international issues

Note: This is from a talk I wrote for earlier this week. I do have references and they will be added at some point today. Also, the language of disabled persons and people with disabilities are both used because of different preferences between the UK and Canada

We are seeing an increase in disability activism in the last few months, but there is history behind it.

The years of explosive strikes and growth in trade unions also saw the formation of the British Deaf Association and the National League of the Blind and Disabled (NLBD). Founded as a trade union in 1899, the NLBD affiliated to the Trades Union Congress three years later. Its members included blind war veterans, mainly working in sheltered workshops, who campaigned for better working conditions and state pensions. The league organized a national march of blind people on Trafalgar Square in 1920, carrying banners with a new slogan—”Rights Not Charity”. Despite the small numbers, its aims were widely supported. The first legislation specifically for blind people was passed in the same year, followed by more in 1938.

The long economic boom created space to challenge institutionalization and the patronage of charities, with significant numbers of disabled people joining the workforce. By the 1960s some had begun to reject their labelling by the professions as deviants or patients, and to speak out against discrimination. Inspired in particular by the black civil rights struggle, the disability movement began in the US.

An example of this shift was the “Rolling Quads”, a group of student wheelchair users at the University of California, who established the first Independent Living Centre in 1971. Within a few years hundreds more were created across the US and other countries including Britain, Canada and Brazil. Its opposition to institutionalization and stress on the self-reliance of disabled people was to give the independent living movement a lasting influence.

These days the movement has shifted again, with the development of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, many organizations that were once active advocates, are now relying on government legislation to provide their next steps, while they fight each other for funding scraps. While there are individual activists rising to the challenge, the movement is still divided by disabilities and class.

Some of you have heard me talk before about the connections made between the disability movement and the occupy movement, and the marches of thousands in the UK, fighting back against austerity and cuts to benefits. While these events are important to celebrate, it is also important to acknowledge the environment in which they happen.

The recession in the UK has already hit disabled people hard. The government’s huge public spending cuts include further attacks on inadequate but vital disability benefits. Their aim is to roll-back hard-won ‘social reforms’ affecting all sections of the working class. Understanding disability discrimination can therefore play a part in defending these reforms and uniting resistance to the attacks which lie ahead.

A recent report by Glasgow University Media Group found an increase in media articles on disability benefit fraud, comparing benefit cheats to muggers robbing taxpayers. Terms such as “scrounger”, “cheat” and “skiver” were used in 18 percent of articles in 2010/11 compared to 12 percent in 2004/5. Focus groups believed up to 70 percent of claims were fraudulent, justifying this by saying they had read it in newspapers. A survey last week found two-thirds of Britons actively avoid disabled people because they have no idea how to act around them.

The DWP admits fraudulent claims for sickness benefits are less than 1 percent of the total

Years of rhetoric about benefit fraud and “dependency on the state” have helped legitimize and reinforce prejudice and ignorance. And it’s not just the media. Tory MP Philip Davies recently claimed that disabled workers are “by definition” less productive, so could work for less than the minimum wage.

It’s hard not to read this without being reminded of the Harris years, and knowing that similar attacks could happen here.

The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (which Canada was one of the last to sign) creates a paradigm shift from viewing people with disabilities from a charitable perspective to the one of rights and inclusion. There is a very real fear that the austerity measures have the potential to infringe on the specific, or practical rights contained in the CRPD. These rights include the right to social protection (Article 28), the right to live independently in the community (Article 19) the right to mobility (Article 20).

The European Disability Forum Observatory is currently compiling data from across Europe on the impact of the cutbacks. The data they have collected could be argued demonstrates how the specific rights outlined above face an uphill battle to be implemented and in some cases are under threat of elimination. It outlines a variety of ways the austerity cuts are affecting people with disabilities, including cuts in social protection, being obliged to massive reassessments of disability status and an overall reduction in services.

The report gives examples of how countries such as the UK and the Netherlands have cut their supports for day-to-day living and personal budget schemes, which enable people with disabilities to live independently. Additionally, it pointed out how a recent decision by Spain to reduce supported employment for those with intellectual disabilities in could see up to 12,000 such jobs being lost.

