Disability Discrimination and the Glorification of Canada’s “Ruthless” Immigration System

Flag_of_Canada.svg

Image Description: Canadian Flag. A red maple leaf on a white background with red vertical stripes at either end.

Today I came across two conflicting news articles, one of them Canadian, the other American. They both deal with the Canadian immigration system but they come to vastly different conclusions. The American article which appeared in the New York Times entitled Canada’s Ruthlessly Smart Immigration Policy, glorifies the Canadian by the numbers immigration system. Conversely, a Global News report looked at Canadian grown advocacy against that same immigration system. Their primary concern, the fact that the system is discriminatory against disabled people.

I have written previously about how the Canadian immigration system actively discriminates against disabled people and what this means for the status of disabled people within Canada and abroad. When I first wrote that article, it garnered very little attention but since the election of Donald Trump as the president of the United States it has become one of the most consistently viewed pieces on my blog. As the issue is garnering attention again both in Canada and abroad, I think it’s time to revisit this issue in light of these two reasons articles.

Jonathan Tepperman, the author of the New York Times piece applauds Canada’s immigration system which is primarily a merit-based system. This means that immigrants to Canada have to meet certain criteria before they are able to immigrate to Canada. It differs from the American system which is primarily relationship based. Most American immigrants gain residency through a familial connection to someone already living in the United States. In Canada, family immigration is limited primarily to immediate families including minor children or a foreign citizen marrying a Canadian.

I am not going to actively compare the pros and cons of those two systems, I am however going to criticize again the Canadian system for how an almost entirely merit-based system leads to the systemic discrimination against disabled people. The Canadian immigration system actively excludes people on medical grounds. The natural consequence of this is widespread discrimination against disabled people within the immigration process.

Tepperman looks at the economic and educational outcomes for Canadian immigrants versus American ones and includes that the primary reason that outcomes in Canada tend to be more positive as a result of this merit-based system. He does not consider any of the other policy and legislative differences that exist between Canada and the United States. He does not consider how our government funded healthcare system for differences in education delivery and retraining might also have a significant impact on positive outcomes for immigrants in Canada versus those in the United States. He also does not consider the cultural differences between our two countries in which Canadians have a sense (accurate or not) that we are a welcoming and actively multicultural society.

Instead, he credits and extensively numbers based system which applies an economic value to human beings in determining whether or not they can have access to Canada. Regardless of the inherent discrimination that ultimately results from putting a dollar value on human beings.

Canada’s Immigration Minister claims that no one is automatically denied permanent residency in Canada based on disability and while this is strictly true it ignores how Canadian immigration policy is written in a way that disproportionately targets and excludes disabled people. It ignores the systemic discrimination in inherent in the way the law is written and also ignores how it is in conflict with the Canadian Constitution.

Section 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms states

(1) Every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination and, in particular, without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability.

Not only does the Constitution guarantee this equality, it also recognizes that for those groups recognized to be disadvantaged in gaining equality that additional measures might have to be taken in order to ensure that equality is achieved, it continues,

(2) Subsection (1) does not preclude any law, program or activity that has as its object the amelioration of conditions of disadvantaged individuals or groups including those that are disadvantaged because of race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability.

And yet, the Canadian immigration system specifically excludes people from immigrating to Canada on the basis of health status. It determines whether an individual is excluded based on whether it considers an individual to be a potential “excessive burden”. Whether or not someone is deemed to be an excessive burden is based solely on medical grounds.

As the activists profiled in the Global News piece point out, the potential cost of an immigrant on the Canadian system is potentially more than just medical. It also pointed out that the way the financial figure is reached is shrouded in secrecy and lacks accountability. This lack of openness contradicts Tepperman’s fantasy of a clear and honest merit-based system.

Ironically, while Tepperman decries the focus on familial relationships that dominate the American immigration system, it is familiar relationships that allow the few exceptions to disabled people immigrating to Canada. Those who do make it through the system do so most frequently as children whose parents immigrate for work. The children themselves are seen as having no inherent value having been labelled potential excessive burdens but in successful cases, they are seen as acceptable burdens in exchange for the perceived value of the expertise and labour provided by a parent.

This issue continues to be timely not only because the continued discrimination against disabled people should be fought and protested until it is abolished but also because of the particular political climate of the United States. One of the potential reasons that my previous piece on disability and immigration to Canada has in recent months garnered so much attention is because of how American Republicans have been attempting to rewrite American healthcare law. They are attempting to repeal Obama’s Affordable Healthcare Act and replace it with the BRCA (previously the AHCA). A healthcare bill which with the millions of people lose their healthcare coverage, see billions in funding removed from Medicaid and furnish a tax cut for the wealthy. People are justifiably frightened.

While previous elections have seen individuals jokingly stated that if the politician of their choice did not win that they would move to Canada, this election has seen that desire taken far more seriously. Unfortunately, those most likely to be negatively impacted by Donald Trump’s and the Republicans harmful policies are also those who are least likely to be able to escape falling victim to them. As a result, disabled people in the United States are fighting against these dangerous policies at the risk of arrest.

