Activism

I’d like to start off with thanks. Thanks to the organizers for keeping this movement growing and strong, thanks to my fellow speakers, it’s an honour to be up here with you, and thanks to all of you (indicating audience) for being here today.

I’ve only got so much time, so I just want to note when I use words like women and men, I’m referring to how we each identify.

That being said I’d like to call on the cis-men for a moment. First, thank you for being here, and now that you are here I have some homework for you. Your task is to go back to your fellow cis-men and tell them all you see and here today, because the women around you have been doing that job for far too long.

I’m here for some of those women, and some that are not here.

I’m here for women fighting for disability justice and Mad Pride.

I’m here for women who couldn’t be here because they couldn’t leave their homes, or couldn’t afford to get here.

I’m here for people living for months in women’s shelters because they’ve got no accessible place to go. Or worse, living with those who abuse them.

I’m here for all of us who need an accessible, affordable place to live.

I’m here for women fighting to have families, and fighting to keep those families together.

I’m here for women who organize women, and those who are here for the first time.

I’m here to remember Kimberly Rogers, who died because Conservative politicians decided to get tough on social assistance, and I say never again!

We will not allow our sisters to be dragged into the darkness by Ford and his cronies who think they can separate us be redefining disability to serve their own agenda

We are disabled and mad women, we are in every community, and we will not go back!

A response to “Ontario Welfare Reforms Welcome News“.

Dear Editor,

I’m writing in response to the editorial posted on July 31, 2018 with regard to Ontario’s recent “welfare reforms”. As a front-line social worker, a former recipient of the Ontario Disability Support Program, and a current City Council candidate for Etobicoke-Lakeshore, I thought I might help you out by clearing up a few things in regards to what you mentioned.

You are correct, poverty has certainly gotten worse in the last 15 years. You are also right that Ontario’s social assistance system is far too bureaucratic, and that people living in poverty spend a lot of time being consulted, without seeing much change. Ontario desperately needs an increase in affordable housing. These are all problems we can fix in this province, with the political will to do so.

Many front-line workers are stuck in a system that first devalues people on social assistance, and then penalizes them for trying to earn a decent wage.

People without decent, affordable housing or food to eat have much greater barriers to finding work. Social assistance does not cover Toronto rent prices, let alone food to eat or transit fare to get to an interview.

Any sensible business person would know that when people are invested in and supported, they can participate more in the economy. Cutting social assistance rates, scrapping basic income, and lowering the minimum wage lacks common sense.

We deserve better, Ontario.

Sincerely,

Melissa Graham

City Council Candidate for Ward 6 Etobicoke-Lakeshore, and front-line Social Worker

Hello, my name is Melissa Graham, I’m a candidate in Toronto municipal election this year, in Ward 6 Etobicoke-Lakeshore.

The following statement is not just to address the amazing people following and supporting my campaign, but to my friends and family across Ontario.

The Big Smoke is in trouble Ontario, and we need your support.

Premier Doug Ford is trying to cut our city council, by nearly half, and we need your help to stop that from happening.

If Ford succeeds in passing these changes, it would mean that every city council member would be responsible for a population the size of the City of Thunder Bay.

Now I’ve been in Thunder Bay. It is a beautiful, diverse city on the shores of Lake Superior, with a strong indigenous community, a college, a university, a law school. They have unique cuisine like pet-a-han, and Persians. I’d love to represent a city like Thunder Bay if I lived there, but it’s simply too big and diverse for one person to represent. In fact they have 13 councillors serving an area, that Ford wants one person to serve here in Toronto

My Ward will still exist if this goes though, but being a City Councillor is a about a lot more than what goes on at city hall. City Councillors are the people you go to when your driveway keeps getting snowed in, or your housing provider won’t fix the elevator in your building. It’s about taking those calls every day, knowing what you community needs, and finding innovate solutions to meet their needs.

