Here We Go Again – Part 2

Relaxing on my day off hanging around Victoria's Inner Harbour
Relaxing on my day off hanging around Victoria’s Inner Harbour, inclusion at its best!

Yesterday I wrote about attending a consultative process in Kelowna as part of a BC government dog and pony show.  The government website promoting this event states “The B.C. government is having a conversation with British Columbians to better understand how government, businesses and communities can increase accessibility and decrease barriers for people living with disabilities.”

The process focused on six areas explained with a bit of detail on the website listed above.  This is not my first time at this type of dance.  I have participated in these types of consultations in the 70’s, 80’s, 90’s and numerous times since the turn of this century.  I have attended more meeting on the subject of inclusiveness then I care to remember.

Now I realize the world of disability has become much more complicated then it was even thirty years ago.  There is no doubt that the complexity of disabling conditions has grown exponentially with advances made in healthcare and technology.  The independent living movement has grown along with rights protection all aimed at encouraging participation in the community.  It is important to acknowledge and understand the independent living concept that developed throughout the 70’s in North America.  From my perspective it is obvious that most of these government programs don’t really understand this concept.

Now this isn’t going to endear me with many of my peers working towards a more inclusive society but the reality is to fully participate in your community you need the ability to “self-determine”.  The other reality that I feel often gets lost is that employment is meant to be a way to support ones self, not as a day activity.  A persons success in the labour market is based on their ability to self-determine.

The reason I work everyday is to involve myself in my community, pay my bills, maintain the level of independence I desire and to make my contribution to society.  I am the person making these decision, in other words I am exercising my self-determination.  And I deal with the consequences, be they reward or penalty, of my actions every day.

Some individuals may need the assistance of an aide or a piece of equipment as a way to succeed and live independently.  This is really a form of interdependence and that’s a good thing.  In the real world everybody deals with some form interdependence.  We all have something or someone in our life’s that contribute to our level of employment, quality of life and independence.

It could be something as simple as a public transit system or a public gym where one goes to stay in shape but nobody lives on an island absence of anyone or anything.  Even Tom Hanks, in the movie Cast Away, had his trusty basketball Wilson to keep him sane.  However Tom found the basketball, drew the face on it and named it.  That’s called self-determination.

However when one needs a personal aide to make sure they get up in the morning, get to work and spend the day making sure the job gets done properly then the only employment opportunity we have created is for the daily aide person.  This is not self-determination.  It’s a situation where the person with the disability is a product and whether we like it or not we have to accept the fact that not every disability is equal.

So attending this “consultative process” was much like attending a history class.  One of the questions they asked the participants to use as a lens when looking at these various areas was “Why do you think it’s important that we reduce barriers and increase accessibility for people living with disabilities in B.C.?”  Well my answer would be, let’s stop trying to find ways to re-invent the wheel for political correctness reasons.  Some disabilities will always need extra supports and direction in life.  But if you want to put someone to work then make sure THEY are calling the shots and not some association or care giver.  I work because I want to and can but I make that determination.

Just one man’s opinion!

Here We Go Again

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?

Speaking about employment issues at the Canadian Labour Congress national convention 2000
Speaking about employment issues at the Canadian Labour Congress national convention 2000

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!