LIVING

Demanding access for all

Disabled activists are shaping a new civil rights movement

Val Ross April 20 1981
LIVING

Demanding access for all

Disabled activists are shaping a new civil rights movement

Val Ross April 20 1981

Demanding access for all

LIVING

Disabled activists are shaping a new civil rights movement

Val Ross

The other guests in the glossy Toronto hotel lobby have never seen anything like it: the onslaught of 650 people, most of them labelled “retarded,” many of them visibly handicapped, some misshapen, some in wheelchairs, talking loudly about confronting the “so-called normal people” with “the need to change society.” All are delegates to the first Eastern Canada conference of People First, a civil rights organization of the mentally handicapped. Today their leader, tall, blonde, bearded 26-year-old Ontario President David Lincoln, radiates the same charismatic energy as an organizer heading a march or an evangelist who has just brought his congregation surging to its feet. Slowly but forcefully, to a tumult of cheers, Lincoln calls for better working conditions, a revolution in public attitudes and constitutional enshrinement of civil rights. “Fve talked with leaders of other handicapped groups,” he says, “and our problems are the same: we’re getting screwed!” As volts of frustrated human energy crackle through the crowd, bystanders, startled by the eloquent audacity of his demands, are forced to realize that society is in the throes of an emerging civil rights revolution of the mentally and physically handicapped.

This one is already as profoundly disruptive—as quick to divide generations, neighborhoods and loving families—as the great civil rights struggles of the past. More than two million Canadians are disabled. Awakened from apathy by the wheelchair “marches” of mutilated Vietnam veterans on Washington, a new generation of handicapped Canadians have taken their wheelchairs and pent-up grievances to Parliament Hill. Inspired by the feminist movement, they too are waging precision warfare on traditions and semantics. (Winnipeg wheelchair activist Jim Derksen asserts, “We’re not patients; we’re consumers of services,” while Kitchener MP Peter Lang, of the Commons Committee on the Handicapped and Disabled, begs, “Don’t say ‘crippled,’ say ‘mobility disabled.’ ”) Reproducing the battle scenes of American blacks, the militants have overcome exclusion from luncheonettes (since 1976, dog guides may accompany their blind owners into Ontario restaurants). They have crossed the thresholds of public schools (in 1978, an Alberta Supreme Court decision ordered the Lamont County school board to widen doors and build a ramp for wheelchair-bound student Shelly Carrière).

After two Supreme Court decisions in P.E.I. and Nova Scotia affirmed the right of group homes to locate in residential neighborhoods, the mentally handicapped have even followed blacks in affronting property values and prejudices by moving in next door. And all this has been accomplished even though the logistics of organizing—simply communicating with the deaf, the palsied, the speech-impaired, and bringing the immobile together—presented more obstacles than ever faced civil rights groups before.

On the face of it, society has never offered more accommodation to the disabled. From crippled U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to the legendary one-armed Pete Gray (1945 outfielder for the St.Louis Browns) to record-breaking one-legged high jumper Arnie Boldt of Winnipeg, disabled heroes are worshipped in the North American pantheon. Since 1973 all federal buildings have been built with ramps and wheelchair-wide doors. This year, the CBC has just introduced two shows with close captioning (TV subtitles for the deaf). In the private sector, staffers’ wheelchairs scoot authoritatively through the halls of forward-looking employers such as Alberta’s Nova Corp. and Bell Canada. Just last year, Canadians gave $5.5 million to the “Timmy” Easter Seal campaign for crippled children, and more than IV2 million viewers proved their sympathy by tuning in to watch the Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy Telethon.

The new activists deplore Timmies and telethons. The most strategyminded, however, aren’t too fastidious to lever on public sympathy—and shame—to elevate their demands for radical change. Last Nov. 3, a small but resolute delegation from the 20,000member Coalition of Provincial Organizations of the Handicapped (COPOH) launched their war for constitutional enshrinement of their rights by turning up on Parliament Hill accompanied by an arsenal of crutches, wheelchairs and dog guides bearing signs (WITHOUT HUMAN RIGHTS, IT’S A DOG’S LIFE). “Believe me,” grins Saskatchewan COPOH activist Yvonne Peters, “that flustered the politicians.” When it still appeared, this January, that the charter of rights would not cover the handicapped, the militants unleashed threats of “busloads” of halt, lame and blind petitioners descending on the Commons. Quickly the politicians fell into line.

