Color & Control:

Disability and social networks

By Amanda McKinley and Stuart Kamenetsky

When questioned about what constitutes “Canadian values,” frequent responses are diversity, tolerance, acceptance, and social justice.

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, as well as each province’s Human Rights Code are arguably our most cherished pieces of legislation, providing broad legal protection against discrimination on the basis of sex, age, religion, and ability to name a few. Yet despite our progressive societal ideals and laws, many disadvantaged groups still find themselves lacking in one of the most important factors to overall well-being: social inclusion.

One of these groups is people with disabilities, which according to a recent federal census, comprises 22% of the general population. Chances are that you or someone you know has some type of physical, cognitive, sensory or developmental impairment or mental disorder. In fact, ability is a temporary state. Most of us will experience disability at some point or another in our lifetime—certainly in old age. In order to protect the rights of people with disabilities and encourage inclusion into broader society, multiple pieces of provincial disability specific legislation were enacted in the past forty odd years. As Canada’s most populous and wealthiest province, Ontario has lead the way.

Ontario’s Education Amendment Act (1980), commonly known as “Bill 82” aimed to ensure that all children, regardless of ability, have access to free and appropriate public education. It founded the default of an inclusive classroom environment for all children, aiming to limit the number of students that were needlessly turned away from education or put into “special schools” due to their disability. Twenty-five years later, the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) became the first comprehensive piece of disability legislation to put the onus on businesses and organizations to comply with accessibility standards. The AODA goes beyond the anti-discrimination goals of the Ontario Human Rights Code, acting as a broad public policy strategy that aims to ensure full societal inclusion by creating a barrier-free society by 2025. The intentions of the AODA are commendable, but the results are disappointing.

Social inclusion of people with disabilities is low compared to the rest of the population. Adults with severe cognitive and physical disabilities are less likely than non-disabled people to have bonded relationships, defined as any close connection with another individual such as a spouse, close friend, or even sibling. Additionally, people with disabilities are much more likely to rely on unnatural supports such as their parents or paid workers (social workers, nurses, physiotherapists) rather than peers of their own age from their own social group. This can be considered both a cause and effect of exclusion in key areas of society where social inclusion occurs, namely employment and housing.

In early adulthood, most of us rely on work and education to build social networks as we venture out into the world, without which there is often little opportunity to meet new people. Post- secondary education opportunities are limited, especially for people with intellectual disabilities, and unemployment rates in Ontario are nearly three times higher for people with disabilities than their non-disabled counterparts, despite the vast majority being capable and willing to work. Unemployment can not only be socially excluding, but it can also be detrimental to a person’s self esteem and self worth if they’re perceived as not being a contributing member of society.

In terms of housing, both the Ontario Building Code and the AODA require that buildings, unless otherwise exempt, comply with accessibility standards. However, depending on the type of and severity of one’s disability, some people may require more than simple alterations to their physical environment. Some individuals may need extensive in-care help and as such qualify for government-funded supportive housing, where residents live in community-based apartments with full-time support staff. For adults with physical disabilities and severe developmental disabilities, the average wait time for appropriate supportive housing is 15 years and 23 years respectively. Due to this, many adults with disabilities continue to rely on their aging parents to provide them with a place to live that’s suited to their needs. For those who don’t have family or whose family can’t afford to take on the full-time job of carer, they may end up institutionalized in segregated hospitals, psychiatric facilities, or nursing homes.

Why is there such a significant gap between disability legislation and reality? A recent study conducted at the University of Toronto Mississauga Department of Psychology may provide one possible answer. Researchers showed undergraduate students photos of people with various disabilities and asked them to rate these according to several dimensions, including the perception of the person’s capabilities, equal rights, and their identification with the person in the photo. On average, students rated equal rights as very high, but identification very low. We tend to rate ourselves as very committed to progressive human rights values such as social tolerance and acceptance. However, so long as we continue to see people with disabilities as “the other” with whom we don’t identify, social inclusion will not occur. Legislation can only go so far in fixing society’s problems; it can provide the necessary anti-discrimination framework to promote inclusion but it cannot change the fundamental ways in which we view our neighbours. Some of us may use our progressive legislation as justification for inaction, falsely reassuring ourselves that the government will take care of all the needs of people with disabilities. In reality, macro change starts at the individual level, where every individual takes personal responsibility to build sincere relationships with the members of their communities, regardless of who they are.

Amanda Mckinley is a recent graduate of the Psychology Program at the University of Toronto Mississauga. She will be entering a Masters Degree Program in Global Health in the Fall.

Stuart Kamenetsky is Professor, Teaching Stream and Director of the Undergraduate Program at the Department of Psychology, University of Toronto Mississauga.

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