A. Ableism and Stigma

A recent Environics Research Group Report on Canadian attitudes towards disability-related issues found that while most like to think of themselves as being open to the participation of persons with disabilities in their day-to-day activities, many expressed significant discomfort with some aspects of relating to persons with disabilities, particularly those whose disabilities affect their communications, or where the disability involved “disfigurement” or behaviour that wasn’t considered “normal”.[17] Such negative attitudes and stigma form part of the basis of what some have termed “ableism”.

“Ableism” is a belief system, analogous to racism, sexism, or ageism, that sees persons with disabilities as being less worthy of respect and consideration, less able to contribute and participate, and of less inherent value than others. Ableism may be conscious or unconscious, and may be embedded in institutions, systems or the broader culture of a society.[18] Because attitudes and stereotypes may take different forms with different disabilities, ableism may manifest differently with respect to different types of disabilities, such as psychiatric, sensory or developmental disabilities.

Ableism may manifest in negative attitudes towards persons with disabilities, discomfort in their presence, and efforts to avoid them. These types of negative attitudes may have profound effects on the lives of persons with disabilities, not only in their social experiences, but in efforts to find and maintain paid employment, obtain and use services, and find adequate housing. Negative attitudes and stigma associated with persons with disabilities may create significant barriers to equality, dignity and participation, perhaps greater barriers than the actual impairment itself. These attitudes may affect the development and implementation of laws and policies. An example is the persistent use of zoning bylaws and definitions to exclude supportive housing for persons with psychiatric or intellectual disabilities from particular neighbourhoods, or to create additional barriers and requirements in the approval processes.[19]

Ableism may also result in a failure to address the real needs and circumstances of persons with disabilities. The Ontario Bar Association (OBA) has stated that:

The key change that must take place, therefore, is attitudinal or philosophical. Legislators have to act on the assumption that assistance, support and protection necessary to permit persons with disabilities to achieve equality and full participation in society are required as a right and are not offered as a privilege. The assumption has to be that society as a whole will benefit when persons with disabilities are encouraged and allowed to participate fully in society at all levels.[20]

B. Ignoring Difference and Exclusion from the “Norm”

Exclusion from the mainstream of society results from the construction of a society based solely on “mainstream” attributes to which disabled persons will never be able to gain access… it is the failure to make reasonable accommodation, to fine-tune society so that its structures and assumptions do not result in the relegation and banishment of disabled persons from participation, which results in discrimination against them.[21]

Persons with disabilities may find themselves excluded and disadvantaged, not because of negative attitudes, per se, but because laws, systems, policies and practices have been designed without consideration of the existence of persons with disabilities. An assumption is made, often unconsciously, that only those who are “able” will attempt to access the law, system, program or policy, and design choices are made that include only those who fall within this “norm” and exclude persons with disabilities who fall outside of it. The recognition of the barriers created in this way is core to the social approach to disability, and the identification and removal of these barriers has been a central aim for disability activism.

An example of this kind of exclusion of persons with disabilities from the “norm” is provided by Eldridge v. British Columbia (Attorney General). The individuals in this case were Deaf and communicated through sign language. When seeking health care services through a hospital, they found that the hospital did not provide sign language interpretation. This meant that, unlike other members of the population, they were unable to effectively and fully communicate with the health professionals attending on them. This was not a matter of negative attitudes or intent towards Deaf persons, but rather a failure to consider and respect their needs, or indeed their very existence, in the design of the delivery of hospital services. The Supreme Court of Canada ruled that this omission violated the equality rights of Deaf persons under the Charter, as without sign language interpretation, Deaf persons were not truly receiving the same health-care services as hearing persons. The Court stated that where governments provide a service, they must take steps to ensure that disadvantaged groups are equally able to benefit from those services.[22]

B. Social and Economic Marginalization

While many people with disabilities have high levels of education, and are fully employed and participating in their communities, persons with disabilities tend to face disproportionate levels of unemployment and low-income, and to face the extra challenges in terms of well-being and participation that are associated with unemployment and low-income.[23] Persons with disabilities therefore continue to experience social and economic marginalization and its consequences.

Low employment and low income has some roots in the barriers experienced early on by persons who are born with disabilities or develop them early in life. Barriers, both attitudinal and systemic, may reduce the opportunities of children with disabilities to receive an adequate education.[24] As well, the lack of supports for those who live with and provide care for children with disabilities mean that the families of children with disabilities are disproportionately low-income.[25] This early disadvantage has consequences throughout life. However, persons with disabilities tend to face lower levels of employment and higher levels of low-income even when compared to persons with a similar level of education and training, pointing to barriers in the labour market.

This social and economic marginalization has many consequences. Persons with disabilities experience lower levels of personal security, and are more vulnerable to violence and exploitation. They are, for example, significantly more likely to be victims of violent crime and domestic violence. Some have traced the vulnerability of persons with disabilities to violence and abuse to the persistent devaluation of persons with disabilities, and social systems that place them in disempowered relationships. [26]

Low income itself can form an additional barrier for persons with disabilities to participation and inclusion in society. Poverty creates barriers to adequate housing, to mechanisms for access to justice, and to civic and communal participation and engagement. For example, the OBA notes that:

Even where Courts and Tribunals are technically accessible to persons with disabilities, poverty remains a serious barrier to access to justice. The threat of cost awards, finding affordable representation, and locating counsel who have the experience, ability or even willingness to take the extra time required to represent a person with a disability, particularly a cognitive or mental health disability, all place limitations on the ability of persons with disabilities to defend their rights.[27]

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