Negative stereotyping of people with disabilities. While, the austerity measures are creating real hardship in the lives of people with disabilities. It could also be argued that they are also contributing to negative stereotyping of people with disabilities. The language and subtle messaging of describing disabled citizens as ‘expenditure items’ or as a ‘drain on economic efforts’ further contributes to the stigmatization of disabled persons.

In many countries people with disabilities remain locked in a state of virtual apartheid. They are forced to the fringes of society, ostracized from things that many of us take for granted such as getting a job or going on public transport.

So what can we do as a movement? BUILD CONNECTIONS. Reach out to people we see doing activist work, and connect them with related struggles. One of the biggest barriers people with disabilities faced is isolation. Even when groups of people with disabilities do become active, it is rare for allies to reach out.

I am still very encouraged by the theme for IDPD 2011 is “Together a better world for all”. As actions took place across the world last weekend, social media gave me a sense of international solidarity I hadn’t felt before, from wheelchair square dancing in Vancouver to a flash mob in Vienna.

Like I said before, IDPD 2011 has come and gone, but our struggles and resolve remain as ever.


IDPD 2011 has come and gone, but our struggles and resolve remain as ever.

Here in Toronto, the day was celebrated with a gathering at city hall. Where people with disabilities gathered despite the cold to share their stories. Though the day was not without it’s frustrations, like reporters who ask for my diagnosis right after my name as if that’s what defines me, the day was a clear success.

The International Day of Persons with Disabilities was commemorated in a variety of ways around the world, from a flash mob performance in Vienna and Amsterdam to wheelchair square dancing in Vancouver.

Then there were the stories from people that even those of us in th disability movement often overlook, such as refugees with disabilities, and people with disabilities in areas where some have never even heard of wheelchairs.

As the video above demonstrates, there are many barriers faced by people with disabilities internationally that many of us in privileged countries have almost forgotten. I for one am humbled of these reminders.

If there is a lesson I can take from this year’s IDPD, it is that he disability movement is shifting. It is no longer acceptable for the movement to take place behind closed doors, this genie is not going back in the bottle. What remains to be seen is whether some service providers will join us, some of whom have built themselves around the outdated myth of people with disabilities needing the able-bodied to move forward.

The UN challenged us on this day to find ways to build a better world together. Let us use the year ahead to take on that challenge, and maintain our visability as we fight for the rights of all people with disabilities.

The following is a speech I gave yesterday…


Good afternoon everyone, and thank you for inviting me to speak here today.

I think it’s impossible to have a discussion about activism without acknowledging that tomorrow is the International Day of People with Disability (IDPD). This is a day where people with disabilities across the world are encouraged to celebrate who we are, take stock of how we’ve come, and look forward to the struggles ahead. The United Nations encourages us to use this day as opportunity for inclusion and celebration, but also to organize and take action as we work to dismantle the barriers that keep us from full equality. Given the events of this past year, it seems appropriate that part of the theme for 2011 is “Together a better world for all”.

The UN noted that people with disabilities are largely excluded from civil and political processes and are overwhelmingly voiceless in matters that affect them and their society, but this year it seems we’ve found our voice.

In response to austerity cuts severely affecting programs similar to social assistance in the UK, people with disabilities took to the street in a “Hardest Hit” march. The organizers said about 5,000 people took part in the protest. Many travelled by coach and by train from as far a field as Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the south west to take part in what is being hailed the biggest gathering of disabled people in the UK the country had ever seen.

When the Occupy Movement began, people with disabilities were there, and welcomed in the fightback. When occupations sprung up across Canada in solidarity with the occupations in the United States, people with disabilities were among both the occupiers and people who support them. There is even a facebook page dedicated to the inclusion of people with disabilities in the movement.. People with disabilities were given accessible supports within the occupation in Toronto that would normally take months to receive in their day-to-day lives. This connection is an important one, because not only are people with disabilities part of the 99%, they are typically part of the lowest 1% of the 99%.

Here in Toronto, we were able to link the issues of the disability movement to the occupy movement through the Toronto Disability Pride March. On October 29th, 2011, one hundred people showed up at Nathan Phillips Square, and took to the streets to march down to the occupation, carrying signs that said things like “Build Ramps, Not Bombs” and chanting “ No Cuts, No Way! Tell Rob Ford we’re here to stay!” Shortly after this march, a similar event happened at Occupy Wall Street.

