I attended my first community meeting yesterday since arriving in Kelowna. It is part of a province wide set of community forums being conducted by the provincial government. The topic, “Increasing Accessibility for People with Disabilities”. The interest in the Kelowna area was so high they had to add a second meeting earlier in the day which is the one I attended. I had signed up for the original evening one but when an afternoon session became available I quickly jumped to that one. I’m not all that crazy about night driving.
Now anybody that is familiar with me knows I am more about walking the walk than just talking the talk. Well this session, from my perspective, was another session of “talking the talk”. When I arrived all the flip charts were in place, water jugs and glasses on each table and a small buffet table at the end of the room full of cookies, fruit and drinks. We were given name tags to complete (with heavily scented magic markers not a good thing for anybody in the room with allergy issues). There was a cross section of persons with disabilities there from wheelchairs to hearing impairments.
Point one on talking the talk, always be prepared for the unexpected. The signer they had arranged for the hearing impaired was unable to make it at the last minute and there was no contingency plan. Fortunately there was a participant there who could do a bit of signing so she sat with the hearing impaired participants and did her best to translate. It’s a good thing that anybody experienced with the world of the disabled knows how to improvise. It appeared to me to be about one-third consumer and the rest were either government or agency people there to provide feedback.
This forum is, of course, part of a bigger agenda and the feedback gathered will go into a bigger report later on. The process was split into six sections: Innovation, Personal Supports, Work and Contribution, Housing and Accessibility, Social Networks, and Asset Accumulation (this was a new one to me). As one would expect at this type of forum each table had a facilitator as well as a scribe to write ideas down on the flip chart. Each table was asked to review each of the above topics working from a set of pre-assigned questions, standard stuff.
It became evident quite quickly that a few of the participants were there with their own axe to grind. A number of participants were on provincial disability benefits and were focused on affordable housing. The forum, from my understanding, was to be discussing employment opportunities and strategies but to be really honest I never did hear much about employability strategies. Having attended many of these same type of activities over my life time I am quite use to the occasional participant that has a vested interest in their personal issue and have a hard time looking at the overall picture so you just roll with that.
It was apparent right from the beginning that there was some stumbling going on. I say that because my first question was to “define accessibility” which seemed to leave a number of people scratching their heads. When I pointed out that putting a ramp on a library did not mean it was totally accessible which participants at my table needed to have explained. Once they realized that a ramp meant nothing to someone with a visual disability we had to completely re-open the concept of “access”.
Now flash back to 1994 with the same scenario in the same province and the same flip charts except this time I am one of the facilitators. Same topics with the exception of “asset accumulation” and very similar variety of participants. Concerns, the same. Solutions, basically the same. Acknowledgement, still the same. What happened to all of that work that was done twenty years ago and why are we starting all over AGAIN?
I know from having worked in government and with government that there are hundreds of reports from a wide variety of focus groups sitting in some cabinet somewhere in Victoria collecting dust. I know from having sat on the Canadian Labour Congress’s Disability Working Committee fourteen years ago that the labour movement had been engaged. So why are we continually repeating this whole issue over how to access the labour market for persons with disabilities?
Well, like it or not, there is no simple answer to this and all the focus groups in the world won’t settle this until people start taking action. You can’t take a room full of people with issues involving mobility impairment, visual and hearing impairments, cognitive and psychiatric disorders, and any number of other hidden disabilities and expect results. Everyone of those groups have their own collective and individual issues. A focus group is not going to resolve that.
But here is one thing I do know for sure. Persons with disabilities are products and we create a lot of jobs for other people. Until you, as an individual, can work past being a disabled person and become a person with a disability you will always be a “product”. Although I hear a lot of nice talk I have yet to see any real walk. You deal with me as a person first and not as a “disabled” person or you don’t deal with me at all. I and I alone define my disability. My disability, you, your organization or some diagnostic manual is going to define me.
I look forward to the final report regarding this whole “White Paper” process but I am not holding my breathe for anything substantial. Until the concept of “self-determination” (very different from independence) can be adopted persons with disabilities will always be a product. Not a lot of incentive for organizations out there to walk away from government grants to supply employment support programs. It is my personal belief that these same organizations should be more focused on educating employers and the labour market on this untapped workforce. It is time to move past supplying “social programs” that encourage employability.
Just one man’s opinion!