Lessons learned from COVID-19
By Teddy Katz
On June 2, 2020, Abilities was granted an exclusive Q and A with Carla Qualtrough, Federal Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Disability Inclusion. Veteran journalist Teddy Katz had the opportunity to chat with Minister Qualtrough about lessons learned and the approach her government is taking during the crisis.
(TK) Good morning Minister. Let me start by asking how this pandemic has impacted the roll out of the Accessible Canada Act and how the current risks for seniors and people with disabilities has highlighted some of the significant need for change?
(CQ) It’s a really important question. On the positive side Teddy, because we have the Accessible Canada Act (ACA), I’m of the absolute opinion, that we are now able to address this pandemic differently.
A prime example of how this has played out is in the introduction of the new Canada Emergency Student Benefit. Because we recognized the additional expenses that students with dependents and students with disability are incurring during COVID-19 we explicitly created a top up to the base benefit. This was the first time our government has made an official decision utilizing the broader definition of disability that is in the Accessible Canada Act.
Another example would be the way we have been communicating with people with disabilities during this crisis–think of ASL and LSQ. Never before in the history of our country have we had across the board daily announcements from leadership interpreted into sign language for both French and English speaking sign language users. And that’s not going to go away. I can guarantee you that because the ACA defines sign language as the first language of people who are deaf and hard of hearing in this country. Now I can lean on the Accessible Canada Act as I make contributions in cabinet.
On the other side, of course, there are still things that are priorities that we still need to get to. We’re looking at a national employment plan or strategy for people with disabilities. And, of course, employment for people with disabilities is a whole different conversation that has to happen now.
(TK) You said a few weeks ago that people with disabilities have been significantly and disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. Can you give some examples and suggest why this is happening?
(CQ) There’s the direct reality of many people living with underlying medical conditions or immunocompromised medical situations. Simply put that means there’s a greater likelihood of them contracting the virus.
But there’s also very significant indirect consequences from existing barriers that have become even bigger with the onset of COVID-19. There’s more discrimination. There are greater challenges around accessing health care and social support services. From coast to coast, the volunteer base that remains so critical for the disability community isn’t what it was four months ago, so people aren’t getting the support they need. There are often massive additional expenses related to having a disability that have only been exacerbated by the pandemic. Groceries cost more. People have had to buy PPE for their personal support workers. They used to have a volunteer come in and help them with their laundry—now, they have to pay for a laundry service because of this pandemic.
(TK) Can you share some of the innovative solutions that you’ve heard from companies, health care providers, individuals that people have come up with that you hope to see continue post pandemic?
(CQ) A very pandemic related reality for the deaf and hard of hearing community is that for people who rely on lip reading—when you have a mask on your face, they’re blocked from being able to communicate. And so, what we’ve done at the Government of Canada at the request of our disability advisory group, was procure face masks that have clear fronts so you can still see people’s lips.
A broader more systemic outcome that I hope will continue is in the area of employment which is my other hat as a minister. One of things the system has been challenged to do is to adapt to the way people with disabilities work. Now out of necessity employers and businesses have had to completely re-conceive how people work. Businesses are realizing that there’s less expenses, less overhead when
your people work from home. You’re getting more productivity! There’s been a very real chance for employers to get out of their preconceived notion of what work looks like in a really accelerated way. This will absolutely benefit the disability population because companies won’t be stuck in the way
things have always been done.
(TK) When I was asking about other innovative things companies have done—we’ve seen some companies introduce special hours—early access for people with disabilities or seniors. When we go back to so called “normal” after this, are there things that you hope stay on?
(CQ) What I think the crisis has done is to recognize this population as a consumer base who have money to spend. We’re people who need services and if businesses can find a way to be more inclusive in their business practices they can actually access our money.
Well done to stores that have made special hours— they’re recognizing that certain groups of people need to experience their particular shop differently— and they’re smart enough to accommodate that.
White Spot Restaurant in BC has been doing this forever. They have one night every month which is friendly for families with autism. They turn down the lights and music. Families sit a couple of tables apart to give people more space, so it isn’t as overwhelming for the children. For the first time, these families have been going out and having meals in a restaurant and by the way spending money.
(TK) Do you think the public has warmed up to these ideas more now because of the pandemic?
(CQ) If I’m really honest, I think that the conversation we are having around seniors is an important predecessor to a bigger conversation we need to have around disability in this country. I think what it’s doing is preparing us for a broader conversation around some of the same questions related to people with disabilities.
The same thing that is happening in our long term care facilities for seniors is happening in our assisted living facilities for people with disabilities. That conversation needs to be amplified.
As we tackle how we’re going to deal with long term care, we need to make sure that we also address other collective living realities whether it’s assisted living or residential homes. There’s a whole continuum of the way people live in collectivity.
We can’t miss the opportunity to recognize these very same challenges are being faced by our population of citizens with disabilities.
(TK) Minister, I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you about the recent letter that advocates for people with disabilities sent to your government. They said they feel like they’ve been forgotten amidst financial support the government has offered given rising costs and the fact that many are already living below the poverty. I believe there’s an ask for a special financial assistance package of their own…what’s your response?
(CQ) First and foremost, we haven’t forgotten Canadians with disabilities at all. From the very first moment, we started addressing COVID-19 in our country—the needs and interest of people with disabilities were absolutely on the table.
You know Teddy, if we were talking at the end of National Accessibility Week—3 or 4 days from now—I’d be able to tell you a little bit more. I’ll have a much better answer to that question because of some of the announcements that are going to be made that we’re rolling out over this week which I can’t really scoop my boss on.
(TK) One final question. This has been such a passion of yours to help make Canada more inclusive more accessible. What keeps you up at night when it comes to this issue and the law in terms of trying to have the follow through that you want?
(CQ) I think everything takes longer than I wish it would. I wish we could address the systemic challenges more quickly, but I’ve come to really appreciate how important it is to include everybody in these conversations and to make sure that the disability community leads—sets the direction for where we are going. I’m also really focused on what comes next and making sure that our recovery measures are inclusive—that we consider everybody from the beginning.
(TK) Thanks for your time today.
(CQ) I could talk about this forever. Thank you.
As we went to press Prime Minister Trudeau announced $600 of extra support of PWD’s.
Journalist Teddy Katz first covered Minister Carla Qualtrough when she swam for Canada at the 1992 Paralympics in Barcelona.