Since then, people with disabilities in Toronto have felt encouraged to be visible in their events and I think you’ll see this demonstrated tomorrow at the Winston Churchill statue when we celebrate IDPD. This event is usually city sponsored, but it slipped between the cracks this year, providing an opportunity for people with disabilities to take back the day.

Even with these great first steps, there is still much work to be done. The AODA has given us a focus on employment, transportation, the built environment, communications, and customer service, but there are still many inequalities that are left unaddressed by these standards. Issues such as low social assistance rates, and the attitudinal barriers faced in society also play a role in the isolation of people with disabilities.

In order to contribute effectively to society people also need to feel safe. This includes things like access to safe and affordable housing and feeling safe in society. Toronto is particular has experienced several situations in the past year and before that where people with disabilities have been harmed and mistreated by the police services set up to protect us. A particular image that comes to my mind was when a nine year old autistic child was handcuffed in a daycare, and the Toronto police considered this an appropriate action. Not to mention the countless incidents against people with disabilities that occurred during the G20. I would like to suggest that in a city like Toronto we can do better. I find it interesting also that while the American disability standards include best practices for police services in this regard, the AODA does not.

Experience shows that when persons with disabilities are empowered to participate and lead the process of society, their entire community benefits. Then how do we encourage those people?

The easiest way to get people involved in an issue is by talking about it Discussing an issue can actually be activism in itself, because it gets people thinking about how the issue impacts their life. This discussion can happen in an everyday conversation, a blog, a Facebook group, a radio show, or a larger event.

The five most important things to remember when working on an issues like this are:

  1. Avoid excluding people – everyone has something to offer, don’t discourage interest
  2. Be flexible – once your issue is a group issue, you’ve opened it up to people that may have different opinions that are also valid. Groups are dynamic, they change.
  3. Build alliances, this will help create critical mass and political will
  4. Prepare for your policy window, that right time when things can come together in a way that allows people to discuss these issues more openly.
  5. Have Fun – if you’re not having fun, it’s probably not worth doing.

Inclusion can come in many forms, all it takes sometimes is for someone to reach out and provide an opportunity, and we need this inclusion, especially from women and youth with disabilities who are so often left out of the picture. In honour of IDPD, I encourage all of you to please take up the touch and get involved. Together we can build a better world.


By Geeta Desai
Mumbai Mirror, January 26, 2010 at 11:03:45 AM

Visually-challenged protestors blocked the road outside BMC headquarters, in
front of Azad Maidan, for almost two hours on Monday, to press for their
demands of jobs in government and semi-government organisations.

The protestors, who were on a hunger strike for the past four days at Azad
Maidan, were upset that there was no response from the government, even
after they had sent many letters to Mantralaya and the civic body.

The protestors took the police by surprise when they suddenly decided to
occupy the road, thus blocking the flow of traffic. Given that they were
visually impaired, the policemen on duty just did not know how to react.

After nearly two hours of traffic coming to a complete standstill, DCP (Zone
I) Vishwas Nagre-Patil (l) was able to convince the group of
visually-challenged protestors right

The police then quickly called up their seniors, desperately seeking their
advice to deal with the situation.

On being told of the issue, every senior officer from the nearby Azad Maidan
Police Station rushed to the scene. They did their best to reason with the
agitators, urging them to stop blocking the road and return to the ground.

The group, however, refused to budge.

Vishwas Nangre-Patil, DCP (Zone I) was then contacted. He, in turn, tried to
pacify the crowd and coaxed them to move away from the road.

This went on for over an hour-and-a-half, before Nangre-Patil told the
protestors he would call up some ministers. The protestors, however,
insisted on none less than the chief minister himself coming to meet them.

Eventually, the DCP did call the CM and briefed him about the situation. The
CM then asked him to inform the protestors that they could meet him on
January 27, and he would hear them out.

No sooner did Nangre-Patil give them an assurance that the meeting would
happen, the group moved back to Azad Maidan, much to the relief of the
police and motorists alike

Reproduced from