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Canadian Human Rights Museum and the 2019 NUPGE Convention in Winnipeg

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By Rini Gulli

Both the Canadian Human Rights Museum, and the 2019 NUPGE Convention provided historical and political insights regarding the direction of human rights for disabled persons in our country. The convention was held in Winnipeg on the 100 year Anniversary of the Winnipeg General Strike, an event that sparked the modern labour movement as we know it.

The Canadian Human Rights Museum offered an interesting display into the history of the treatment of disabled persons.

It included a reference to the historical tools and prosthetics used by people with disabilities and their development since. It mentioned the history of professional definitions of persons diagnosed with mental or physical health issues that have evolved into unwelcomed labels like “moron” or “imbecile” or “cripple”.

It further documented how some persons with intellectual disabilities were sometimes kept working in institutional laundries and kitchens, ultimately providing free labour for 40 or 50 years. Many were institutionalized in crowded facilities for decades without any formal education. The trajectory of measuring intelligence, and how the inherent biases contained therein, would sometimes lead a child to be misdiagnosed, was similarly presented. The history of treating respiratory issues was also documented with photos of people receiving care in the “iron lung.”

Along with this history, a future of trailblazing people and ideas was also presented. It was impossible not to be drawn to a photo of Mae Brown at a typewriter. Brown was deaf and blind “but refused to settle for anything less than the rights and privileges enjoyed by people without disabilities.” She was the first Deaf Blind Canadian to obtain a university degree, graduating in 1972. Displays of trailblazers also continued highlighting accessible workstations, activists like Al Simpson lobbying the federal governments for change, and the consequent enacting of Bill C 78, An Act to Amend Certain Acts with Respect to Persons with Disabilities.

Activism and advocacy continued at the NUPGE Convention.

A policy paper, entitled Diversity and Inclusion in our Unions, acknowledged that very little has been accomplished in Canada since 1992, when the United Nations declared December 3 as International Day of Disabled Persons.   It noted much more work needs to be done to facilitate full inclusion for persons with visible and nonvisible disabilities.

The policy paper identified that “disabled people, as a group, fare worse than the general population” and that physical and non-physical barriers like ableism need to be eliminated for full inclusion.

NUPGE President Larry Brown sent a letter to the Prime Minister noting that the union is “actively working for a future where people with disabilities can enjoy the rights and opportunities accorded to all Canadians. He noted that more than physical barriers need to be removed, suggesting political engagement and federal funding be accelerated.

The National Union further articulated its support for the Accessible Canada Act currently waiting Royal Assent in the House of Commons, and noted that this was not an end, but an incremental federal beginning to creating a society providing full and dignified inclusion for all persons with disabilities.