Canadian politics cannot help but be impacted by the realities of the current American government. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has utilized Canada’s softer reputation to create an image of opposition to the harsh realities of Donald Trump. One way that he does this is by claiming that all people are welcome in Canada.

Even though this tweet was written specifically in response to the American response to refugees, it is nevertheless false. Trudeau conveniently seems to forget that while Canada does take many refugees, it still actively limits the number of people that it will welcome into the country. Trudeau’s false universality and welcome also can be taken as hypocritical in light of how discrimination is coded into Canada’s immigration system. Human diversity after all includes disability.

Trudeau’s disingenuous image of universal welcome is also not limited solely to Twitter. He also made statements during his speech on Canada Day (July 1). He stated,

Louis St. Laurent referred to Canada as a place where people joined their talents without merging their identities and it’s true, Canada is a country made strong not in spite of our differences but because of them. We don’t aspire to be a melting pot, indeed we know true strength and resilience flows through Canadian diversity.

Ours is a land of original peoples and of newcomers and our greatest pride is that you can come here from anywhere in the world, build a good life and be part of our community. We don’t care where you’re from or what religion you practice or whom you love. You are all welcome in Canada.

(This section translated from French) But don’t forget that if Canada today is a truly multicultural country, outward looking and open to the world. This did not happen by accident. A 150 years ago, the very existence of our country depended on our ability to accept the notion that citizens of the same country could speak different languages and have different cultures. It all depended on peaceful and active coexistence between people different from one another. Over time, the bilingual character of our country has become a central and defining part of our identity… Across this country we speak French and English and hundreds of other languages.

(English again) And so, diversity has been at the very core of Canada. It’s the foundation upon which our country was built. We may be from every colour and creed, from every corner of the world…We embrace that diversity, while knowing in our hearts that we are all Canadians.

This is a particularly rose-tinted view of Canadian diversity and it is also a lie. Trudeau is far too fond of saying that everyone is welcome in Canada. He does not solely extend this supposedly welcome to refugees, his Canada Day statements are broader than that. The broader the intention the more clear the inaccuracy of the statement.

This is particularly relevant to how Canada and the United States deal with refugees. Our two countries have a “safe third country agreement” which bars refugees who have reached one of the two countries from gaining refugee status in the other. This has caused particular concern for some refugees in the United States who feel the current political climate is unsafe for them. Some of these people have decided to attempt to cross the Canadian border illegally in an attempt to get refugee status in Canada. Illegal border crossings can quite literally be disabling. Crossing the border can be dangerous and particularly if it is done in winter can result in people becoming disabled.

Trudeau’s false welcome to everyone beckons people closer to Canada only to potentially shove them away whether those people are refugees or simply disabled people seeking to immigrate.

Not only does our unjust immigration system needs to be overhauled as a matter of human rights and as a matter of justice. More presently as Canadians, we must consider that for those of us who stand in solidarity against Donald Trump’s policies. For the thousands who attended satellite Women’s Marches or who travelled to the United States to participate alongside our American friends. We must ask ourselves how accessible is our resistance. How welcoming will we be to disabled people who seek to come to Canada for fear that American legislation and policies threaten their lives? For those refugees who seek to leave the United States and come to Canada, will we care for them if they find themselves permanently injured along the journey. Will we demand that the spirit of Justin Trudeau’s words become our actual reality and insist that diversity in Canada includes disability?

 

If you liked this post and want to support my continued writing please consider buying me a metaphorical coffee (or two or more). Donations help me keep this blog going and support my ongoing efforts to obtain a PhD.

Buy Me a Coffee at ko-fi.com

Advertisements

But it Wasn’t Designed for You: How Ignoring Accessibility Becomes the Excuse for Perpetuating Inaccessibility

I am sick of seeing people responding to evidence of inaccessibility with “but it wasn’t designed for you”. This argument has been used to both try and shut down calls to make inaccessible things more accessible (which is what I’ll be focusing on) and to limit access to accessible things that have been deemed unnecessary to nondisabled people (see my piece of accessibility to fresh food here for an example of that).

So the much anticipated augmented reality game Pokemon Go was released in several countries last week (though not Canada yet). It is already wildly popular and has had a noticeable impact on Nintendo stock prices.

The game–which is based on one originally released for Gameboy and which also had a television series and card game–allows smartphone users to find and catch pokemon in the real world.

Since it’s release it has been criticized for being inaccessible to many people with disabilities. The game requires that players actually be able to get around public spaces to find the pokemon and visit pokestops (which provide players with necessary items for the game) and train at gyms.

For people with limited mobility or who have difficulty leaving their homes. The game is entirely inaccessible because movement is completely tied to an individual’s GPS location.

I am going to spend less time talking about the accessibility issues of Pokemon Go itself because others are already doing that better than I could. I am instead going to use the game and people’s reactions to having its inaccessibility highlighted as a timely way of addressing how people’s  reactions to inaccessibility being called out end up justifying and perpetuating that inaccessibility.

