Disabled people have historically been subhumanized, believed incapable of making their own choices, and unfit to live amongst the general public. This patronizing view of people with disabilities allowed 20th century eugenics programs to be carried out in the open, even with the approval of popular culture. In many ways, the disability rights movement is directly responsible for the now common belief that disabled lives are lives worth living and that disabled people should be capable of making their own life choices. The Disability rights movement gained momentum in the 1970s, activists fiercely argued that disabled people are equal citizens and should be treated as such. Disability rights activists work to change government policy as well as the cultural perception of disability in order to overcome barriers to full inclusion within society. Canadian Disability rights has had important consequences in relation to eugenics, making the legal action of eugenic survivors against the Alberta provincial government thinkable, as well as gathering political support for the struggle against ableism and newgenic practises.
Canadian disability rights
Over the past 45 years, the disability rights movement has fought for the recognition of disabled people as full and equal citizens rather than objects of charity. This is a movement that must be traced historically, from the welfare state to the 1985 Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Moreover, it is important to recognize that the struggle for disability rights in Canada is not an isolated movement, but rather emerges alongside the recognition of disability rights in, for example, the United States under the 1990 Americans with Disability Act and the World Health Organization’s 2008 Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
The Welfare State
Canadian disability policy emerged after WWI as an attempt to reinstate disabled veterans in the workforce. Welfare approaches to disability were paternalistic and subhumanizing, grounded in the then common-sense medicalization of disability and the charity model of disability. Disabled people were segregated educationally and vocationally through rehabilitation, work programmes, and social benefit programmes. At the same time, disability organizations and charities were organized and led by medical professionals, experts, and family members, and excluded those who were disabled from leadership roles and basic participation in determining their future. The patronization of persons with disabilities and the corresponding absence of legal protection was a causal factor in mustering discriminatory attitudes about persons with disabilities that led to the largely unquestioned continuation of eugenics policies in Western Canada targeting the “feeble-minded” or mentally deficient.
Passage from the welfare state to disability rights was made through equity-seeking movements of the 1960s. In North America (and abroad) the civil disobedience and activism of the trade unionist movement, women’s rights movement (feminism, women’s suffrage), and civil rights movement stirred language of discrimination and resistance within disability communities. Being able to articulate disabled experience in terms of oppression was instrumental in reconceptualizing disability not as a matter of charity, but of fundamental civil rights.
Motivated by the growing consciousness of civil rights movements, the Albertan premier Peter Lougheed introduced a series of social policy reforms in the early 1970s. Chief among these was the 1971 Alberta Bill of Rights intended to protect individual rights. The Sexual Sterilization Act was brought to the attention of the Lougheed government by citizens during the process of reviewing existent legislature in possible conflict with the Alberta Bill of Rights. Found to be grossly inconsistent with the proposed bill, the Sexual Sterilization Act was repealed in 1972.
Disability Rights Movements
In the 1970s, a new generation of Canadian disability groups, such as the Coalition of Provincial Organizations of the Handicapped (now called the Council of Canadians with Disabilities or CCD), were established, comprised of and led by people with disabilities. While disability policy and the ethos of popular culture remained entrenched in paternalistic notions of disability, resistance to charity was emerging. Activists demanded self-determination, self-respect, and equality, and did so by supplanting the medical and charity models of disability with the social model that distinguishes between impairment and disability. This allowed stigma and socio-economic disadvantage to be interrogated apart from bio-medical descriptions of disability, the goal being a barrier-free and inclusive society.
A hard fought outcome of disability rights activism in the 1970s was the Canadian Human Rights Act passed in 1977. This statute included disability as a prohibited ground of discrimination and was a significant step forward in granting disabled Canadians legal equality. However, as a statute—not preserved in the Constitution—the Canadian Human Rights Act could be amended or overturned and thus did not guarantee disabled Canadians civil rights.
The Charter of Rights and Freedoms
Enacted in 1982 as a response to the ineffectiveness of the 1960 Canadian Bill of Rights and the mutability of the Canadian Human Rights Act, the Charter enshrined civil rights within the Constitution. Section 15 of the Charter, brought into force in 1985, guaranteed equality rights on grounds of race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age, and (included at the eleventh hour as a result of lobbying efforts of activists such as Yvonne Peters and Jim Derksen) physical and mental disability. The extent/definition of “reasonable accommodation” continues to be negotiated.
The significance of section 15 of the Charter of Rights for disability is both legal and symbolic. The Charter enshrined disability as a civil and legal, rather than a medical issue. Disability activists worked to seize the potential for equality contained within section 15. From 1985 to 2007, disability rights organizations appeared before the Supreme Court of Canada 37 times both to expand and maintain equality and policies of “reasonable accommodation.” The jurisprudence resulting from strategic litigation such as Eldridge v British Columbia (Attorney General) provided a legal basis for the social model of disability. Yet the Charter carried equally significant symbolic value, precipitating disability rights consciousness from the top down. The cultural intelligibility of ‘disability rights’ was bolstered by the existence of the Charter as well as litigation appealing to the Charter.
Challenges to Disability Rights
While disability activists continue to demand in unison a society free from ableist discrimination, there is far less agreement on how this can and should be accomplished. Disability rights activists working within legal structures routinely champion the social model, a model that has come under considerable criticism within disability studies. Used in litigation, the social model amounts to accommodation, making concessions rather than questioning the very idea of normalcy and sub-normalcy. Many disability activists and theorists understand assimilationist policy and belief-structures to be an inevitable outcome of rights-based discourse politically couched in terms of formal rather than substantial equality.
The use of strategic litigation as the foremost mode of resistance is thus deeply suspect for radical disability activists. From this perspective, disability rights are inseparable from the struggle over the definitional boundaries of normalcy. Radical disability activists seek to unsettle ‘normalcy’ as a natural and stable concept, thereby making space for non-normative modes of embodied existence within society. The political activity of disrupting ableist narratives is irreducible to policy. Yet it must be emphasized that in enacting a paradigm shift away from medicalization and pathologization, the entire disability rights movement—irrespective of internal differences—has been, and continues to be, both empowering and liberating. Disability rights are thus particularly important in countering ableism and ongoing newgenic practices.
-Joshua St. Pierre
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