The new charter of rights will clear the way for what David Baker, legal counsel for Toronto’s Advocacy Resource Centre for the Handicapped (ARCH), promises will be “a flood of cases on everything from wrongful dismissal to the blind being barred from jury duty.” But even after the muchvaunted charter becomes law, it won’t guarantee continuity of dollars-andcents benefits to handicapped people who move from province to province. Besides, in an era of economic decline, laws alone won’t get the handicapped a better deal. Despite a mass of surveys showing that disabled workers have superior attendance and safety records, nearly 80 per cent remain unemployed. Last month, when 220 potential employers were invited, by letter and follow-up phone calls, to a Kingston, Ont., workshop on hiring the handicapped, just over 20 actually appeared. Halifax COPOH activist Shaun McCormick suggests a jobs-for-the-disabled telethon. “Of course,” he scoffs, “it’s easier for a corporation to write a cheque to charity than to hire a ‘crip.’ ” Yet the labor market is still choking over the undigested influx of working women. Ed Baillargeon, president of the Labour Council of Windsor and District (where unemployment is 18 per cent) speaks for 780,000 able-bodied unemployed Canadians when he admits: “You know how it is: we’ve got to take care of our own injured workers and laid-off men first. We can’t go out on the street to help those who’ve never worked before.”

Nor can the already-employed disabled translate sympathy into dollars. In Woodstock, Ont., James Hutchison QC, a lawyer with multiple sclerosis, is asking the courthouse and the province to install an elevator in the two-storey building. Hutchison is optimistic (“It’s hard to refuse a man on two canes ”), but the cost is $50,000. On this kind of expensive and perhaps cranky demand, the militants’ position is inflexible: access for one disabled person means both symbolic and potential access for all. Rob Trautman, an epileptic volunteer at the Alberta Committee of Action Groups of the Disabled, snorts, “When an architect told me he hadn’t put in ramps in a church because the church had no disabled congregants, I said, ‘And it never will.’ ”

Inflexibility doesn’t characterize the militants alone. Christian Horizons group homes is battling in both the Ontario Supreme Court and at the Ontario Municipal Board against property owners of Kitchener, Ont., who fear their affluent neighborhood will be downgraded and their children interfered with by the arrival of five unrelated physically and mentally handicapped adolescents. Resident Cliff Chamberlain protests: “It’s the principle of the thing. We were led to believe this area was zoned single family, free from annoyances.” The schools, too, are becoming collision sites between the public and the militant civil rights activists. Twelve-year-old Warren Low of Ashcroft, B.C., was denied a place in his local public school because the South Cariboo school board said it would cost $46,000 a year to provide the special assistance the blind, autistic boy requires. The case is still before the courts; whatever the decision, it’s clear that unless money for additional support staff is provided, mainstreaming disabled kids into public schools will only cause more contention. After a year of monitoring everything one diabetic six-year-old put in her mouth, and repeating the day’s lesson for a deaf boy, a B.C. Grade One teacher (she begs anonymity to protect her pupils) says, “I was so burned out, I regularly threw up after work.”

The integration of the disabled into full participation is literally gutwrenching. Not only does it demand money, time or even the guilt-charged admission of neglect; it fundamentally challenges basic prejudices about what it is to be a full human being. Nowhere are these prejudices more clearly shown than in the way the retarded, crippled and physically devalued are denied expression of their human urges for sexuality and reproduction. True, after first squirming in delicious embarrassment, North American film audiences permitted themselves a peek at a paraplegic Vietnam vet, played by Jon Voight, making love with Jane Fonda in Coming Home. But it is still illegal in most provinces to perform marriage for the retarded. When People First’s Ann Turnbull reminded the Toronto conference that despite law reform, many mentally handicapped adolescents are still sterilized, some of her audience wept.