Our Premier wants us to believe this will save the province money, but a City without effective democratic representation can’t function efficiently. It also goes against principals of the Supreme Court of Canada.

That’s why I’m asking you Ontario, to think about what your democracy is worth, and contact your MPP today, especially if you live in a conservative riding..

With your help your local MPP can reject this plan, and we can get Premier Ford’s attention back on the province of Ontario where it should be.

Thank you for your support, and remember to vote on or before October 22nd!

Sincerely,

 

 

 

Melissa Graham

City Council Candidate for Ward 6 Etobicoke-Lakeshore

Strong Communities, Real Action

 

Dear Mayor Tory,

I write to you as a concerned citizen of Ward 6 Etobicoke-Lakeshore, and the City of Toronto, to request your support to continue with some accessible buses on the 501 streetcar line and other streetcar lines, and for shuttle bus service for major elevator disruptions, and that these items be reflected in the City’s budget for 2018.

Since January 2017, accessible replacement buses have been running across the 501 streetcar route during track reconstruction, this route is scheduled to return to inaccessible this month. Because the replacement buses are accessible and the streetcars are not, this construction has greatly improved my quality of life and that of many other TTC passengers.

Having accessibility on this line allows me to access my closest grocery store, rather than one much further away. It also made it possible for me to take a spontaneous trip to High Park with my young nephews. It made my trips from downtown shorter by half; a particularly safer option for a young woman such as myself when travelling at night to visit friends. I’ve also seen seniors have a much easier time getting to St. Joseph’s Hospital because of the accessibility on that line.

I’m not suggesting we stop having streetcars. Streetcars transport more people than buses, and that’s important. I also know that even if the TTC had all of the new accessible streetcars it ordered from Bombardier, we would still have old streetcars on that line, not enough streetcars were ordered to fully replace them. In short, there is no plan in place to return accessibility on the 501 route to levels experienced in 2017. If the 511 streetcar route can have buses due to a lack of accessible streetcars, the same can be done for the 501, and other routes.

Earlier this year, the elevator was down at Yonge and Bloor station, denying me and many others access to the Bloor line from that station for over a week. At Kennedy Station, that elevator has been down since October and is not scheduled to come back in service until January. The next closest accessible station is Victoria Park. There’s no shuttle service set up between stations either. It’s understandable that sometimes elevators break down, but passengers who use the elevators deserve shuttle buses just as they would have during any other service disruption.

In a world class city like Toronto, we know that people with disabilities deserve equitable service, on the TTC, and that starts with giving passengers with disabilities equitable dignity, respect, and consideration.  The budget for the TTC should reflect that as well.

I’m going to get right to the point here. An increased minimum wage is not harming disabled people. It is however doing a great job at highlighting the ableist and saneist bias that continues to exist within employment in Ontario and social services.

When Bill 148 was still being debate, there were some who used disabled people to make a shameful and disgusting argument against raising the minimum wage, because they felt that employers would not want to pay a disabled person $14 or $15 per hour. Mark Wafer is one such person.

People in the disability community might remember Wafer. He received a number of accolades and significant publicity for hiring people with disabilities at his business (which just happened to be a Tim Hortons franchise). He now works as a public speaker encouraging employers to hire people with disabilities. He just doesn’t think they’re worth the new minimum wage.

Today I was reading in the Toronto Star about how injured workers are getting less support from WSIB, since the rise of the minimum wage. This is true. Once a person is deemed “eligible to work” by WSIB, their supports are reduced by what that person would receive at a minimum wage job, whether or not they’ve actually found work. Finding work is difficult enough these days when you’re not injured or living with a disability. WSIB’s formula is hurting injured workers. This isn’t a new problem, but it’s one that needs to be resolved. Injured workers need our solidarity on this.

I have a full-time job that I have held for almost six years. I’m fortunate now, but it took me a long haul to find that job. As most disabled people who’ve looked for work have discovered, it may be illegal for employers to discriminate against someone with a disability, but there’s plenty of ways to avoid hiring someone with a disability.