When a new product is called out for being inaccessible or when disabled people advocate that a company make an inaccessible product more accessible, two related arguments inevitably come up.

  1. This game wasn’t made with you in mind.
  2. You are not the target demographic.

On the face of it these arguments seem identical but there are some key differences. In the first case, the exclusion may just be an oversight but it is one that will be justified as an understandable lapse.

The demographic argument works best when a product is made with a specific demographic market in mind.

The problem is that with the first argument it is far to acceptable to brush off inaccessibility as “oh well, I guess this one thing just isn’t for you” despite the fact that it is very far from being “just one thing” and is in fact representative of a widespread problem. It is far to common and easy to ignore whether a product or service is inaccessible.

In order to head off reactionary comments, I am not arguing or suggesting that everything can or should be made accessible for two reasons.

  1. Accessibility is not and never will be a one size fits all phenomenon.
  2. There are just some things that people with certain disabilities shouldn’t do for reasons of safety. For example, I have a weak arm and should for my own safety and the safety of others never operate a chainsaw. So I’m not going to go after chainsaw manufacturers to their products because I shouldn’t.

So please don’t send me a rant about how [insert random unrelated product or service] is either essential but still inaccessible or which regardless of redesign cannot be made safely accessible.

When disabled people point out accessibility issues it is usually because a.) they think with some tweaking the thing itself could be made accessible or b.) they are expressing a consumer desire to have someone redesign an inaccessible thing to be accessible. It is not a wholesale attack on all things.

So continuing on I am now going to address the “they just didn’t have you in mind” argument. There are way to many things that just happen to be inaccessible because the creators either didn’t consider disabled people or determined that accommodating the would be to time consuming. Far to many of these products (Pokemon Go included) could be made accessible or have accessibility mods added on if the creators cared to put the effort in.

The fact that far to many don’t is where this argument of “oh they just didn’t make it for you” really falls apart. Almost nothing that is available to the general public is made with disabled people in mind. We are far to frequently relegated to the realm of “niche target market” catered to primarily by medical companies or adaptive technology companies.

This leaves us out of far to many mainstream pass times. This is where it stops being an oversight and becomes a problem where out exclusion and reliance on only specialized targeted products and indicative of systemic and socially acceptable exclusion.

As a target demographic we are also treated differently, with products geared towards us specifically only made available in specialty stores.

In terms of a more mainstream understanding of target demographic, we are still separate because generally target demographics are based on goals and an understanding of who will be interested in a product. Not actually mandating who can use it.

People use products not expressly geared toward them all the time without consequences. The problem comes not from who a product is targeted at but at who is expressly excluded from using it.*

But back to Pokemon Go. Where does it fit into all this? The game itself  has a very broad demographic target. It is as much as any single product can be geared to everyone.** This is what makes the complete lack of consideration of disability so frustrating because it is a case of “this is actually for everyone except you”.

The sheer scale of the game’s popularity only emphasizes this fact.

So, I would ask that any person who reacts dismissively to calls for more accessibility (whether it is in Pokemon Go or anything else) to ask themselves

Why is this request making me so uncomfortable?

I would then ask you to express solidarity, to show companies that you actually are comfortable sharing space (and pokemon) with disabled people. Tell companies that disabled people deserve accessible products and don’t deserve to be forgotten or an afterthought.

 

 

*I am aware and do not wish to minimize the fact that there are certain industries which don’t expressly forbid people from outside their target demographics do create cultures within those industries which are very unwelcoming and often abusive to people who are seen as outsiders.

**It is also important to note that disabled people are not the only group criticizing the game’s inclusivity (see here for another example).

Mentioning Disability is not an Invitation for Commentary or an Inquisition

I think one of the clearest examples that I experience regularly that disability is not an accepted experience is that I can’t casually reference the experience of being disabled without being met with either pity or inappropriate questions. Sometimes it is both.

For me disability is a huge part of how I experience the world. It impacts how I do every day things. If it is relevant I should be able to reference it in the same way a nondisabled person talks about their day.

When I reference my disability or how it impacted an activity (like referencing how I had to do something differently than the norm). I am not looking for pity. But I all too often get it.

Or in a situation where I am airing a grievance based on discrimination, where empathy (though I usually get pity) is appropriate, it is misplaced. People are sorry that I am disabled not that I experienced discrimination or prejudice.

I have written about how nondisabled people often treat disabled people like public spectacles before. Here, I’m going to address how casual acquaintances try to legitimize inappropriate questions about disability.

This isn’t about those people who accost disabled people on the street to ask “what’s wrong with you?”

Rather this is about those people who you are conversing with casually who take the remotest reference to disability to ask “what’s wrong with you?” even when that question is not a natural progression of the disability reference.

These encounters often involve social coercion on the part of the questioner to get you to answer.

The scenario might involve a peer at work or a fellow guest at a party. They are people who can have genuine reasons to speak to you. They will also use the circumstance of being at work or surrounded by other people to force compliance because failure to comply could have consequences.

