commissioner reporting directly to Parliament to monitor federal departments’ compliance to all policies for persons with disabilities and advising ministers about the effects on this community of upcoming legislation or regulations.

• Implementation of long-standing recommendations for homecare and a plan to help Canadians to afford prescription drugs and assistive devices and prosthetics.

• Creation of national standards for persons living with disabilities including consistent definitions of the chronic, debilitating and life-threatening conditions that are considered ‘disabilities’, introduction of a uniform delivery system across Canada, and setting up a single income support mechanism for people of this community such as a system of national disability supports.

IN CONCLUSION

III-Speech from The Throne October 5, 2004:

“ To demand equality of opportunity so that prosperity can be shared by all Canadians” (page 2).

If we are to realize the commitment of the throne speech if we are to realize the full potential of this country, if we are to realize that vision of equality of all Canadians, we need to fundamentally change how we approach equality for Canadians with Disabilities.

Only an Energized, Enabled, Empowered, Disability community will allow us to make these fundamental changes.

We need an Energized, Enabled, Empowered community to speak out, to say what’s needed, to sign what’s needed, to write, to telephone, to TTY, to make absolutely sure that every day, the needs of Canadians with Disabilities are communicated to the media and the policy makers – even if they don’t want to hear it, or see it or understand it, this community must use its power and energy to achieve that change.

I look forward to working with all of you to achieve the vision that we all share.

Merci Beaucoup.