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International Day for Persons with Disabilities

OPSEU Disability Rights Caucus, Caucus des personnes handicapees du SEFPO
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Thursday, December 3, International Day for Persons with Disabilities, is a chance for OPSEU/SEFPO and its Disability Rights Caucus (DRC) to point out the significant challenges people with disabilities face. This year’s theme is “Not All Disabilities are Visible.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a widespread and disproportionate effect on people with disabilities.

It has become more difficult for people who need personal care to maintain contact with their health care providers.

Masks may reduce the risk of contracting COVID-19, but for the hearing impaired they are one more barrier to communicating with the world. The ability to read lips is blocked, and the tendency for masks and plexiglass barriers to muffle sound also causes difficulties.

Maintaining social distancing can be a challenge for blind people.

Further, the pandemic has highlighted the discriminatory systems in place which have reduced the ability of persons with disabilities to maintain meaningful employment. Retail, hospitality and other industries that have been historically open to hiring persons with disabilities, have suffered tremendous losses because of COVID-19. Many small businesses in the community have temporarily or permanently shut down. Moreover, people who work in these industries are consistently at risk of exposure to the virus. Many persons with disabilities are immunocompromised and they are more susceptible to contracting the virus.

The increase in job losses also means that more people are looking for employment. Persons with disabilities are also at risk of being overlooked in favour of more experienced applicants.

Many persons with disabilities rely on public transportation and/or ridesharing as a way to get to and from work. Public transportation systems are not fully accessible and so, there is also the threat of contracting the virus in transit.

Moreover, while the world has shifted to operating on a virtual format as a way to keep people safe, it continues to be a challenge for persons with disabilities. Obtaining the necessary mental health supports, especially during this time of heightened anxiety and isolation, is important. Yet, the inability to access the technology is an additional barrier that they are faced with.

OPSEU/SEFPO President Warren (Smokey) Thomas says governments and employers must redouble their efforts to make sure people with disabilities do not get left further behind during this pandemic.

Experience shows that when barriers to their inclusion are removed and people with disabilities are able to fully take part in societal life, the entire community benefits. But as governments continue to cut public services to pay for privatization and tax cuts, the barriers grow and the goal of a world where no one is left behind becomes more remote.

“There were already too many barriers before the pandemic,” said Thomas. “People with disabilities are falling further behind. Just because COVID-19 is a reality does not mean that work to eliminate barriers should be put on hold.”

An invisible disability is a disability that is not immediately noticeable. This can include brain injuries, chronic pain, mental illness, medical disorders. Because they are not obvious to spot, invisible disabilities may be overlooked and misunderstood.

Gillian Axten, DRC Co-Chair, says people with an invisible disability face discrimination or exclusion.

“As a member of the Disability Rights Caucus with an invisible congenital disability, I understand that visibilities require less explaining ” said Axten. “Just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean that people are not living with a disability. Let’s move away from this approach so that people who need supports can access them, free of any skepticism, derision and simple mistrust.”

This entails being able to have access to a building without using stairs; getting a job without fear of discrimination; feeling comfortable enough to be able to reveal a mental health condition at work. There is a need for universal design allowing everyone to access information, physical spaces, social interaction and employment, with less need of assistance and further explanation.

OPSEU/SEFPO and the DRC believe everyone should call out barriers and discrimination when they see them. Don’t assume that all disabilities are easy for others to see. Respect the limits that people set for themselves.

OPSEU/SEFPO First Vice-President/Treasurer Eduardo (Eddy) Almeida says removing barriers for disabled Ontarians is something the union will continue to fight for until there are no barriers.

“It’s heartbreaking for me to see people who have so much to contribute to our workplaces and our societies being frustrated because of the slow pace of change,” said Almeida. “As long as I’m a leader in our union, I will forcefully send the message to government and employers that change can’t be put on the backburner.”