For example, you are attending a bridal shower for a close friend but it is being hosted by that friend’s future in-laws so the only person you really know is the bride. Everyone else is either a future in-law or one of their close family friends. As often occurs in these situations people ask what you do.

For me this brings disability up basically immediately because I’m a Disability Studies student. It’s a miracle is people don’t immediately move a conversation about what I study to what I am. Usually, telling someone you are a student elicits questions about the program and what you are planning on doing after graduation.

Not so if you are both disabled and a student of disabilities. Somehow, people see to think that asking about my medical history is a perfectly natural progression from me saying that I study disability. It is always quite clear in these conversations that people aren’t just ascertaining whether I have a personal stake in my field. That could be more respectfully determined by asking why I chose disability studies.

A question like that also would allow me to determine what information I am comfortable sharing. Demanding someone’s medical information is about entitlement and voyeurism. Waiting for a disabled person to make even the vaguest reference to disability first does not make it more acceptable.

Making that demand in front of other people is just coercive. Particularly if refusing will put you in a awkward position. Either with the questioner or in keeping with the bridal shower scenario with the bride.

I have found that simply telling people that you don’t want to share that information is rarely received gracefully when the request originated as a demand.

People tend to realize that a refusal is also a message that the question was inappropriate so they feel the need to justify their right to ask it and shame you for noncompliance (remember this is not a private conversation but one that is happening in earshot of other people). So they ask follow-up questions.

You’re doing a PhD in disability studies, shouldn’t you want to educate people about disability?

The answer I wish I could give: Yes, and an integral part of teaching about and advocating for disabled people is making clear boundaries. It does not benefit disabled people to reinforce the idea that our lives and bodies are available for public consumption.

Additionally, as you point out I am doing a PhD in disability studies which means that in addition to my years of experience as a disabled person, I have spent years and tens of thousands of dollars becoming this qualified. University professors don’t work for free so why should I? If you would like to agree to an hourly rate, I’d be happy to share my extensive knowledge with you. Like any work arrangement though I have the right to have my medical privacy respected and I will not be sharing any personal information unless I choose to do so.

I am just trying to learn, why won’t you educate me? Don’t you want people to understand?

The answer I wish I could give: Setting boundaries is a lesson in respect. If you really wanted to learn, you would accept that lesson rather than expecting me to give you personal information which in the grand scheme of things would tell you nothing about the experience of being disabled. It really only serves to parrot information that can be found in a medical textbook or on WebMD.

 

Ultimately as much as I want to, I don’t say those things. More often than not I just give them the information that they want. This invariably leaves me feeling horrible. The consequences for noncompliance however are greater. In the bridal shower scenario it would put my friend in the awkward position of either defending me or defending a future family member or friend. Either alienating me from them or them from family.

These more public confrontations risk more than angering a single person but can have wider consequences from witnesses who are often just as curious as the original questioner. It is usually easier and often safer to comply in the short term and if the questioner is someone that you are likely to have repeated contact with (like a coworker) consider taking action to change the environment in the long term.

I wish these interactions didn’t happen at all. I wish people’s express desire to learn was genuine and not a convenient excuse to justify inappropriate behaviour. So in case you do genuinely want to learn about disability and don’t want to be an asshole in the process here are a few tips.

If you are able, make an effort to educate yourself on your own time. Read blogs by disabled people. Read academic disability literature (some disability studies journals like Disability Studies Quarterly are public access and can be read for free by anyone).

If you are talking to a disabled person, don’t take any vague reference to disability as an invitation to ask probing personal questions. Make sure any follow up questions are directly related to the person’s original reference.

Let the disabled person decide how much they are willing to share and respect their privacy and boundaries.

Recognize that diagnosis information often says very little about the actual lived experience of disability and should not be considered essential to learning about it.

What Canada’s Immigration Policies Say about the Status of Disability in Canada

Every so often in Canada (and other countries but I’m focusing on Canada here) a sad story will appear in the papers. It’s one that we’ve seen before and will unfortunately see again. A family has been denied permanent residency because a family member (usually a minor child) is disabled. The most recent iteration of this recurring story involves the family of York University professor Felipe Montoya. The Montoyas were denied permanent residency because their son, Nico has Down Syndrome.

Nico is being refused under Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Protection Act under health grounds. The relevant section of the act maintains that someone can be denied permanent residency in Canada if,

 

  •  (1) A foreign national is inadmissible on health grounds if their health condition

    • (a) is likely to be a danger to public health;

    • (b) is likely to be a danger to public safety; or

    • (c) might reasonably be expected to cause excessive demand on health or social services.

 

Nico is being refused under the third subsection about the potential drain on health or social services.

This portion of the Act is a catchall which is used to summarily refuse residency to disabled people. It places a burden of proof that affects no other applicants as regards health. At least the first two subsections are dealing with immediately identifiable issues like whether a person is currently ill. The third however requires disabled people to prove that they will never be seriously ill or that their conditions will not deteriorate. While the wording suggests that the risk of expense must be reasonable to apply, in practice it becomes swiftly apparent that the presence of disability regardless of whether or not the individual is currently in need of expensive treatment or services or if those services might require alternate funding anyway.

