austerity

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.


There’s been a lot of talk in this election about what we don’t want, but what about the kind of country we want for our future. I promised a post about this election, but it’s been challenging to wade through the bitterness, anger, and shameful outbursts of hate to find something worth writing about.

For the past decade this country has suffered the consequences of a paternalistic, patronizing leader who has been telling his citizens that they are mere taxpayers, and that he knows best. He’s wrong.

That said, there is a ray of hope.

There are pockets of people taking up space and raising their voices this election, Barrier Free Canada’s call for a Canadians with Disabilities Act is just one example.  There are also Canadians like Mohamed Fahmy, who spent years wrongly imprisoned in Eygpt due to government inaction, to return and remind us that we deserve better from those we elect, and we have the power to make change.

Such things are important, not just for the call to action itself, but for bringing back the demand for more than the status quo.

When Canada was first branded into being, many were denied the right to vote. Women, Aboriginal people (who paid a price in treaty rights), people of colour, disabled people all fought for that right. They fought for the right to vote, not so they could line their pocket books with less taxes, but so they too could be represented in a society they envisioned more equitable and just.

Regardless of who wins today, let’s take a lesson from those movements who dared to take up space, who called for a better world. Let’s not just vote, let’s honour them, today and all the days after that.

The Parapan Am Games, August 2015. I was at the Torch Relay a few weeks ago, and one of the speakers, a well-known member of the disability community, and founder of a disability organization said, “Here in Canada, we won’t see your disability”.

My jaw dropped. I wanted to believe that he hadn’t just said that like it was a good thing, but he did. In fact he went on about it for another few minutes with great enthusiasm.

I doubt anyone has gone from shameless fan girl to outraged disability activist as fast as I did in that moment, but it was an uncomfortable transformation that went something like this:

“Wait, what?”… “Are you kidding me?”… “Ok, any minute now he’s going to turn around and tell all the politicians behind him that they need to step up”… “Somebody must’ve put him up to this.”… “Nope, no, please just stop”.

He meant this as a positive statement I’m sure, I mean who wouldn’t want to live in a country where ableism doesn’t exist. I think the PR department forgot to tell the white guy with the microphone that Canada isn’t that country. If that country exists right now it probably has unicorns, wizards flying on brooms…and much better Games.

I want to believe this speaker meant well; he’s a Canadian icon. Maybe he’s just speaking from his lived experience.

Maybe he doesn’t realize that there’s disabled people still fighting for accessible transportation, like RAPLIQ in Montreal. Maybe he doesn’t realize people are fighting to keep their existing accessible transportation, like Save Handydart in Vancouver.

It’s not like Canada’s a country that still euthanizes disabled people, but it does do research to screen genes for disabilities, and let’s not forget the ableism in assisted suicide.

It’s a country were disabled people can move freely…unless you’ve have been forced to live in an institution (another example), or have a suicide attempt on record that prevented you from crossing the border.

It is a country where disabled people have free will, unless compliance with medication is forced on you, someone decides you’re too disabled to parent, or you’re a refugee seeking healthcare.

Perhaps it’s easy to be misdirected by the billions of dollars that was spent on the Games and forget we’re in a province that underfunds social assistance and social housing, still has high unemployment for disabled people despite the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, and the Guy Mitchell inquest.

If I may, let’s take a lesson from our Prime Minister on what not to do, and stop trying to make problems go away by pretending they don’t exist. Disabled people exist in Canada, and not seeing that is part of the problem. Shielding our eyes from oppression is not something to be proud of and it won’t make ableism disappear.

How about we focus on making Canada a country that sees disabled people, and sees them as an asset. That sounds like something to shout into a microphone.

For more on ableism see The Invisible Backpack of Able-Bodied Privilege Checklist.

Support a Barrier-Free Canada.

Privacy has a bit of a different meaning for me than most people. I hire people to help me shower and help me dress. This is not something I am ashamed of, or that makes me less than anybody else. I’m ok with it, partly because I’ve always had to live with it, but mostly because I get to choose who I am vulnerable with, this has not always been the case.

As I grew up with my disability this vulnerability was most often not within my control, and that was always difficult, always. When I was in elementary school more people had access to my body and its functions than I can count. I remember reading a poem about a butterfly pinned up in a shadowbox, and people were looking at it, checking it for flaws, and realizing how much I felt like that butterfly. I was told this was normal, I’m sure my parents were told this was normal, but it never felt normal. I was told it made things easier. I wonder if any of those professionals thought about how all of that public access to my body was going to be viewed by the teenaged me as she tried to claim her body as her own. How do you claim sacred space after years of no one asking your permission?