And yet Orville Endicott, legal resources co-ordinator for the Canadian Association for the Mentally Retarded (CAMR)—an organization of parents, concerned professionals and retarded activists from People First—admits that the CAMR itself is divided over the issue, and specifically over a sensational case involving the proposed sterilization of “Eve” (the name used in court documents to protect the identity of a 26-year-old P.E.I. woman). Eve’s elderly mother simply can’t afford to bring up her daughter’s unplanned babies. Endicott sighs, “Even if you take the view that the right to procreate is fundamental, you have to protect the children of severely limited couples.” In Ottawa two years ago, the Children’s Aid seized the baby of a deaf-mute couple. “We had to,” argues Assistant Director Joyce Turnbull. “The little girl had fallen from her high chair and suffered brain damage. It was a question of the parents’ judgment.” Rev. Robert Rumball, who campaigned passionately with the couple to retain their baby, blames himself. “I should never have told them to trust Children’s Aid,” he says bitterly. Much of the self-appointed business of activist groups is to monitor such cases, provide what funds they can and alert the media. People First’s David Lincoln smiles, “The media is one of our biggest friends.” So are the politicians, at least in appearances; at televised political conventions, each of the three largest federal parties produced a “signer” to translate for the country’s tiny 23,000 - strong deaf community.

However powerful their allies, and however strong their own strategic sophistication, the militants know they face two battles alone, which can never be won in their lifetimes. First come the daily skirmishes with a world designed for the able-bodied. It takes 20 minutes for a person in a wheelchair to negotiate Winnipeg’s intersection of Portage and Main—via an underground garage, two shopping malls and a hotel lobby—because no ramps were installed in the underground pedestrian walkway. With the sole exception of Edmonton’s ramped and wide-doored public transit system, “Never mind the back of the bus,” says MP Peter Lang, “the disabled still can’t get on the bus.”

The other enemy is more insidious— what Winnipeg COPOH activist Jim Derksen calls “the image of the charity recipient, the passive Uncle Tom.” Around 50,000 Canadians work in the private agencies and rehabilitation services for the handicapped, and to their shock they hear themselves singled out as the image’s major architect. From Halifax, COPOH activist Shaun McCormick rails against “monopolistic agencies like the Canadian Paraplegic Association—they scare the hell out of me.” In Toronto, BOOST (Blind Organization of Ontario with Selfhelp Tactics) charges the Canadian National Institute for the Blind with monopolizing services such as rehabilitation and refusing to open its decision-making to the consumers. In Edmonton, 1 '/2 years ago, 12 workers walked out of a sheltered, CNiB-sponsored workshop where four of them had been earning $50 a month. Edmonton CNIB Director Robert Elton, pointing out that had the workers earned more their social assistance would have been cut, declines to call the walkout a “strike.” “There was no contract, no union.” A union is just the radical step David Lincoln is suggesting for the mentally handicapped workers now paid $40 a week by a sheltered workshop in eastern Ontario.

Unionizing the retarded (probably no more difficult than organizing nonEnglish-speaking immigrants), attacking the agencies and lobbying on the Hill are very likely too radical for the vast majority of Canada’s disabled. Alice Loomer, a feisty (“Promise you won’t call me ‘courageous’ ”) Halifax clinical psychologist and inventor, says that though she sympathizes, she’s no activist. She has spent her time motorizing a wheelchair she had custommade to her specifications: it has freed her from dependence on expensive and difficult-to-repair electronic equipment. Her kitchen she planned so that free-standing portable units allow her to cook from a wheelchair. Loomer believes, “Being disabled means custombuilding a life for yourself, on your own.”

To the activists, it means doing for each other. States BOOST’S President JoAnne Yale: “A voice in the wilderness goes unheard, but the voice of a crowd cannot be denied.” They also want their revolution now. Yvonne Peters, the COPOH Saskatchewan activist, explains urgently: “There’s tremendous pressure on us to make headway in the International Year of Disabled Persons. Though I am concerned by the token gestures, we’ve got to use them. This year is the first big step.”