There is no onus on a nondisabled applicant to prove that they will never contract cancer, experience a disabling accident or simply experience prolonged unemployment necessitating the use of social supports. This is however completely impossible to guarantee. It is also entirely impossible to prove that a disabled applicant will be a burden on the Canadian public.

The thing is, that this section of Canadian immigration legislation is of questionable constitutionality. It also most definitely does contravene the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD).

Section 15 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms states that,

Equality Rights

Marginal note:Equality before and under law and equal protection and benefit of law
  •  (1) Every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination and, in particular, without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability.

  • Marginal note:Affirmative action programs

    (2) Subsection (1) does not preclude any law, program or activity that has as its object the amelioration of conditions of disadvantaged individuals or groups including those that are disadvantaged because of race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability.

You will notice that 15(2) directly states that laws or actions that encourage the equal treatment of the protected groups listed in 15(1) are allowed. This means that the financial hardship argument found in immigration legislation in regards to disabled applicants is flimsy at best. Legal jurisprudence on the issue of constitutional exceptions for financial reasons bares this out, with the courts having

stated its intention to continue to view budgetary justifications for Charter breaches with scepticism, “because there are always budgetary constraints and there are always other pressing government priorities.”

And yes, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms applies to all laws, even those dealing with nonCanadians such as immigration law.

The problem here is not that Canada’s immigration law is constitutional but that the government will maintain a convenient discriminatory and unconstitutional law until someone raises a Supreme Court Charter Challenge. They are gambling that people unfairly affected by unjust laws will not have the money or years to invest in a Supreme Court challenge (and yes Charter challenges take years, even the successful ones).

When the Charter was first proposed people were hopeful particularly as regards section 15 that marginalized people would not have to fight for legal protections anymore. It was hoped that the Charter would force the government to be proactive in aligning Canadian legislation with the Charter. Unfortunately this has not been the case and people have repeatedly had to fight for the supposed rights that the Charter claims to guarantee.

The government bets that people won’t have the time, money or energy to fight and doesn’t back down when they do. They do this despite the Charter and despite the UNCRPD which Canada has ratified. Article 18 of the UNCRPD directly states that

1. States Parties shall recognize the rights of persons with disabilities to liberty of movement, to freedom to choose their residence and to a nationality, on an equal basis with others, including by ensuring that persons with disabilities:

  1. Have the right to acquire and change a nationality and are not deprived of their nationality arbitrarily or on the basis of disability;
  2. Are not deprived, on the basis of disability, of their ability to obtain, possess and utilize documentation of their nationality or other documentation of identification, or to utilize relevant processes such as immigration proceedings, that may be needed to facilitate exercise of the right to liberty of movement;
  3. Are free to leave any country, including their own;
  4. Are not deprived, arbitrarily or on the basis of disability, of the right to enter their own country.

2. Children with disabilities shall be registered immediately after birth and shall have the right from birth to a name, the right to acquire a nationality and, as far as possible, the right to know and be cared for by their parents.

18(2) is particularly important to one case of refusing a Yukon family residency because in this case the disabled child was born in Canada and thus a Canadian citizen but because the rest of the family were noncitizens, when they were deported, they had to choose to either take him with them (and saving Canada the cost of his care) or leaving him behind (ensuring care but depriving them of him). Basically, Canada was able to deprive a disabled Canadian citizen of his rights by forcing his noncitizen parents into an impossible choice.

It’s hard to know just how often this sort of exemption actually happens. We tend to only hear about it if the family fights back. It is impossible to know how many simply accept their rejections and return to their countries of origin or are denied entry to Canada in the first place.

When stories are publicized, they are frequently very sympathetically presented (even in cases where writers are not opposed to the exclusionary nature of our immigration law. see here for one such example focusing on the Montoya case). I suspect it is because people see these stories as exceptions. The fact that they frequently focus on children also helps tug at people’s heart strings. This certainly seems to have been the case for Canadian comedian Rick Mercer who devoted one of his famous rants to the Montoyas case

While Mercer has some fantastic things to say in his rant. He acknowledges that Nico Montoya will grow up and that in no way undermines his value as a person. He calls out the ridiculousness of predicting how much of a burden someone will be and the related assumption that this means that person has nothing to contribute.

It is however a bit disheartening that Mercer doesn’t appear to realize that this issue is bigger than kids with Down Syndrome. He says,

Apparently there is a war on kids with Down Syndrome that I was completely unaware of.

If he had just stuck to commenting on this particular case or other cases involving permanent residency, I would let’s be honest still be annoyed because the issue is far more encompassing than that but I can understand that sometimes the bigger issue is to huge to tackle all at once. My issue starts with the fact that he doesn’t seem to realize that there is a bigger issue. He goes on to say,

What’s next, we’re gonna say that family can’t come in because that kid in grade eight just failed his math test, or that one’s got a funny foot (emphasis mine)

He says this as though it would be utterly unthinkable to deny someone residency on the grounds of having a “funny foot” but the fact of the matter is that it could very well be a reason for exclusion.

