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Year End Report 1999

Ontarians with Disabilities Commmitee

by David Lepofsky, Chair

December 22, 1999

We come to the end of 1999 with good reason to be proud of this past year's accomplishments. As we travel together down the long and winding road to a strong and effective Ontarians with Disabilities Act, it is worthwhile to stop for a moment and reflect on where we have come so far this year.

One year ago this past Friday, the Government's inadequate and unacceptable three-page Bill 83 died on the order paper. That happened when the Ontario Legislature rose for its Winter Break. We began 1999 committed to make sure that the Ontario Government would not re-introduce that bill, as it had planned to do. People across Ontario rallied to this goal over the winter months in groups, via regional activities in their own communities, and as individuals pitching in to help.

We were successful in this effort. In the Government's pre- election April 22, 1999 Throne Speech, it committed that it would not re-introduce that bill. The Government was forced to accept that persons with disabilities deserved better than Bill 83.

Without any time to pause, we quickly turned our attention to the impending Ontario election. We wanted to place disability issues on the electoral agenda like never before. Again, we were successful. This was again thanks to grassroots efforts by our members and supporters across Ontario.

The media focused unprecedented attention on our call for a barrier-free election. At the same time, individuals and community organizations rallied from one end of Ontario to the other, to inform and educate voters about the ODA issue. They printed up and handed out thousands of copies of our election leaflets which informed voters about the three parties' positions on the Ontarians with Disabilities Act. People spoke out in support of a strong Ontarians with Disabilities ODA at all- candidates' debates all over the province. At the same time, they brought forward complaints to politicians and elections officials alike about barriers they confronted during the election campaign.

In the end, the election results truly reflected these efforts. A majority of votes were cast for the two parties who promised a strong Ontarians with Disabilities Act. The Conservative Party was compelled to commit to a better bill. It was also driven to promise a new consultation process to precede introduction of that bill. Isabel Bassett, the Government's lead minister responsible for the handling of this issue for the previous two years, was defeated. It is widely recognized that the ODA issue played a significant part in her defeat.

The media now has come to realize and accept that the ODA issue and the broad needs of people with disabilities are core mainstream political issues, meriting more attention than they received in the past. As but one example of this, the ODA Committee was invited to have a spokesperson at four different television programs covering election results on the night of the Ontario election on June 3. As another example of this, our responses to both the pre-election Throne Speech and the post- election Throne Speech received significant media attention.

With the amazing election efforts by people with disabilities behind us, the ODA Committee was recognized by the media as the first group out of the starting-gate when the election was over. We conducted a news conference at Queens Park mere days after the election. In a spirit of cooperation we offered to work together with Premier Harris in his second term, to keep the ODA promise that had been left behind in his first term. The new Citizenship Minister promptly accepted our offer of help within two months of taking office. This was far faster than the full year that it took to get any attention from the previous Citizenship Minister, Marilyn Mushinski, at the start of this Government's first term.

When we were called upon to advise the Government on how to conduct its promised new post-election ODA consultation, we formulated and offered a detailed and positive proposal to all three Ontario political parties. We recommended that a three- party Select Committee of the Ontario Legislature hold open, accessible public hearings across Ontario on what to include in a strong and effective Ontarians with Disabilities Act, prior to a new bill being drafted. This would afford all a chance to have their say. It would also avoid the many problems experienced during the Government's summer 1998 consultation process. That process had been last-minute, closed, secret, and invitation- only.

It is hardly surprising that many feel frustration at our being asked to undergo yet another consultation process on the ODA. Yet when the Government decided to conduct a new post-election ODA consultation, and asked us for advice on how they should go about doing this, we wanted to make a constructive and positive suggestion. A Select Committee of the Legislature will provide an opportunity for input for many who were totally frozen out of the Government's previous 1998 summer consultation. It will also help all of us build on the ideas which we put forward during the Government's 1998 consultation process.

We were delighted that both the Liberal and New Democratic Parties promptly accepted our Select Committee proposal. We regret that over three months after we unveiled it, the Government has still not taken a position on our proposal.

Apart from the issue of consultations, we had a good signal from the new Citizenship Minister, Helen Johns, in early September when she told the London Free Press that the Ontarians with Disabilities Act would be a "huge priority" for her. It was frustrating when one month later, on October 21, the Government's first post-election Throne Speech signalled that the ODA was not going to be a similar priority for the Ontario Government as a whole. That Throne Speech talked only vaguely about an "action plan," not defined, being the Government's "goal" for this "session". This session could last as late as next summer. We have not been able to get any answers from the Citizenship Minister or the Premier on what this "action plan" is all about.

Compounding all of this was an additional challenge confronting us this fall. Citizenship Minister Helen Johns sent out a signal in the Legislature in the middle of this fall that the Government denied that they had a promise to keep on the Ontarians with Disabilities Act. This required decisive action. We were provided the opportunity for that decisive action by the Ontario Liberal Party on November 23, 1999. On that date, the Liberals dedicated one of their two scarce "Opposition Days" in the Legislature to the ODA.

With Liberal and NDP active support in advance, the Legislature, including many Government members, unanimously passed a resolution on November 23 requiring a strong and effective Ontarians with Disabilities Act to be enacted within two years. This victory was again the product of the grassroots efforts of people with disabilities, and their friends and families, all on very short notice. It was frustrating to watch the Government MPPs appear to speak against the resolution. Yet in the end, our efforts and our presence with representatives in impressive numbers in the Legislature Building from right across Ontario left the Government no option but to vote in support of the resolution.

This resolution forced the governing Conservative Party to commit unequivocally to the enactment of a strong and effective Ontarians with Disabilities Act within very specific time lines. After this resolution passed, the Citizenship Minister Helen Johns publicly declared her commitment to comply with this resolution. This all occurred on the first anniversary of the introduction into the Legislature of the toothless Bill 83.

We wind up this year with our movement and our commitment stronger than ever. We have launched regions in 18 parts of Ontario, and have supporters all over the province. We have established our credibility and won widespread recognition not only within the disability community, but within the wider Ontario public.

It would be impossible to list all the people who should be thanked for their contributions to this effort over the past year. So many people have devoted their time and effort. Some do it as part of teams. Others contribute on their own, whether by writing an MPP, or phoning a call-in show on the local radio station, or bringing a new and creative idea for action to a local organization or the ODA Committee, or by so many other forms of action. They are all heros. We are indebted to one and all.

I do wish to make a special mention of one person whose contribution to our successes to date merits recognition by us all. On behalf of all of us, I wish to extend a huge thank-you to our legal counsel, ARCH's Patti Bregman, for all of her dedication and hard work in service of the ODA Committee. It would not be possible to list all the ways in which she has helped out. As but one example, all can rest assured that no letter or news release goes out without undergoing very careful scrutiny by her ever-vigilant eyes and her incredible analytical mind. Her input has dramatically contributed to and substantially improved the many documents we have produced and circulated. We are very fortunate to have the benefit of her insightful and talented legal advice and guidance, often sought from her and willingly provided at all hours of the day and late into the night.

We should be very proud of and energized by our successes to date. However, we must also recognize that we have a long way to go. Every step along the road to the ODA has been hard-fought and hard-won. Regrettably, the Ontario Government has still not demonstrated any enthusiasm about this issue. In the face of this reality, our successes to date have given us the skills, the credibility and the resolve to forge onward with confidence.

We all deserve a good rest over this holiday season. We will begin the New Year ready to kick off the next round in this endeavour. May everyone enjoy an accessible holiday season, and a barrier-free new year.


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