When I got older and on social assistance, privacy became even less tangible to me. To go on social assistance you sign over access to your bank records and your medical information, so you can maybe have enough money to cover rent and a little bit of food. Again I was supposed to be ok with this, because I have a disability, and there was nothing I could do about this for a long time, because I have medical costs, and it took ten years to find a job that someone hire me for. I signed over my life, and promised to live alone, so I could eat; we all do. I’m now working, and have for a few years, but it’s hard to shake that feeling of someone watching over your shoulder.

Many disabled men and women have experiences similar to these, and the chilling effect these experiences have is immense. We don’t need whistleblowers to tell us how the loss of privacy silences our voices. The worst part is that many of us who can speak out distance ourselves from those who are more marginalized, and we forget what it’s like. Then we wonder why we have leaders who fight for tax breaks and building codes while people sign over their privacy so they can eat and shower.

Today on the sidewalk there was a man in a wheelchair like mine singing for change. I gave him a toonie, what I wanted to give was my solidarity. If my life had different circumstances that could be me, and I can’t forget that. If we don’t hold each other up we will all be pushed down when they tell us what we disabled people should expect.

“…If we do not define ourselves for ourselves, we will be defined by others – and for their use and to our detriment.”
~ Audre Lorde

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

The Canadian Federation of Students national day of action is coming up Wednesday February 1, that’s right TODAY! Now more than ever it is important that students with disabilities show their numbers and advance the fight for accessible education in Ontario and around the country. This type of Canada-wide student day of action doesn’t happen very often, so even though it’s February, here’s a few reasons why students with disabilities need to make themselves heard:

People with disabilities are more likely to enter post-secondary education than the general population, yet we are rarely represented in our student unions, that is if we can even access our student unions (the Graduate Student Union at the University of Toronto is not accessible to people in wheelchairs, for example). Apparently the CFS in Ontario has a Constituency Group for Students with Disabilities, but until I decided to write this article I’d never heard of it, so it’s a fairly safe bet that neither have you. All the more reason to show student unions that we exist.

Despite our levels of education, people with disabilities still face many barriers to employment, discrimination being the biggest barrier of all. A great way to fight this discrimination is to make ourselves visible, and in the meantime lower tuition fees to make post-secondary education more accessible.

Activism can be really fun, and a great way to get to know new people. It might also help you to know that some institutions have Campus Students with Disabilities Groups (and I’m not talking about accommodation bureaucracy), so check them out too!

There is now a listing of all events to-date across the country, so be there and have a blast!

#OCCUPY. STRIKE. RESIST.
. . . How do we beat the 1%?

A one-day political conference
Saturday, February 4 from 11:30 am to 5:30 pm
Galbraith Building, 35 St. George Street, University of Toronto – wheelchair accessible
Organized by the International Socialists
Register online: http://bit.ly/Feb4conf
Strike Occupy Resist.jpg
With every passing day, the capitalist system spins deeper into crisis. Politicians, bankers and bosses are trying to force us to pay for their mess – by slashing our jobs, pensions and wages. But across the globe, people are fighting back. The Arab Spring has inspired resistance all over the world, general strikes have rocked Europe, and the call to #Occupy and resist was taken up in over 1,700 cities world-wide. Millions of people are beginning to question the logic of the capitalist system.
Join us for this one-day conference as we discuss the next steps of the movement and the best ways to challenge capitalism.
11:30 am to 12:00 pm: Registration and snacks
12:00 pm to 1:00 pm: Opening meeting
Room 1: Occupy, strike, resist: How do we beat the 1%?
1:00 pm to 1:15 pm: Break
1:15 pm to 2:30 pm: Workshops
Room 1: Capitalist crisis: What’s behind the Great Recession?
Room 2: Student power: How can students change the world?
Room 3: ‘Humanitarian intervention’ vs. national liberation: How do we help oppressed nations?
2:30 pm to 2:45 pm: Break
2:45 pm to 4:00 pm: Workshops
Room 1: Climate chaos: How do stop capitalism from killing the planet?
Room 2: Crisis and resistance: Fighting racism by any means necessary
Room 3: From strikes to revolutions: How can workers change the world?
4:00 pm to 4:15 pm: Break
4:15 pm to 5:30pm: Closing meeting
Room 1: Building an effective movement: The role of revolutionary organization
For a list of suggested readings, please visit http://bit.ly/Feb4read.