The reality is that this affects more than just kids with Down Syndrome. Hell, it affects more than just kids. Consider Chris Reynolds who was 21 when he was deemed inadmissible on his family’s permanent residency application. His father, Thomas E. Reynolds is a professor (there seems to be a trend here) at Emanuel College at the University of Toronto. Chris was refused on the grounds of his Asperger’s Syndrome diagnosis. This despite the fact that all of his medical expenses were covered by his father’s private insurance, not medicare. There is no followup to the case that I could find but Dr. Reynolds is still listed as faculty at Emanuel College so I can only hope that his reapplication for the family to be considered for permanent residency on compassionate grounds was successful.

Consider also the case of Eniko Reka Kincses and her daughter Boglarka who were denied permanent residency because Boglarka has cerebral palsy. In this case the Saskatchewan government (where they were living) intervened and they were allowed to stay but the reason is worth highlighting,

Health Minister Dustin Duncan and Economy Minister Bill Boyd penned a joint letter of support for the Kincses family to federal officials.

They said Kincses [the mother] was a valuable, skilled worker and assured the federal government the province was willing to cover Boglarka’s “minimal” health care and social services needs”

Enika Reka Kincses wanted to open a care facility, so that she could not only provide care for her daughter herself but would also provide a service that the province sorely needed. Saskatchewan did not see any particular value in Boglarka but rather thought that her assumed deficits were outweighed by the skills of her mother.

This is a trend that continues in both the Montoya and Reynolds cases. The skills and contributions of the parents are highlighted as is to say “on balance if we let them stay at least we benefit from the work of the parents”. Sure, these stories tug at the heartstrings regardless but it’s hard not to wonder how many stories we don’t hear because the parents aren’t highly skilled as an offset to their child’s disability. These stories are more palatable because the disabled person comes with a consolation prize to offset the possible burden they may one day pose.

Disabled people in these scenarios are not seen as having any inherent value beyond that they may be cute children. This is bad enough in the context of what it says about disabled people trying to enter Canada. The problem worsens when you realize that this is essentially how Canada views its disabled citizens.

If disabled Canadians were viewed as having inherent value it would be harder to argue for this discriminatory immigration policy. What the Canadian government and public have to say about foreign disabled people is likely to be a reflection on how those of us who are here by right of birth are viewed.

In order to foster an inclusive society, Canada needs to show that they value all disabled people. Not pay lip service to focusing on those of us who are already here. It’s a little hard to argue that we are valued members of society when people are being excluded from the country for being like us.

Changing the law would not only improve the lives of disabled applicants because they would be considered on their merits (yes they have them, no I’m not suggesting we just let everyone in who applies) rather than have them rejected on grounds that are not only protected under the Charter but in line with international human rights agreements.

Now as I mentioned above, I know Canada is not the only country with discriminatory immigration laws. Everyone seems to be of the opinion that if they open their borders to disabled people, suddenly we will all descend on that country en masse. Again I’m not against all immigration policies so this is absurdly reactionary. Also this mentality fails to recognize that when disabled people are treated like everyone else, we tend to behave like everyone else because here’s the thing that people also miss, if disabled people can come to Canada, we can also leave. People tend to immigrate because they are offered further opportunity elsewhere but I and my fellow disabled Canadians do not have that option despite it being directly addressed in the UNCRPD.

Exclusionary laws like current immigration policy clearly show that the supposed equality we are guaranteed in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms is still little more than a dream. We are in practice little more than tolerated and then only if there is no other option.

It is time Canada led by example and fixed it’s discriminatory immigration policy because both our constitution and international agreement. Changing the law will create a legal precedent to stop the far to common excuse that disabled people are first and foremost burdens. The mentality that allows the odd story of exclusion to hit the news and illicit sympathetic emotions for exceptional cases where there is a cute child or the government seems to have overreached or the loss of a highly qualified parent makes the gamble worthwhile but glosses over the inherent discrimination that created those scenarios in the first place. People don’t want to look at the bigger picture, they are happy to get self-righteous on a case by case basis but ignore or actively support the wholesale exclusion of disabled people.

Changing the law won’t erase prejudice and discrimination in Canada but it will make it harder for those with discriminatory attitudes to justify them. But first the Canadian government needs to address it’s reliance on that prejudice and set an example not only for Canada but for the rest of the world as well. It may become harder for other countries to rationalize their own discriminatory immigration laws with Canada leading by example and advocating for change.

In the end it will help disabled people at home and abroad.

 

Nike’s Shoe for Disabled People Doesn’t Include Disabled Women

A headline from People proclaims “Nike’s New Sneaker Will Solve a Very Important Problem for People with Disabilities“. Similar headlines can been found from USA Today, Huffington Post, Glamour, and so many more. Another key article title  comes from theshoegame.com it reads “Nike Designs Flyease to Improve the Quality of Life for Disabled Athletes“.

