Disability in Canada
Ampuseek has focused on issues relating to amputees, and we’ve found that the issues we care about are either present or paralleled in the larger disability community. Today, disability affects approximately one billion people worldwide, representing 15% of the total population (WHO, 2011). Systemic and social barriers affect many aspects of life for disabled people, relating to everything from inaccessible infrastructure to stigma and lack of understanding causing uncomfortable interactions in public. The World Health Organization [WHO] released the World Report on Disability in 2011, which covers the universal impacts that living with a disability can have, and is a go-to document for anyone starting to learn about disability on a large scale. Here we’d like to run through some general indicators like access to health care, employment, infrastructure and accessibility, and public acceptance of dis/ability. Anyone looking for additional information or discussion is encouraged to email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or have a look at the reading list.
A Few Core Ideals
Social Determinants of Health
In Canada (and many other countries), public health care practice is increasingly looking at social determinants of health- life course indicators that tend to be strongly related to the level of health and wellness that someone is likely to experience, like education, income, and dis/ability status (Davidson, 2015). Socioeconomic status is tied to health, but it is also tied to disability; disabled people are prone to poverty because of high medical costs, low employment opportunities, and little coverage (WHO, 2011). For many, this economic impact means that they are unable to afford healthy food choices, proper medical attention, and other resources. Because of how interrelated things like education, income and food security are, disabled people tend to have poorer health than the average population (Davidson, 2015).
A Note on Terminology
When discussing disability in Canada, people first language is usually used (i.e. person with disability) to emphasize that having a disability should not be viewed as a person’s primary identifier. However, this article will use the term “disabled person”, to reflect the idea that disability is imposed on the person by their society. We want to emphasize that the overall goal is to guarantee the independence and equity of all people who live with a disability and removing disability labels as
The Social Model of Disability
The social model of disability makes an important distinction: mental illness, physical limitations and other alleged “causes” of disability are called impairments, while the status of disability is something that society hands to those who experience impairments. This model states that people are held back by regressive social policy and practice that excludes them by not being accommodating for their impairments. Another important point to remember here is that disabled people are the largest minority group on the planet, making up 15% of the world’s population (WHO, 2011). All people will also have an impairment at some point of their lives, for a certain amount of time, whether due to ageing, illness, or an impairment from birth. That considered, there is nothing particularly abnormal about having a disability, and there is all the more reason for society to promote equity and make sure those with impairments are able to participate equally. As a society we are more than capable of creating environments and opportunities that enable our citizens with different needs and abilities. Canada has non-discrimination policies in its charter and health acts (as well as throughout other areas of policy) that would seem to support this ideal. These facts considered, it is astounding that our employment, infrastructure, and social practices hold disabled people back as often as they do. Let’s take a look at some examples.
The Issues: At a Glance
Health Care Access
Health care access is often of particular concern for disabled people, yet they are 3 times more likely to be denied healthcare, and 4 times more likely to be treated poorly in the healthcare system (WHO, 2011). Costs associated with disabilities tend to be high. For Emery, her prosthesis, other supplies for her leg, and medications could be costing her tens of thousands of dollars if it weren’t for support from the War Amps’ CHAMPS program, which covers all of it for her. Other people with disabilities in Canada reported the same problem in the PALS report and Canadian Survey on Disability: 27% of disabled people lacked at least one aid that they need, 10% did not have access to any equipment they needed, and 44% of those with severe disabilities lacked a resource they need (Statistics Canada, 2006, 2012). In all categories, the most commonly cited reason was cost (Statistics Canada, 2012).
Recent political action for disabled people has made employment a focus, but employment opportunities are only now opening up to people with disabilities, and all too few fully inclusive hiring places exist (Prince, 2009).
Another major issue is that students and youth with disabilities often are not given early opportunities to enter the workforce and learn how to navigate it. In looking for positions, Emery has found that inclusive hiring tends to be concentrated on higher level positions instead of entry level, but opportunities should not be limited to civic institutions and postdoctoral work. The Toronto District School Board is listening to suggestions for programs that develop job-related skills, co-op and workstudy placements, and transition planning for students with disabilities (Gordon, 2018). Highschool kids need to be able to find employment experience and learn to see themselves as employable and valuable assets to employers, so that they can plan and be ready for their futures (Gordon, 2018). Earlier employment could mean developing skills to allow them to work, or it can be a low-risk trial-grounds for employment- some individuals need to test whether full-time or part-time employment is suitable for them, what adaptations they need, and they can begin learning the ropes of employment benefit packages. Emery didn’t get a chance to do this, and is still finding a balance of work that doesn’t harm her health and suits her needs.
