Color & Control:

Our Word

Qualtrough wants the Act to focus on employment. “All roads lead back to employment in some way,” she said.

Life After Sport

In February, the government of British Columbia increased benefits to people with disabilities by almost $193 million. That sounds great, doesn’t it? Michelle Stilwell, BC’s Minister of Social Development and Social Innovation, certainly thinks so. “I’m very proud of where the province is going,” she said, in a recent interview conducted by the Canadian Press.

The same month, the federal government was organizing hearings on its proposed Canadians with Disabilities Act. This Act was promised by the Liberal Party in the 2015 federal election campaign. Responsibility for leading the consultations rests on the shoulders of Carla Qualtrough, Canada’s Minister of Sport and Persons with Disabilities. It was the first thing listed in Qualtrough’s mandate letter from the Prime Minister.

Qualtrough wants the Act to focus on employment. “All roads lead back to employment in some way,” she said. “Employment will be impacted quite significantly by this law.” We hope she is right. According to Statistics Canada, the employment rate for people with disabilities in Canada is only 49 per cent, compared to 79 per cent for other Canadians.

Stilwell and Qualtrough are former star athletes and winners of multiple medals in the Paralympic Games. They are well used to applause. As high-profile politicians, however, they are criticized daily from all sides. Political office is a far cry from the podium.

In Stilwell’s case, some critics feel the rise in benefits is too meagre. They may have a point. The $193 million increase will be spread over three years and shared by the 107,000 British Columbians who qualify for disability benefits. In other words, $1.64 per person per day. That’s not even bus fare.

Furthermore, the increase will eventually be eaten away by inflation, because BC’s disability benefits are not indexed to the cost of living. Stilwell says the idea of indexing is being studied, but one has to ask why indexing was not built into the benefits from the beginning.

In Qualtrough’s case, the legislation doesn’t exist yet, so criticism has yet to materialize. It will, though. Inevitably, some will consider it inadequate while others will feel it goes too far.

The Canadians with Disabilities Act will follow in the footsteps of similar Acts in Manitoba and Ontario and, if experience in those provinces is any indication, getting the bill through parliament will just be the start of Qualtrough’s work. The act will need to be supported by regulations and programs geared to creating social change. That won’t be easy. Negative attitudes toward disability are deeply rooted in our history.

Both of these politicians are doing a difficult job. As women with disabilities, they have faced societal barriers on a daily basis. They are used to overcoming these barriers and achieving great success. Politics is a different sport, though. Fewer will cheer their success now than in the past, and every failure, perceived or real, will expose them to levels of criticism and sometimes vitriol that will be new to them.

We look forward to seeing how Stilwell and Qualtrough handle this experience. They are both fairly new to their ministerial roles, having been appointed in 2015. We are delighted that they are in positions of power and influence, and wish them well. However, there is a lot at stake, not just for them but for all Canadians with disabilities.

As competitors, Stilwell and Qualtrough will not expect any quarter from their opponents. Nor will they receive it. Organizations lobbying for federal accessibility legislation and improved provincial disability benefits will hold them accountable.

Having politicians with disabilities lambasted in the press by disability advocates will be a new experience. We are going to take it as a sign of progress.

On behalf of the Board,

Cameron Graham past Chair, Canadian Abilities Foundation 

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