All of these articles are talking about Nike’s new FLYEASE technology which allows a person to put on a shoe by opening the heel and just sliding their foot in and closing the shoe around the heel. The new design removes the need for laces. So for those of us with hand dexterity issues, shoes using this technology are a breakthrough.

I have been seeing the articles about the shoes, Nike FLYEASE Zoom soldier 8 everywhere around the internet for the last few days including on blogs specifically devoted to disability issues.

Most of the press around the new shoes includes references to Nike’s mission statement which includes the line “If you have a body, you’re an athlete”. Which is a great sentiment. Too bad it took Nike this long to include disabled people as a targeted market.

All of the run up marketing for the shoe’s release today has had a focus on all disabled people and includes this video from Nike explaining the inspiration for the shoe and why it’s important to include disabled people.

The video talks about both a Nike employee who had a stroke and a young man with cerebral palsy. Both of whom were instrumental in having Nike design the technology and having them bring it to market. The video is very clear about the wide ranging applications for shoes like this. Designer Tobie Hatfield says “it’s not just about stroke victims. It’s not just about cerebral palsy. It’s about all of it and thus the FLYEASE technology”

The language surrounding the technology and the shoes is so universal that you might believe it when they say disabled athletes or people with disabilities. I did.

I waited for today (the official product launch and googled Nike Zoom Soldier 8. I found them at Footlocker, they seem to be selling well as many sizes are already unavailable (or they just seriously understocked).

The problem, they are only available in the Men’s section. There is no corresponding design for women. So when they were talking about people with disabilities and disabled athletes. They really meant men with disabilities.

I thought that I must be mistaken so I searched for FLYEASE and women and got nothing. I went to shoe websites and searched new Nike arrivals for women and still no accessible shoe for women.

The product news announcement on Nike’s website doesn’t mention a separate launch for a women’s version of the shoes. Just a lot of talk of including disabled people even though women don’t seem to be included.

So if everyone with a body is an athlete. What about disabled women’s bodies? Do we get shoes too? Or was there some mistake and I just haven’t found them yet?

Seriously Nike, let me know.

Update:

I e-mailed Nike about this and their response so far boils down to “we’re looking into it”. If I get anything more concrete I’ll update again.

When is Language Ableist or Offensive

Comedian and disability rights activist Maysoon Zayid was recently featured in a Think Big video where she advocates for disabled people being given opportunities to be cast in film and television roles where the character is disabled. Currently the most common casting decision is to give those roles to nondisabled actors. The video is well worth a watch.

Since the video is on YouTube it has garnered a lot of comments and as with most comment sections on the internet many of the messages are offensive. Oddly this post is not about ignorant commenters but rather a conversation Zayid had on Twitter regarding one specific comment.

She begins with this tweet

ableism language 1

She is paraphrasing for the brevity required of twitter. In this tweet shat has used #retard to draw attention to the original commenter’s offensive language.

The first response agrees that the comment is both ignorant and offensive and concludes by calling the commenter a #moron.

ableism language 2

For context, here is a little history of the linguistic evolution around intellectual disability.

Words like idiot, moron and imbecile used to be medical terms but by the late 19th century had been widely adopted by society as general insults. In a move intended to find terms the medical community could use to describe intellectual disability without resorting to insults, a new medical term was adopted. It was retarded. Until then the word retard had been used to mean slow down or impede. Since its adoption in relation to disability however, it has become a slur that easily rivals the offense caused by its predecessors in offensiveness.

Likely because she was aware of this history one respondent questioned the use of language.

ableism language 3

While it was established that the use of #retard was in fact a direct reference to quoted language from a YouTube comment, the use of #moron was not.

This led to a conversation about whether moron is still ableist and when language is ableist, It seems to have concluded with these three tweets

ableism language 4

ableism language 5

ableism language 6

After this Mills no longer participates in the conversation and it moves on. Whether her absence is because she feels the matter is settled or is no longer comfortable questioning it, is unclear.

I am not going to take a stand on whether terms like idiot and moron are still offensive in an ableist way. Quite frankly it isn’t my call. Those words have never been connected to me medically so I am not directly oppressed by their continued use. I do however know that there are people who are affected by those words in ways that extend beyond their synonymous connection with stupidity.

I would however like to comment on the idea that ableism is only present when in the direct context of disability or when directed at disabled people because that just doesn’t make sense.

Words mean specific things. I can’t make the word ugly mean beautiful just by how I use it in a sentence.

The word retard does not stop being offensive or ableist when it is directed at someone or something that isn’t disabled. This was eloquently evidenced by John Franklin Stephens when he challenged Ann Coulter for calling President Obama a retard.

This is not just a disability issue. Just look at how the word gay which now most commonly refers to homosexuality but others have used it as a general pejorative. When someone calls an outfit or a situation gay, they are associating being gay with all things negative. The fact that no actual gay people are present is irrelevant.