City infrastructure continues to focus on car traffic, with pedestrian traffic second, and accessibility often overlooked or thrown in as an afterthought. Mistakes such as handicapped parking far from curb cuts, lack of curb cuts, narrow sidewalks, and ill-placed or steep ramps reflect this. In our buildings, accessible washrooms, and wheelchair accessible elevators and corners are not the norm, although efforts are being made to increase their presence. Federal legislation that requires accessibility could help this along, but is taking a long time. The Trudeau liberals are currently drafting such an Act, which is expected to come out this summer (2018).
On a social level, disabled people are segregated in many schools, and other students are not taught how to interact with people who may have intellectual or physical disabilities. A large portion of the population still reacts to disability with pity, fear or non-understanding (Prince, 2009). This leads to uncomfortable situations for disabled people, who are discriminated against in employment, income, education, and social spheres by their peers and by inaccessible spaces.
With such a widespread culture of discrimination, disabled people can internalize and start to identify with that stigma. As they encounter systemic or invisible barriers and outright discrimination, disabled people can begin to believe the ableist culture around them (Hooks, 2007). By accepting their hostile environment as what is natural, given their impairment, rather than something imposed, their impairment becomes a source of guilt (Hooks, 2007). Social practices influence that self-identity, for example the growing practice of prenatal genetic screening perpetuates the idea that disabled people are less desirable as offspring, and by association, citizens.
The important thing to note here is that we are not acknowledging that disability is a certainty for humanity, ineradicable, and something that affects over one billion people currently (WHO, 2011). Global rates of disability are on the rise in the wake of an ageing population and increases in chronic conditions such as cancer, mental illness, diabetes and cardiovascular disease (WHO, 2011). Through reports like the World Report on Disability, we are seeing global trends of inequality for disabled people (WHO, 2011). It is imperative that we consider how we will work together to combat this, and what solutions can be most effective.
Public awareness of disability issues is improving. The United Nations [UN] and other large and small organizations have cooperatively and independently drawn worldwide attention to the inequalities that disabled people face (UN, 2018). Efforts to destigmatise disability have led to more acceptance, and the rights of disabled people are becoming recognized (UN, 2018). Successes include accessibility, healthcare and education improvements worldwide (UN, 2018). Disabled people are forming their own organizations to fight for their rights internationally, and at more local levels (IDA, n.d). Canada can support its people in responding to disabled peoples' needs, by recognizing that they are in everyone's best interest.
What Can We Do Now, in Canada?
Federal accessibility and disability centered legislation for Canada needs to happen. The United States has had the Americans with Disabilities Act since 1990, but there is no Canadian equivalent yet (Prince, 2009). The Liberal government has begun working on federal legislation, but it has been hampered by not one, not two, but three switches in Ministers of Sport and Disability this term (McQuigge, 2017). As a collective, the disabled community should keep pressure up and let the government know that we are waiting for this legislation, and we are expecting an effective, well-thought out and inclusive document.
Coupled with federal legislation is the need for a re-evaulation by the general public on what dis/ability means. The most comprehensive disability legislation will fall flat if the public continues to hold regressive views of disabled people. Too many in our society have never had a chance to learn to value, understand and interact with people with disabilities. The community needs a concentrated and hard hitting campaign of visibility leading to representation. For us, that means continuing to refuse to show disability as pitiable, and refusing to elevate it to a superhuman status; We need to show the realities of living with disabilities in this country and share stories, so many stories that people can’t remember the outdated narratives they hold onto right now. With this sharing, we think that an identity that we can all be a part of will emerge, and with that in hand, we’ll be able to make the changes we want to see.
Edited: Emery Vanderburgh
Davidson, A. (2015). Social determinants of health: a comparative approach. Don Mills, Ontario: Oxford University Press. Print.
Gordon, A. (2018). Schools urged to provide training, goals for youth with disabilities. The Star. Retrieved from https://www.thestar.com/news/gta/2018/01/30/schools-urged-to-provide-training-goals-for-youth-with-disabilities.html
Hooks, K. (2007). A silent minority. Scientific American Special Edition, 17(4), 12-13.
McQuigge, A. (2017). What will Canada’s new accessibility law in 2018 look like? The Canadian Press. Retrieved from https://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2017/12/29/what-will-canadas-new-accessibility-law-in-2018-look-like.html
Prince, M.J. (2009). Absent citizens: disability politics and policy in Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. [print].
Statistics Canada. (2006). Participation and Activity Limitations Survey. Retrieved from
Statistics Canada. (2012). Canadian Survey on Disability. Retrieved from http://www5.statcan.gc.ca/olc-cel/olc.action?objId=89-654-X&objType=2&lang=en&limit=0
United Nations [UN]. (2018). United Nations and Disability: 70 years of the work towards a more inclusive world. Available from https://www.un.org/development/desa/disabilities/news/dspd/un-and-disability.html
World Health Organization [WHO]. (2011). World report on disability. Available from
Suggested further reading
Michael J. Prince- Absent Citizens: Disability Politics and Policy in Canada