Ableism, not Assisted Suicide, is what we need to work against

The Supreme Court decision on assisted suicide brings up a lot of questions for Canadian disability activists, and some fear, but I think it’s worth looking at why we still have this fear.

I’d like to position myself in this conversation by noting a few things. The first is to acknowledge that within the disability community I hold a fair bit of privilege. As a white, well-educated, employed disabled activist I am aware that other disabled people face greater barriers and oppression and will likely have more to fear from this decision than I do, and I’m not saying that fear is misplaced. I am also a person who has attempted suicide in the past, and I have the privilege to be able to say that without shame. I was young and fighting many years of unnamed depression and ableism that I have since been able to climb out from. I have also known people for whom assisted suicide may have been a compassionate end to their suffering if that choice were possible at the time.

There are many disabled people who understandably feel that they’ve been made more vulnerable by this decision. It brings up many questions about what constitutes a valuable life. What does that mean for people who require assistance with daily activities of life? Does it impact the value of a disabled person’s life in the context of a capitalist society where the ability to produce, make and spend money, has become a mark of human value? What does it mean for mad people and psych survivors whose decisions to end their lives are often controlled by the medical community?

The reason I chose to try to end my life over a decade ago is a complicated one, but ableism, and my understanding of myself within society played a big role. This is a struggle that faces many disabled people still. The idea that we are burdens, and second-class citizen where other “experts” make choices and decisions about our lives is still as ever-present as it was then. The idea that needing help, and being anything less than 100% self-sufficient and independent makes us burdens; that we must all “overcome our disabilities” is holding us back. Yet this is the image we see presented to us not just in the media, but by the organization and presentation of some of our most cherished disability organizations. Yes, there are disability organizations in Canada promoting the oppression of other disabled people through their own internalized ableism. Their inability to recognize the privilege of their membership has silenced those who are more oppressed.

So what do we do about it? We can start with opening our doors and minds to a shift in the disability movement; one with zero tolerance for oppression within its ranks. One where working disabled people work towards becoming allies to people on social assistance, where disabled athletes can talk openly about needing supports. Most importantly we evolve our organizing to a level where disabled people are each experts in the disability experience, and all of us are equally valuable. We can no longer tolerate a movement or organizational community that positions non-disabled people as our champions and runs rampant with classism, racism, sexism, ableism, or any other form of discrimination.

The decision made by the Supreme Court of Canada on assisted suicide is about choice, and we too have a choice. We can choose to allow this decision to divide us into “achievers” and “victims”; or we can reject that ableism. We can use our collective power as disabled people to define lives worth living in terms that include all disabled people. This does not have to conflict with the right of other people who would make that choice. We have no reason to fear assisted suicide if we can overcome ableism within society and within ourselves. We have that choice, let’s choose to start now.

This International Day of Persons with Disabilities, Let’s Remember our Rights

In 2010 Prime Minister Stephen Harper ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities  (CRPD). This historic document recognized specific ways that disabled people are often left out of society such as Access to Justice (Article 13), Living independently and being included in the community (Article 19), Education (Article 24), Adequate standard of living and social protection (Article 28), as well as participation in political and public life (Article 29); the CRPD also recognized that women and children are further disenfranchised (Articles 6 and 7).

The Council of Canadians with Disabilities states that the CRPD marks a paradigm shift by addressing the human rights of persons with disabilities from a progressive social model approach to disability. In many instances, this new approach requires a new way of understanding the exercise of key human rights.

However, CRPD also has an Optional Protocol that Harper left unsigned. The Optional Protocol on Communications (OP) provides for a complaints mechanism whereby groups and individuals, after having exhausted all national resources, can have the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities consider a claim that a State Party has violated the provisions in the CRPD. In other words, while the Harper government was agreeable to these rights for disabled people, it did not want to be held accountable for upholding these rights.

Disabled people face different levels of oppression depending on the communities they come from. This varies not only on an international level, but also across province and territories, genders, age, race, class, disability, and whether or not the person is Aboriginal.

This International Day of Persons with Disabilities, December 3, 2014, we call on Canadians with Disabilities and organizations to demand that the federal government of Canada sign the Optional Protocol in the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Let this be a first step towards greater social justice for Canadians with Disabilities, and the international communities we come from.

Melissa Graham, on behalf of the Toronto Disability Pride March.

Sign the Petition

Letter to Ontario’s Minister of Health on Wheelchair Repair Regulations

Dear Minister Hoskins,

I am writing to inquire as to why wheelchair repair companies do not appear to be subject to any formal regulation or accountability in Ontario. I am a disabled Canadian who has used an electric wheelchair throughout my lifetime. I have continually received appalling service from my repair company, including charges for unnecessary and incomplete repairs, lack of communication about the repairs or possible completion date, and wheelchairs loaned to me that were infested with cockroaches and bed bugs. Upon communication with others, I find that this situation is common whether the wheelchair user pays out of pocket or has social assistance. Why is there no accountability on something so vital to our quality of life?