Not so long ago I went for a job interview at a non-profit social service agency. I read the job description and felt well qualified for the job. I did well in the interview, but at the end of the interview they showed me a new description, one that had added snow shoveling, and asked me if there was anything on that list I couldn’t do. I wish that I had come up with some clever remark about converting my wheelchair into a snowplow, but instead I felt shamed. That story is not unique. Similar situations happen all the time.

We’d like to forget that until recently we still had sheltered workshops in Ontario, that there’s a whole industry around subsidized employment for disabled people, and that social assistance rates still haven’t recovered from the Mike Harris years.

Disabled people seeking employment are often blamed for their employment woes, but the reality is the job market is set against disabled people. Despite all the talk from governments about finding disabled people work, disabled people are still an often exploited and undervalued labour force, living in a system that would like continue to exploit us.

Disabled people are not the problem, and neither is the minimum wage. Disabled people have the same value as someone with the same job or skills. Disabled people are not responsible for the ableism in the job market.

Disabled people do need to start coming together, we need to start showing solidarity and stop letting ourselves be used as a wedge by those without our lived experience for their own gain.

The 7th Annual Toronto Disability Pride March Saturday, September 23, 2017 Starting at Queens Park (111 Wellesley Street West) and marching to the School of Disability Studies at Ryerson (99 Gerrard Street East) from 1:00 PM to 4:00 PM Why we’re Marching: To bring recognition of the struggles and value of people with disabilities as we fight against ableism … Continue reading About the March

via About the March — Toronto Disability Pride March

Presentation at the Canadian Disability Studies Association Conference 2017

Thank you to my fellow organizers and panelists. Before I get started, I’d like to identify myself within this conversation, as a white, employed person with a physical disability that is easily identified with, and the privilege that comes with those things. I also identify as a radical disability activist, knowing that I’m someone who has the privilege to be able to identify myself in that way without much repercussion. The presentation I’m giving today and the research behind it are given in recognition of that privilege, and knowing that the knowledge I share has built on the knowledge of others who may not have these privileges.

I’m also the founder and co-organizer of an annual event called the Toronto Disability Pride March, now in its 7th year. For those of you who may not be familiar with the march, it is a grassroots event lead by a small team of dedicated organizers. We highlight issues facing the disability and mad communities, and by prioritizing the voices of those of us who are the most marginalized. We recognize that the mad and disability communities are as diverse as the communities we come from, while turning privilege on its head. This is reflected in the speakers we call upon each year, but also in our organizing team. Our social media discusses subjects ranging from accessibility standards to Black Lives Matter and Idle No More to labor struggles, the lack of housing in Toronto, and the struggles faced by the many people living in poverty. It’s an amazing bubble of disability justice organizing that we’ve been fortunate to steep ourselves in for the last eight years without any government funded restrictions on the activism we do.

Like many such social justice bubbles, it becomes seductively simple to forget or overlook the reality that most disabled and mad people in Canada do not have these spaces. If these spaces do exist are often much less diverse and harder to plug into, they may seem detached or elite, or simply don’t connect with the day-to-day realities of people’s lives. Many disabled and mad people are connected in small local networks, but a great many others are on their own and left to tackle issues of oppression and discrimination in an individual way.

I’m going to be exploring two main groups of disability organizations today what I refer to as grassroots disability organizations and legacy disability organizations. Grassroots disability organizations are smaller, local organizations with minimal funding or structure, with a focus on a particular disability issue or event. The organizations have a short history, and they often make use of intersectional discussions and social media to increase public awareness to build political pressure in creating change. Legacy organizations tend to focus more on policy and programs, they have a long history usually spanning over decades, and have built strong relationships with governments, and potential funding organizations.