Using words that reference a group of people and directing as a negative insult is harmful whether or not the people referenced are present to be directly hurt by it. This is because it culturally normalizes negative associations with that marginalized group and adds to systemic oppression.

I realize that it is impossible to have this kind of in depth discussion when limited to 140 characters, which is why I’m responding here.

I think particularly when considering ableist language when it discussed by disabled people, it is important to remember that disability may be the largest minority group but it is also one of the most diverse. Even if you ignore intersectional identities like sex, gender identity, race, sexuality, religion, etc. Disabled people are diverse in their diagnosis and sometimes this one identifier has social repercussions that are not shared with the whole disabled community. What may be offensive to one group could be unimportant to another. It is essential that while fighting for equality and an inclusive society that we don’t leave part of the group behind. The hierarchy of disability is real and it is often internalized.

When deciding if language is ableist please consider more than its effect on disability as a whole or if perhaps there is a group that you don’t fit into that may be differently affected.

Update

I have been asked by one of the people involved to remove their name and image. I have done so

Update 2

Amanda Mills has contacted me via twitter to confirm that she did leave the conversation because she no longer felt welcome there and felt as though she was being treated as overreacting.

I make this update with her permission.

When Supposedly Progressive Guides to Talking About Disability Get It Wrong

So I am very passionate about the language of disability. I really want it to progress to a place where people are not misrepresented or marginalized by the language used to describe them. So I get very frustrated when nondisabled people coopt the narrative and through well intentioned ignorance set the movement for inclusive language back several paces.

Take for example this article by Merrill Perlman published on the Columbia Journalism Review titled The Proper Terminology to Use When Writing About Illnesses.

The authors stated intent is to help others use more respectful language when writing about “illness”. She fails immediately because from reading her article what she means by illness is actually disability and they are not synonymous. Disabilities are the ones she most frequently references are not diseases and should never be discussed in such terms. While some illnesses can be disabling they have distinct differences from disabilities like paralysis, cerebral palsy or down syndrome. She does briefly reference how to address a serious diagnosis (cancer). She however never differentiates between disability and disease. People with disabilities are not ill and many of us don’t want a cure, which is good because for many of us a possible cure is unlikely to surface. Illness is closely linked to suffering a word she acknowledges should not be used in conjunction with disability. I have cerebral palsy and autism and neither of these is an illness. The flu that I’ve been fighting the last few days is. Please be aware of the difference.

Her only accurate insight seems to be in what actual words should be avoided. She  counsels against using words like victim and suffering. I can agree with that.

However, her disability specific advice leaves much to be desired. She starts out with physical disability, saying,

“As a society, we’ve gotten better at accepting terminology that is less slur and more description: “Developmentally disabled” is better than “retarded,” and while “physically challenged” is still not as common as “handicapped,” it’s thankfully more common than “crippled” nowadays. We mention that a child is “adopted” less often, and usually only when it’s relevant.”

Society may be aheah of Perlman here, the reason that physically challenged isn’t used as much as she’d like is because it’s genuinely awful. If you are a third party writing about someone else please never use it. As far as I’m concerned it’s as bad as handicapped. Disabled people don’t face challenges, We face barriers. The fact that there are stairs and no ramp isn’t a challenge it’s a barrier. The fact that able-bodied people often underestimate those of this with disabilities is a barrier. Framing our lives as a challenge justifies systemic barriers because it’s much easier to believe someone can overcome a challenge than a barrier. So in keeping with the fact that Perlman wants to help, I will offer a better term:

If you are in North America use Person with a disability

If you are in the UK, Ireland, New Zealand or Australia use disabled person*

The other passage I find problematic is this,

“Where we often fail, though, is in using terms associated with illness and infirmity. “Confined to a wheelchair” or “wheelchair-bound” have appeared more than 1,000 in Nexis in the first quarter of the year. Yet those give a negative associate to the person in the wheelchair. Simpler, and more accurate, would be to say someone “uses a wheelchair.” Even better, say why the wheelchair is needed: “She has used a wheelchair since she her legs were paralyzed in a diving accident 10 years ago.””

It starts out pretty good, uses a wheelchair or wheelchair user are much preferable to wheelchair bound. I get confused however about how it is simpler to just describe the disability. No it’s really not. It comes off as voyeuristic and unnecessary. Perlman even contradicts herself later when she says that disability shouldn’t be mentioned unless it is absolutely pertinent. I am sure there are times when it is pertinent to mention that a person uses a wheelchair but the reason why is entirely irrelevant. Needing to mention a disability is not the same as needing to rehash a person’s entire back story.

I respect Perlman’s intent with her article but I question the follow through. Language is so important to how the world around us is framed. It affects how people are viewed. I will close with some additional tips for third parties (nondisabled people) writing about disability.

Don’t just avoid physically challenged when speaking generally also avoid any euphemisms like “special needs” or “differently-abled”

Be prepared for the fact that the disabled community is very diverse and opinions on personal labeling may differ from political correctness. When referring to an individual, please respect personal labels.

When in doubt try and find answers from actually disabled people.

*For an explanation of why language differs geographically see here