The Chronicle Herald (Metro)

Nova Scotia is failing people with disabiliti­es

- SHEILA WILDEMAN & KIM PATE

Nova Scotia’s Disability Rights Coalition has just released a report that evaluates government’s progress on commitment­s made in 2013 to finally meet its human rights obligation­s to people with disabiliti­es. The picture is grim.

For generation­s, people with disabiliti­es in Nova Scotia — often living at the intersecti­ons of disability, poverty and other markers of disadvanta­ge and domination such as race, Indigeneit­y and gender — have been shuttled from systems of inadequate community-based social supports through to institutio­nal detentions, even lifelong institutio­nalization.

Yet in June 2013, people with disabiliti­es found hope in the report of a joint community-government task force that came to be known as the Roadmap. The Roadmap pointed the way to a new era of community inclusion and equality. It was pragmatic and achievable. The three main parties all endorsed it and pledged to implement its recommenda­tions within 10 years, by 2023.

The problem the Roadmap sought to address was the gridlock experience­d by people with disabiliti­es in accessing supports needed to live in the community. Today, as then, hundreds of people who are being needlessly institutio­nalized, sometimes for decades, find themselves on a never-ending waitlist and many more are struggling in poverty in situations in which their basic needs go unmet.

The problem started in 1995 with a government-imposed moratorium on the creation of new small option homes and then was allowed to grow unabated. In the decades since, in the name of balanced budgets and capacity building, people with disabiliti­es in need have borne a disproport­ionate burden and had their needs ignored or discounted.

The Roadmap proposed some common-sense solutions: creating more inclusive communitie­s through increasing access to community-based supports and services, ending wait times and closing all institutio­ns — bringing an end to the cruel and discrimina­tory practice of segregatin­g persons with disabiliti­es in warehouse-like facilities.

Fast-forward to 2021: as election day approaches, what is the state of the new, more just world promised by government in its commitment to the Roadmap?

The Disability Rights Coalition’s Report released this week shows where the government’s promises to implement the Roadmap within 10 years now stand. The number of eligible applicants waiting for services has been allowed to grow: 1,915 people are on the waitlist compared with 1,099 in 2014.

Yet despite the growing waitlist, there are fewer people receiving assistance from the Disability Supports Program now than when the Roadmap was released.

Pressure is mounting as more people seeking assistance are told there is no room in the programs they need. In the meantime, they are detained in institutio­ns, or receiving services that the department admits are inappropri­ate, or in the case of 536 people, no services at all.

Nova Scotia stands out shamefully from the rest of Canada (as well as the U.S.) for its continued reliance on institutio­nal warehousin­g of people with disabiliti­es, decades after the recognized brutality of such systems brought the closure of disability institutio­ns elsewhere.

This is ableism at work. Ableism means systematic­ally discountin­g the humanity and interests of people with disabiliti­es while privilegin­g the interests of others. It operates in ways that often track and deepen racist, gendered and class inequaliti­es.

The province’s ever-delayed closure of institutio­ns and failure to create responsive community supports marks a refusal to share with disabled people and a violation of their human rights.

Does it have to be this way? No — the path forward is clear: end waitlists for people desperate to leave institutio­ns and others by expanding access to inclusive community-based options; close institutio­ns by the Roadmap commitment of 2023; and increase funding and support for staff training and capacity to promote choice, equality and good lives in the community.

It will take political will, though — the will to deliver on the current government’s promise to keep inclusion and equality at the heart of its mission. A three-year budget commitment is all that is needed to undo decades of discrimina­tory treatment and freezes on services that have brought us to where we are now.

The way to disability justice, which is indivisibl­e from justice for all, lies in keeping these promises. Will Nova Scotia’s elected representa­tives honour their commitment to fulfil the Roadmap within 10 years, by 2023?

Today (as in 2013) hundreds of people who are being needlessly institutio­nalized, sometimes for decades, find themselves on a never-ending waitlist and many more are struggling in poverty in situations in which their basic needs go unmet.

Sheila Wildeman is an associate professor at the Schulich School of Law, a founding fellow of the Maceachen Institute for Public Policy and Governance at Dalhousie University, and co-chair of East Coast Prison Justice Society. Kim Pate is a Canadian senator and former executive director of the Canadian Associatio­n of Elizabeth Fry Societies.

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