While grassroots disability groups have difficulty connecting with older legacy organizations, the reverse is also true. Legacy organizations seem to do their work outside of what’s happening on the grassroots level. It is the segregation between these two groups that brought about the research I present here. Some time ago I was asked to participate in a research project by legacy organization, asking why younger disabled people weren’t participating in activism. I don’t have my response, but it started with something like “perhaps we should re-examine this question”, and so I am.

To illustrate the bias in the research question of why younger disabled people aren’t participating in activism, allow me to use the example of a poverty group that I worked with back in the early 2000s. The group had a board structure, and was comprised of 50% community members who were people living on ODSP, and 50% service providers such as legal clinic workers and social workers. I sat in both categories as a social work student living on ODSP, and within a few years I was asked to Chair the group. By taking on that role I came to realize why the group had such difficulty communicating. While both sides of the table shared the goal of eliminating poverty, the two sides were not equal. There was a clear power imbalance between the two sides that the structure of the committee could not address. Different priorities in both the structure and goals of the committee were very clear, and both sides looked to me, as the Chair, to prioritize the needs of their group.

The bias is that legacy organizations have failed to acknowledge that a conflict between grassroots and legacy disability organizations exists, or that they may have some role in the conflict. While each group is passionate about disability rights, they end up competing for talking points within larger institutions, rather than working in tandem with each other, and this has led to a decreased effectiveness of the movement as a whole.

To understand this better, we need to have a look at the power structures that make up these groups. When we look at the structure of legacy disability organizations at the national and provincial levels we see a few common traits, a hierarchal board structure, members are voted in by other members of the organization. To become a member, you may have to submit a resume and letter of interest, or be in good standing with another organization. There is nothing inherently wrong with this process, but it is vulnerable to biases of power and instutionalization of historical beliefs about structures of power without much consideration for intersecting oppression.

Grassroots disability organizations do not have a very transparent structure. Their membership is not publicly posted as it is with legacy organizations, there’s no staff time, or experience staff changes with new projects. Members have their own vetting system, and much of the communication happens online or is not open to the public. For the Toronto Disability Pride March, our four-person organizing team was vetted by its members based on their past activities and skill set. The advantage grassroots groups have is in the fluidity of their structure, and their nimbleness for dealing with on the ground shifts in the movement. The recognition these groups gain comes primarily out of their collaboration with other groups.

When we look at other movements like Black Lives Matter and Idle No More, and the disruptions they’ve made; these are the types of struggles that legacy organizations were built on. Many legacy disability organizations were built on a history of struggle, and when those struggles succeeded, those projects became government funded organizations who could no longer advocate against their main funder. This has allowed strong disability projects to be co-oped outside of a disability lens.

Consider the case of the Canadians with Disabilities Act, as I discussed in a recent article I wrote called “Trudeau’s Accessible Canada includes Unpaid Work” (Graham, 2017).

Back in 2015, before the Canadian federal election, a movement of disabled people was building across the country. The call for a barrier-free Canada was built in that time by a small, dedicated group of people who reinforced their message daily through social media and on the ground action. Their methods were so effective, that what began as a grassroots call for national solidarity grew into a campaign promise by Trudeau.

What was mandated was more conversation, in the form of a seven month long cross-country consultation process with Canadian with disabilities. Consultations like these are a favored trend in the current federal government. Perhaps this is because they act as public evidence of some kind of action, regardless of how effective it is.

These events were heavily managed conversations. They seemed designed to give the appearance of consent, rather than provide opportunities for consensus and moving forward. At the public consultations, any participant that was given time to speak was restricted to a two-minute limit; a method that was inaccessible for many participants. There was the impression that the people who spoke were expected to be grateful for the opportunity to share their perspective, even when it’s only taken in limited amounts.

There were impressions that a lot of what was being said was being filtered out, and reframed to fit an agenda. Any comments referring to issues of discrimination in immigration, affordable housing, poverty, or anything involving active redistribution was notably left out. There was some potential raised for amending some existing regulations, but little else. The focus was clearly centered on employment, while carefully avoiding much of what keeps most disabled people in poverty.