To date I have not found any accountability measures through repair companies, the manufacturers, or government. Also, it has been my experience that this accountability is not as much of an issue with the technicians, but with the administrative staff and others who profit from their work.

I’m sure that in your time as Minister, and in your past experience with the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act has helped you realize that for those of us who use wheelchairs on a regular basis these are not just medical devices, but tools that connect us to our communities, families, jobs, and all of the other aspects of our lives.

Does it not seem reasonable and fair that customers of these companies receive accountable service? What can be done to ensure this takes place?

A Call for Wheelchair Repair Regulations in Canada

My message to Health Canada. I welcome your thoughts.

Are wheelchair repair companies subject to any formal regulation or accountability in Canada, and if not, why is that? I am a disabled Canadian who has used an electric wheelchair throughout my lifetime. I have continually received appalling service from my repair company, including charges for unnecessary and incomplete repairs, lack of communication about the repairs or possible completion date, and wheelchairs loaned to me that were infested with cockroaches and bed bugs. Upon communication with others, I find that this situation is common whether the wheelchair user pays out of pocket or has social assistance. Why is there no accountability on something so vital to our quality of life?

Note: To date I have not found any accountability measures through repair companies, the manufacturers, or government. Also, it has been my experience that this accountability is not as much of an issue with the technicians, but with the administrative staff and others who profit from their work.

A letter to my wheelchair – in need of repair

Dear Chair:

Two and a half years ago you and I made a deal. I would work and in return we could go on adventures together. We’ve been to Edmonton, where the snow fell in March and we could barely get through the snow. In England, where I blew up my transformer and you held on for as long as you could. We learned that English chargers do it quietly, and with style.

You are a part of my identity. Accompanying me on everything; my daily commute, protests, coffee meetings, kisses, and cat cuddling sessions. You make my life possible, and I’ve failed you.

I took a risk. Like many who work in wheelchairs I pay your repairs out of pocket. It gets expensive. It would’ve cost $200 for them just to show up this weekend, just to look at you. Instead I chose to pay rent, and student loans, and that amazing new coffee maker I bought the week before. But hey, this was the deal we made, to live life without fear of broken parts.

Now we’re here, you and I, unmoving. Let down by an unregulated wheelchair repair system that encourages people to stay on poverty; on ODSP repairs are free, and you and I thank the credit card. It’s funny how with all my activism I missed what’s right under my feet. Now we wait, without any sense of when the work will be done, or what it will cost.

There has to be something better, for all of us.

You need us

You Need Us

You need us to stay in poverty to hold up your economy

You need us to sustain the industry you’ve built up around us in health care, equipment and psychiatry

You need us to build up your own worth, to keep our heads down and feel shut down so you can feel adequate

You need us to maintain your power, to be seen to be doing something when you’re really doing nothing at all

You need us to fight hard to be everything, so you can tell the rest of us it’s better to be nothing

You need us to lie down so you can stand on top of us

You need us to follow your rules so you can justify their existence

You need us not to realize how much you need us

Racialized people with disabilities walking on the road.

From http://www.joyen.net/VOASpecial/soft0627/201106/20110630212747372.jpg

No Shame in Falling

I hate falling. It serves as reminder to me that no matter what I do or what I accomplish, my body will at some point let me down, and that pisses me off.

If you`re reading this and thinking there`s a lot of internalized ableism in there, you`d be right.

So why do I feel so crappy about falling? I would never shame anyone else when they fall.

I know the answer to this. There was a time in my life when falling meant somebody was going to get upset with me, roll their eyes at me, yell at me, accusingly ask me “What’s wrong with you?” etc.

So naturally, when I fell in a movie theater the other day, and the staff had to come unlock the door so my partner could help me back up I expected some kind of negative response, or at least embarrassment.

All he said was “Why would I be embarrassed? People fall.”

And in that moment three things came to mind: 1) I wish I had a time machine to go back and say that to my childhood self. 2) I have an awesome partner (I knew that already), and 3) I still have a lot of internalized ableism to get rid of.

Falling is good, it teaches us it’s ok to fail, and you will get back up. Metaphorical falling anyway, real falling can hurt, so we should still avoid it, but the feelings of shame don’t have to be there.

I’m reminded of a quote I posted on facebook the other day: “Feminism doesn’t know WTF to do with disability, because disability throws a huge monkey wrench into the gears of the feminist notion that we’re supposed to be strong, independent, and accomplished beings, healthy and full of power.” from http://www.disabilityandrepresentation.com/2013/07/30/why-this-disabled-woman/

On that note, I’ve decided to write an article for an anthology on the conflicts between feminism and disability, and would welcome any suggestions. :)