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December 2nd, 2013

Citizenship: We Belong

books-25b5s24-2When reflecting on citizenship, as a parent of children with disabilities, I feel bewildered. I’m struck immediately with a dissonance of meanings. Shall I write about what citizenship is supposed to be, or shall I write about how it is yet another term that serves to exclude my daughter, whose body can’t quite fit the expectations of “body” when we typically say “everybody”?

S. 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms asserts that
 “Every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination and, in particular, without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability.”

In other words, Canadian citizenship means that you belong here—you and I—together with all other members of this nation. Membership and belonging are lovely terms that evoke the feelings of affirmation, security, and confidence that come from being wanted, needed, included. Until recently, Canada has enjoyed a global reputation for its celebration of community and diversity and as Canadians we like to believe that we are inclusive and welcoming.

However, as our 3 children have grown into adults, I have witnessed a frightening gap between the idea of being a citizen and the reality. Sadly, I’ve seen that diversity is welcomed only within narrow limits. Difference is okay only up to a point; then suddenly your difference becomes too different and your legal status of citizen does not protect you from the nasty attitudes of disability prejudice. I have witnessed how in this country with its Charter of Rights and Freedoms, our daughter’s difference, her unpredictable body and its unequivocal refusal to conform to any sense of what’s “normal” has relegated her to a substandard class that is treated with a double standard that the non-disabled would never tolerate. What is even more distressing, if not shocking, is that this “less-than” treatment is so “normal” that mostly it goes unnoticed! Imagine if every family feared that their local school would not accept their child into a regular classroom; if every person had to call ahead if they could access the “public” washroom of any building; if any child were denied classes in physical education or French because the teacher did not want to teach them. What if all parents were encouraged to sign a DNR (do not resuscitate form) when bringing their child into a hospital emergency ward? What if dentists and doctors simply refused to treat any children with red hair? Of course, outrage would ensue, even from people who aren’t redheads. And yet, children (and adults) with disabilities are barred from playgrounds, classrooms, jobs, washrooms, (the list goes on) on a daily basis, yet Canadian citizens have not raised indignant protests demanding that the citizenship rights of their fellows be protected. Far from it.

However, “the times they are a-changin” (to quote Bob Dylan)! Despite oppressive treatment and attitudes that reject us and deny our dignity and equal rights as citizens, people with disabilities of every kind and their family and friends are recognizing and naming the injustice of discrimination against the wondrous human diversity that society has labelled as disability. Equality does not mean being the same or being treated in the same way. Equitable treatment means being valued for one’s membership and supported to live life well according to one’s capacity. Non-disabled “success” relies on supportive contexts of family, community, and society because all people are interdependent and thrive only in supportive environments. While people who fit into the typical “mainstream” enjoy and expect systemic privileges that we take for granted, people whose unique characteristics are rejected by the mainstream are disabled by a lack of support and society’s failure to appreciate their citizenship. Disability is a national concern in that it reveals injustice and the nation’s systemic failure to protect the rights of its citizens.

In our province of Ontario, the failure of the Ministry of Social Services to support hundreds of families who are eligible for assistance is not so much, as the story has it, a reflection of tough economic times. It is actually a failure to honour the citizenship of a population of people that has been systemically invalidated and neglected. Justice and equality demand better. Citizens share in a common good and everybody suffers when anyone’s citizenship is attenuated. Our nation, province, communities, and yes, even our economy will profit from supporting individuals and families to be healthy, strong, and valued members. It is incumbent on our governments (and on us to choose our governments) not to disable but to value the membership of every citizen—everybody.


Parent and EAFWR Board Member