This isn’t something new of course, in 2001 Michael J. Prince took a look at the state of Disability policy in Canada, and noted something he called deja-vu discourse as a government tactic in working with issues of disability policy. It included strategies like stressing gains made on the surface while overlooking structural gaps, consciously not taking action on particular measures, and promising additional action at some unspecified time in the distant future at which point the whole process would begin again. (Prince, 2004).

So why is this a problem? We are a country that still celebrates advocates that suggest our society would be better if we didn’t see disability. We see this during presentations at International Events like the Toronto Pan-Am Games when Rick Hansen proudly championed “Here in Canada we won’t see your disability” (Graham, 2016) This is also evident in many advertising campaigns where disabled children are framed in battle with their illnesses, or frames people as not disabled because they have other skills (Sick Kids Hospital Foundation, 2016), (Easter Seals, 2017). The dominant narrative is to bring disability into Canadian society rather than having it embraced as part of that society already.

For some of us this may be true, particularly those of us that are white, male, and cis gendered, perhaps these barriers are all they see of disability oppression. For the rest of us, disability is a construct and culture that impacts many aspects of our lives. It’s difficult to have an investment in structural change when working with those who are still invested in that system.

During the consultations I spoke of earlier, instead of reaching out to offer paid work to disabled people, they paid consulting firms to find disabled people to consult with. They were doing market research rather than accepting the expertise of disabled people in designing policies or programs. Disabled people were brought in as volunteers to act as champions, panels and facilitators, and provide unpaid consultation. This is a significant problem, and one that many disabled people are familiar with; recognition of expertise without status or compensation. Volunteers were put in a position of either feeling exploited or declining their knowledge, while government representatives proclaimed the need for more jobs for disabled people within the consultations.

The contrast between our political language around disability and the lived reality is most clearly seen when we can see past our privilege. The Excessive Demand clause in Immigration and Refugee Act is a strong example of this. I have many privileges in my life, but the one I’ve taken is for granted was my citizenship. If I had not been born a citizen of Canada I would not have been able to become one. My disability could be seen as an excessive demand on the health and social services system. This clause also impacts people with disabilities who are already citizens of Canada. As long as this exception is law, then our citizenships remain socially exceptional. It is impossible for Canadians with disabilities to find equitable treatment in this country when that which sets us apart bars other people from obtaining citizenship. We’re still sitting at the separate table.

Being a disabled person has power. Over the years since de-institutionalization, a lot of that power has been eroded by shame, doubt, striving for normalcy, and the idea that disabled people should either go to great lengths to hide this part of themselves or see disability as all that they are. During this time our political, societal, and economic structures have benefited from an invisible contributing force of disabled people. In the margins, we support economic structures though our spending habits and an intricate web of services that maintain the oppression of disabled people. By forgetting our power and hiding ourselves we remain invisible, or at least give society little reason to see us.

Policies and programs alone will not provide the systemic change that grassroots disability organization call for, and legacy organizations work to legislate. Change can only happen when a community recognizes its true power and collaborates with the community’s people live in to create that change.

In closing, I would like to finish this talk with some comments from disability activists I spoke with across the country, some from grassroots and some from legacy organizations. I asked them what they would like to see in creating a stronger disability movement.  Some suggested a greater use of technologies like slate, and conferencing systems, others pointed to a greater diversity of members that’s more representative of the communities we come from, still others pointed to great successes in working with labor, as in the struggle against community mailboxes back in 2015.

In all of these conversations there was a common thread. Grassroots and legacy organizations do see a place for each other, and to collaborate. There is also a realization that the disability community is not yet fully aware of its own power.

Yet that power still exists, as a people, we with disabilities show the world that there is no normal way; conventional ways were created by human beings, and they can be unmade. This is our shared strength. We must keep this torch lit, and visible to all who would challenge it. We can and we will take our power back.