When I retired in 2003, my Nova Scotia-born spouse and I moved to Halifax from Boston. Lock, stock and wheelchair. Family, friends, Canadian values, social justice, single-payer health, the great outdoors, the sea and Maritime culture all beckoned. We were here full-time until 2007, when it became too frustrating and impractical to continue. Why would I want to live in a place where my wheelchair and I are excluded every day, and told nothing will be done about it?
We now live half the year in Halifax and half in North Carolina, which:
- is a Right to Work state;
- is a death penalty state;
- has a spiffy new Constitutional Amendment banning same-sex marriage;
- allows open carry of handguns without a permit.
Why would anyone want to live there? Because:
- the winters are nice;
- my wheelchair is always welcome, thanks to a federal law that makes it so.
On Feb. 1, 1960, at Woolworth’s in Greensboro, N.C., four black college students sat down at a “whites-only” lunch counter. They were denied service and, when asked to leave, they refused. The Greensboro sit-in was a milestone on the road to civil rights. If you go to Woolworth’s in Greensboro today, you will find a museum filled with mementos of the Jim Crow south.
For wheelchair users, is there a difference between inaccessible restaurants in the Hydrostone Market in Halifax and the lunch counter at Woolworth’s? Never mind that wheelchair users can’t stage a demonstration by refusing to leave because they can’t even get in. For disabled Nova Scotians, is there a difference between back-of-the-bus and the completely separate transportation system called Access-A-Bus? In employment, is there a difference between no ramp and Irish Need Not Apply? In a democracy, should the MLA of a voter with disabilities have an inaccessible office? Maybe these examples don’t rise to the level of past racial injustices, but make no mistake – this is discrimination of the hurtful, malicious, deliberate, small-minded, ignorant kind.
Discrimination enables economic and social injustice. As demonstrated in hundreds of locations in Halifax, employers can openly signal refusal to accommodate qualified disabled employees. Complain to the Nova Scotia Legal Information Society or to your local MLA, but mind the step.
Four years ago, I made a representation that my fitness centre in North Carolina, operated by Duke University, did not meet accessibility standards. Within 30 days, a federal Justice Department mediator appeared, and within another 30 days, the problems were addressed. Appealing to Duke’s altruism would not have matched the authority of written and enforceable standards, which are critical.
Late last year, a gang of U.S. senators hijacked the ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Canada ratified it in March, 2010. Yet in the United States, people with disabilities enjoy broad social acceptance, integration and almost fierce equality. In Canada, they have only promises. How can that be?
In more than three years since ratification, Canada has neglected its obligation to implement and monitor the treaty, and currently has no plan to do so. Or even a plan to have a plan. Responsibility for reporting on progress (the first report is more than a year late) lies with the Department of Canadian Heritage, which says in best Catch-22 fashion on its website: “The Human Rights Program cannot consider complaints concerning individual cases of alleged human rights violations, and cannot give legal advice concerning such cases.”
The website link to the schedule for submission of Canada’s reports to the UN is broken.
Canada has so much to offer the world, but it needs to give more than lip service to the rights of people with disabilities. Fair treatment is an obligation and a promise, not just a courtesy.
Warren (Gus) Reed is former associate dean of admissions at Harvard University.