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Silent No More: Ottawa consults on national disability act, demonstrations for disability justice remain strong

by Alex William

Photo: David Meyers of ERDCO

Photo: David Meyers of ERDCO

With a national disability act in preparation, the federal government is continuing its consultation process to address concerns within the disability community. On Nov. 1, over 100 people with disabilities arrived at Carleton University to take part in the National Youth Forum on an Accessible Canada. While many issues arose during the youth forum, one of the most prominent and recurring problems is the close correlation between disability and poverty.

People with disabilities are among the most poor and most marginalized in Canadian society. There are many reasons for this, including employment discrimination, uninsurable support costs and income assistance programs, like the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP), that keep recipients below the poverty line. Indeed, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives found that a single person without children who receives ODSP support is still below the poverty line by approximately 33 per cent.

While the $2 million dedicated to preparing for the federal legislation is a unique investment in disability issues, at the grassroots level the work of disability leaders often remains unfunded and unsupported.

For example, over the past six years, disability activists have maintained a tradition of taking to the streets of downtown Toronto in what is known as the Toronto Disability Pride March (TDPM).

Operating at a zero budget, TDPM is a far cry from a parade. It is a march — rooted in traditions of direct action and the struggle for recognition.

“We don’t get a lot of empathy. People fear us. They used to lock us away, put us out of sight,” explains Diem Lafortune, a regular guest speaker at TDPM events.

Lafortune is a singer-songwriter, a teacher, and a Cree and Jewish woman (“Crewish”, she quips).

“We are not intended to get into the legislative building – it is not conducive to our presence,” she observes, drawing a powerful link between the physical barriers of the building and the political exclusion of disabled people from decision-making forums.

Because of this pervasive marginalization, the very presence of people with disabilities is a wake-up call for Canadian society.

Adding urgency to the situation, Lafortune points out that “the neoliberal agenda since the late 70s is a backlash against all the earlier inclusion work.”

Neoliberal austerity measures have had a disproportionate effect on those experiencing poverty and disability. In 2014, researcher and activist Simon Duffy analyzed the targeted nature of social cuts and reported that poor disabled people in England “bear a burden which is more than 4 times the (modal) average.” Given these unfair outcomes, TDPM’s collective action was both timely and urgent. Amidst heavy cutbacks, when more and more disabled people find access to a dignified life barred, simply taking pride in disability identity can be a challenging stance.

Yet, de-stigmatizing disability is not just an occasion for cultural celebration. It is intimately tied to social justice and serves as the foundation for recognizing and resisting disability violence — whether in the form of poverty, institutionalization, sexual abuse or even euthanasia.

Lafortune recounts how “not feeling safe” is a common experience for disabled people because societal values continue to privilege able-bodied white men.

Indeed, TDPM fits within a long tradition of organizing that responds to violence against disabled people and threats to their very material survival by re-asserting the value of disabled lives in the face of eugenic attempts to wipe them out.

At this year’s march, TDPM organizer and speaker Kevin Jackson recalled the history of protest marches, the first Psychiatric Survivor Pride Day in Toronto in September 1993, and a later march by disabled people from various communities protesting the murder of Toronto psychiatric survivor Edmond Yu, who was shot and killed by police on Feb. 20, 1997.  Yu’s tragic death reflects a pattern where sanism, ableism, racism and other forms of discrimination intersect and create disastrous results for marginalized people.

Organizers have kept issues of racism, settler colonialism, sexism and class at the forefront of their concern as TDPM activists identify across a variety of social positions. Melissa Graham, the founder and co-organizer of the march, describes how the experiences of organizers reflect a diversity of disability identities. “As organizers, it’s important to us that the march reflects the community it’s representing, not just in terms of who participates, but in the composition of the organizing team. While we’re still working on organizing an anti-oppressive way, our team reflects a diversity of disabilities, genders, and people of colour. Our priority is to those most marginalized among disabled people.”

As such, TDPM’s strength is based on finding common ground and, according to its founders, this means “a harmony of voices, not one homogeneous voice.”

For Lafortune, the key to combating injustice is kindness and empathy towards difference: “If we want a kind society, we have to start being kind.”

Calling all disability and Mad activists to join together to organize an Ottawa Disability Pride March for 2017!

The introduction of a federal disability act makes this an important moment in the history of Canadian disability and Mad activist communities. We urgently need to make ourselves visible as the experts on disability and Mad issues.

By coming together to march, we will show that we are a force that cannot be ignored. Cooperation among disabled and Mad people proves that we can work together to lead change and influence political decision-making.

The Toronto Disability Pride March (TDPM) has demonstrated the collective strength of disability and Mad communities.  Now it’s time to bring this collective action to the Capital!

Be Loud. Be Proud. Come March with us!

Send us an email to get involved: 

ottawadisabilitypride@gmail.com

This article was first published in the Leveller Vol. 9, No. 3

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