Sunday October 11, 2015

Disabled Canadians are invisible in this election - Michael's essay

Listen 3:53
Wheelchair

(Shutterstock)

Picture yourself in a wheelchair on election day confronted by several steps and no ramp leading down to a polling station in a church basement. Or imagine you are blind or only partially sighted. How do you independently mark your ballot? And how do you ensure that your vote is secret? 

In many cases, potential voters simply turn away. The hassle is too much on shoulders already burdened by disability.

There are four million disabled men, women and children in Canada. In the next 15 years, that figure is expected to grow to nine million. Their disabilities can be physical, mental or developmental. And in large measure they are an invisible part of the population. Their predicament is barely mentioned or covered in the current election campaign. 

Three parties, the NDP, the Green Party and the Liberals have promised that if they form the next government, they will promote and pass a Canadians With Disabilities Act. The only parties who have not promised such an act are the Bloc Quebecois and the Conservatives. 

During the 2006 election, Stephen Harper promised a Canadians With Disabilities Act, but nothing ever came of it. The only media coverage of the topic I could find was by The Globe and Mail's excellent health columnist, AndrĂ© Picard. Media in general don't show much interest in the issue.

Twenty-five years ago, President George Bush the First signed into law the Americans with Disabilities Act. To this day, it is the global gold standard for state and local legislation. In this country, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms makes it illegal to discriminate against people with a physical or mental disability. Reason enough to legislate our own act.

The question is simple. Should Canadians with disabilities have equal access to services provided by the government of Canada, or over which the government has regulatory power? Things like air travel, communications, banking, broadcasting and so on. The answer would seem inarguable. It is essentially a matter of political will. In 2002, President George Bush the Second signed the Help America Vote Act, which among other things mandated accessible voting; getting into polling places and being allowed to mark a ballot successfully and in secret.

David Lepofsky is a Toronto lawyer. He has been fighting for the cause of accessibility for decades.

David Lepofsky

David Lepofsky, chair of a group that advocates on behalf of people with disabilities. (CBC)

David is blind; I should point out he is also a friend. In earlier days, when he went to vote, he had to swear an oath that he was blind. Once a municipal polling clerk made a mistake and wanted him to swear he was illiterate. Lepofsky's solution to the voting accessibility problem is simple: voting by telephone or online. We bank online. We buy stuff online. We even pay our taxes online. Why can't we vote online?

Several Ontario communities allow Internet voting for municipal elections. They've discovered the system not only saves money, it increases voter participation. Democracy is all-inclusive or it isn't the real thing. And after all, every one of us is either disabled now or will be at some point.