Vancouverites can be forgiven if they believe this is a great city for people with disabilities. After all, quadriplegic former Vancouver mayor Sam Sullivan and paraplegic athlete Rick Hansen are known around the world for their achievements. In addition, Vancouver—the largest city in a province that Premier Gordon Campbell has proclaimed the Best Place on Earth—is hosting the Paralympics in March.
Talk to University of Victoria social-policy professor Michael Prince, however, and he’ll tell you he rolls his eyes “a little bit” at the boosterism. Today (October 22) marks the launch of his book Absent Citizens: Disability Politics and Policy in Canada (University of Toronto Press). Although not quite a “slap in the face”, Prince said the book is a “challenge” to the conventional wisdom that we are doing enough for people with disabilities in this country.
“On the one hand, Canadians like to think of ourselves as a fairly caring society still, more or less,” Prince told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview. “We do have universal public health insurance, more or less, HandyDarts”¦we’ve cut curbs in sidewalks, we’ve got ramps in bars, and we do a lot of things to help people with a lot of impairments and disabilities. But beyond those, there is still quite a consistent pattern of discrepancies and inequalities between Canadians who have significant mental or physical disabilities and those of us who do not.”
According to Prince, unemployment rates among Canadians with disabilities “both able and willing to work” are in the 60-to-80-percent ranges.
“We’re struggling again with cutbacks in services for integrating kids in schools, for inclusive classrooms, and we’re seeing cuts in mental-health services,” he said. “But those aren’t just recent; these are long-standing challenges.”
“Pride and prejudice” is the well-worn phrase Prince has employed in Absent Citizens to describe the “ambivalence” of the country, juxtaposing “a fairly generous social policy network” with Canadians’ fear that disclosing a disability to an employer would bring hardship or dismissal.
“Overwhelmingly, when we think of people with handicaps, impairments, or disabilities”¦we tend to think of it in a medical sense—we medicalize people,” Prince said. “So rather than seeing their potentials and their abilities, we emphasize what’s missing: the defect and the deficit. And that usually gets defined in biomedical terms, which usually leads to solutions of very expensive biomedical interventions.”
In the 2006 census, 4.41 million Canadians self-identified as having a disability—14.3 percent of the total respondents. In B.C., Prince claimed, neither the B.C. Liberals nor the provincial NDP adequately addressed this constituency in the last provincial election, an election he called “a campaign for sleepwalkers”. He also said that, unlike other provinces, B.C. does not have a comprehensive antipoverty strategy.
“We do have a disability strategy in this province, but it’s one of the best-known secrets to the public as to what it is and what it’s doing,” he said. “There’s not very much inspiration or vision there, but you could say that about a lot of public policy coming out of the province right now.”
Prince claimed his book should be received “fairly well”, as he has already had a good response from members of both provincial and national disabilities organizations, including the Council of Canadians With Disabilities, the B.C. Coalition of People With Disabilities, the Canadian Paraplegic Association, and “some academics”.
“Politics and politicians tend to gravitate toward debates of wait lists in emergency rooms,” Prince said. “Again, I’m not trying to say that’s not important, but that’s just part of the picture.”