December 3, 2020: "Building Back Better: toward a disability-inclusive, accessible and sustainable post COVID-19 World"

On December 3, people with disabilities and our allies commemorate the United Nations International Day of Persons with Disabilities.  The theme for 2020 is “Building Back Better: toward a disability-inclusive, accessible and sustainable post COVID-19 world.  This is not some future task. The time is now.

In Canada, 24 percent of the population self-identify as having a disability, and many were already pushed to the margins before the pandemic. 

Pre COVID-19, people with disabilities were most likely to be unemployed, less able to access appropriate and basic health care services and have a massive uphill battle to have supports to gain an education. For instance, for people who are blind or who have low vision the rate of unemployment reaches levels of 90% and the majority live below the poverty line.

A real issue is no matter what "gains" are made, there are more people employed in Canada to look after people with disabilities, than there are people with disabilities employed. The Disability Inclusion Plan, announced in the 2020 Throne Speech, needs to address the paternalistic approach that continues to influence how disability services and supports are developed and delivered. We know the problem and the solution; only the will to act is needed.

It is a strange world when after decades of pushing for equality in accessibility, legislation was passed to ensure equal access in 8 areas; however, the people implementing this legislation are not the disability community. We are being continuously mined for information, unpaid of course, by government departments and regulated industry that hire high priced consultants to collect our information, then publish reports to prove they have consulted with people with disabilities. This approach does not adhere to the principle of nothing about us without us. This is, everyone making a dollar except us; it is exploitation. Now, is the time for Canada to take an intersectional democratic co-construction approach to the implementation of accessibility legislation and, indeed, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. We know the problem and the solution; only the will to act is needed.

With respect to the little government financial relief towards COVID-19 that has come to only 40% of members of the disability community, in many cases it has been clawed back by another level of government.  Instead of people with disabilities being able to use this money to buy enough food to get through the month, government coffers have benefitted from the clawed back money. Every month that the pandemic continues – with prices for food having risen 20-35% and services either not available or sparse in many communities -- means people are being pushed not just to the edges but over into the abyss of poverty and disrespect. The Disability Inclusion Plan, announced in the 2020 Throne Speech, promised a new income benefit for people with disabilities.  We have been advancing a basic income plan since 2010. We know the problem and the solution; only the will to act is needed.

Prior to the pandemic, social isolation was already well entrenched because people with disabilities did not have access to adequate income, housing, transportation, basic accessibility aids and devices, and accessible streets and buildings.  Under funded so unable to meet the growing demand for support, consumer-run organizations, which have created a hub of knowledge about accessing disability-related supports and services, provide vital and important services that address barriers experienced by people with disabilities. Some examples of the types of supports and services provided are: computers for accessing the internet, where all government support applications are made available; navigating support service requirements, education opportunities and funding; and socialization.

During the pandemic, many people with disabilities have lost access to these vital services because consumer-run organizations have been forced to shift to virtual services where they can.  Social isolation and the digital divide have intensified the disconnect in the pandemic response for persons with disabilities. Since the 1980s, people with disabilities have been advancing the independent living framework for service for people with disabilities, without adequate funding from all levels of government. We know the problem and the solution; only the will to act is needed.

We have not even begun to look at the number of deaths of elders with disabilities, who never had an opportunity to, in some cases, communicate with those giving medical care. We are not talking about those who passed because of COVID, but passed for other reasons, alone and separated from their families. The British Columbia Seniors Advocate, Isobel McKenzie, released a report on November 3, 2020 called "Staying Apart to Stay Safe: The Impact of Visit Restrictions on Long-Term Care and Assisted Living Survey". In it, she reported, “When we started visit restrictions, the goal was to ensure residents in long-term care and assisted living were kept safe from COVID-19. Eight months later, we need to ask the question: What are we keeping them safe for if it is not to enjoy the time they have left with the ones they love? While COVID-19 has tragically claimed the lives of 151 residents of long-term care and assisted living, more than 4,500 other residents have died from something other than COVID-19 during this pandemic and in many cases, they spent their final months, weeks and days in relative isolation, unable to spend time with those they loved most,” continued Mackenzie. A high number of the people impacted in this survey have disabilities. (

It is clear to all of us in our intersecting cross-disability communities when it came to emergency planning, all people with disabilities, including children and seniors, did not make it into the manual. Over the last 20 years, we have been urging the use of a disability lens when planning for emergencies. We know the problem and the solution; only the will to act is needed.

In the midst of the pandemic, the federal government is seeking to amend the Medical Aid in Dying law.  The proposed amendments will make it easier for people with disabilities to have assistance to kill themselves while at the same time governments are seeking to prevent the suicides of people without disabilities.  In light of government inaction to provide people with disabilities with the supports to live a dignified life in the community, they have instead focused on easier access to assisted suicide which has been termed a cold comfort by disability activists like Catherine Frazee.  Catherine Frazee stated to The Current's Matt Galloway, "Now this amendment proposes opening up an entire new approach to assisted death, where it's now an alternative not to a painful death, but to a painful life — to a life that is considered intolerable or not worth living". (

Our community, already pushed outside the mainstream, does not want to build back better systems of discrimination which are already imbedded in the way we are viewed and the response to us before and during the pandemic. What gives us any assurance that one day, post pandemic, we will be included? There is nothing preventing governments, industry and society to shift from exclusionary systemic discrimination during this pandemic to an inclusive approach now. We do not need to wait one minute more or have one more committee study the problem or one more consultation.

Want to build back better? Then society must be better and do better now!