The Missing Block


“In Unison: A Canadian Approach to Disability Issues” is a discussion paper that has been brought forward by the federal, provincial and territorial ministers responsible for social services. It is to be published as a report this fall.

The ministers asked that their work be shared with key stakeholders with particular knowledge and expertise in the area of disability. In July, several national organizations serving people with disabilities participated in the In Unison discussions, including the Canadian Paraplegic Association.

Briefly, the premise of the joint federal/provincial/territorial initiative is a vision based on the values of equality, inclusion and independence. In Unison translates this vision into objectives and policy directions within four interrelated building blocks: citizenship; disability supports; employment; and income.

Personally, I think everybody is to be commended, because the words in the discussion paper are right. Many people would be hard pressed to find fault with the basic tenents of this model — except for one important facet. I think there s a missing building block. This vital missing building block is education.

For people with spinal cord injury (SCI), education is critical to vocational success, according to results from our recently completed survey, in which almost 1,000 working-age Canadians with SCI participated. For example, over 61 per cent of people with post-graduate or professional training are currently employed, and almost 46 per cent of those with any kind of post-secondary training are employed. But of the 349 participants with high-school education or less, only 20 per cent are currently employed. Clearly, people with disabilities need access to education.

Statistics from other sources show that 65 per cent of all Canadians with disabilities have less than a high school education. More dramatically, it indicates that less than half of the percentage of people with disabilities have post-secondary graduation as compared with the general population. This tells me that we have a major problem with education and training.

Yet, at this very moment, a new federal government initiative threatens education funding for all Canadians with SCI and other disabilities.

The threat comes as VRDP (Vocational Rehabilitation for Disabled Persons) is being phased out. Since 1974, VRDP — a cost-sharing arrangement between the federal and provincial governments — has provided supports to students with disabilities, including payments to offset tuition fees and other direct costs of education.

Today, we’re on the brink of implementation of a replacement for VRDP. The wording of the new framework has one huge problem — it opens the door for provinces to interpret the agreement in the manner they deem appropriate. The result of this is already becoming clear in Ontario, where the Harris government has indicated it will not continue to apply this type of funding to assist persons with disabilities to pursue post-secondary education.

Instead, funding received under the new framework will support programs that focus solely on removal of barriers to employment. CPA acknowledges that removal of employment barriers is important. But, without education and training, it isn’t enough.

The rationale being used in Ontario is that people with disabilities already have access to education funding via student loans, just like any other student. Some would argue that, if Canadians with disabilities really want to compete on a level playing field, the Ontario scenario makes sense. I say this: CPA members don’t have the same access to summer jobs and part-time employment while students. Their disabilities often force longer periods of study and higher costs. And, upon graduation, finding receptive employers remains difficult. In other words, there will not be a level playing field for Canadians with SCI anytime in the near future.

CPA is committed to ensuring its members can achieve their education goals without being tens of thousands of dollars in debt — or more — upon completion.

Some provinces have taken progressive roles in the education of people with disabilities, and will continue to do so despite the ambiguity of the proposed funding framework. Not all provinces will follow Ontario’s lead. But some will.

The solution is obvious: the federal government must build a leadership role for itself into the framework. It must ensure that provinces take a balanced approach with education and removal of employment barriers remaining priorities.

All governments — and all Canadians — must recognize that education is critical, that people with disabilities must be invested in. Investment in our members and other people with disabilities will yield results, just as past investments have.

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