The UN proclaimed December 3 as the International Day of Persons with Disabilities in 1992. The proclamation aims to promote an understanding of disability issues and to mobilize support for the dignity, rights, and well-being of persons with disabilities. Notably, the day also seeks to promote awareness about the gains that can be realized from the integration of people with disabilities in every aspect of political, social, economic, and cultural life.
But to move ahead on integration, sometimes it is necessary to engage in reflection of our past. How have we been part of the barriers to integration? And what can we do now to help realize this goal?
Broadly speaking, there has been an interesting historical connection to disability rights and the labour movement. As early labour unions sought to have employers recognize and compensate workers who acquired disabilities on the job from injury, part of the language that was developed ended up excluding people with disabilities from the workforce. While workers fought for compensation for lost limbs and permanent disablement, the language used to compensate them implied that these workers were no longer able to participate in the workforce. Employers were also later reluctant to employ workers with disabilities due to compensation and insurance schemes that always assumed the workers were “able-bodied.”
Fast forward to the civil rights struggles in the 50s through the 80s, where various groups experiencing marginalization and exclusion from institutional and political power started defining their needs and interests as human rights. It was in 1973 when the advocacy group Saskatchewan Voice of People with Disabilities formed to promote concerns and issues affecting people with disabilities in our province. In the 1980s, the Coalition of Provincial Organizations of the Handicapped protested the failure to include disability discrimination in the draft of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and fought hard to get it included among the prohibited grounds for discrimination.
Alongside this push for disability rights, labour unions expanded provisions regarding employment equity and the duty of an employer to accommodate a worker with a disability. Unions also challenged workplace discrimination on the grounds of disability.
In November 1982, SGEU launched one of the best long-term disability plans in the country, in recognition of the need to support workers who acquire significant and enduring disabilities. In January 1989, the Public Service Sector signed an interim employment equity plan, which was a first for SGEU. This plan focused on the workplace promotion of women, people of colour, Indigenous people, and people with physical disabilities.
Still, there is still so much more that we can do as a labour movement to promote the rights and integration of people with disabilities in Saskatchewan. Our province needs legislation that mandates accessibility benchmarks for the public and private sector, like how Ontario has done with their Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act.
Such a piece of legislation takes the political gamesmanship out of the full integration and participation of people with disabilities in Saskatchewan. It puts an end to empty promises and platitudes that can be upended due to “budgetary pressures.”
Provincial politicians making and breaking promises to support those with disabilities is a regrettably common occurrence in Saskatchewan.
Consider the 2015 declaration by then-minister of Social Services Donna Harpaurer, saying that accessible transportation is a high priority for the Sask Party government, only to instead shut down the Saskatchewan Transportation Company in 2017.
Or the 2015 pledge to provide respite services for families with children and adults experiencing disabilities, only to instead cut Educational Assistants from our classrooms in 2017 and delay “individualized funding” for families of children with autism for yet another year. Where’s the respite when the government makes it so your children can’t go to school for a whole year?
Or the 2015 disability strategic priority to “understand the rights of people with disabilities,” only to authorize calorie audits for impoverished people with disabilities on a special diet in 2017. Is proper nourishment for people with special needs not a right in this province?
These are outrageous moves by a government that only prioritizes the rights of people with disabilities when the money is flowing.
SGEU strongly condemns the cuts to people with disabilities by the Saskatchewan government in their 2017 budget, and calls for an immediate reversal to these cuts, as well as legislation that mandates accessibility for people with disabilities in the public and private sector. Cuts take our province in the wrong direction.
SGEU is proud of the work we have done so far to increase integration in workplaces across the province, and to improve supports for people with disabilities. However, as we celebrate our efforts, we recognize that there is much work to be done to fully integrate people with disabilities in our province in every aspect of political, social, economic, and cultural life.