A New Epoch for Canadians with Disabilities

Beth: So Alf, you obviously have a vast amount of government experience. Judging from this past experience, how do you think Government can effectively respond to the emergent needs of a post Covid-19 world to ensure no one, including people disabilities, are left behind? More of Life After Covid-19 with Alfred Spencer interview continues.

Alfred: Okay, well, I want to start with sort of a thought for everybody. And I think if you’re have been involved in the development of Policy Covid has actually done something remarkable. It’s made people interested, I think, in making policy and government. You know, when have we ever had the chance to listen about what governments do on a daily basis?

What Covid Has Brought Us

We’re getting reports federally, provincially, municipally, almost in real time. And now I think we’re getting a better understanding of the roles and responsibilities of government.

And I think you know what, going forward, it a post Covid world, I think you’re going to see the general public much more interested in the decisions that are made by governments and how they’re made.

I think the other thing that I think the Covid has brought us is a really different role for media which is just… It’s fascinated me that we have media actually being the official opposition of governments.

They’re the ones getting to ask the questions and they’re asking, you know, they’re asking everything from day to day perspectives to big policy questions, and I think that the other thing that media is doing is as they’re asking the questions, they’re showing the human response every day on what is happening to people.

Will Pandemic Bring More Transparency?

So here we are, at a time when we think we’re in crisis, where we’ve actually clearly demonstrated the roles of government. I mean, you hear, you know, you hear the prime minister saying, “Oh, and we’re meeting with the premieres tonight.” You hear the premier of Ontario say, “Oh, I met with the mayor today. I’m having a meeting with mayors tonight.” I don’t think people have ever understood that.

I give you the best example. I think if you asked Joe Citizen he would not have known before Covid that municipalities, for example, can’t have deficits.

And so now we’re having this huge conversation on who’s going to pay this bill, which nobody, it looks like, is actually started to add up the cost of or where it’s going to take us.

I think, though, that at further on a policy perspective, I think we’re in a such a really interesting time coming out of Covid. It because at the same time, as we’re coming out of Covid, Canada is coming out with the Accessible Canada Act, and this will increase awareness across the country of people of what’s happened with people with disabilities, because we’ve seen and we’ve had huge discussions. Not necessarily, and I agree with Max, not necessarily with people with disabilities, but we’ve certainly had discussions about people who are disenfranchised.

Canada’s Social Inclusion Opportunity

And I think there’s become a consciousness by the general public on how we’re going to move forward with those things. You know, Canada has an opportunity to take this, the discussion of social inclusion, to a new level in all kinds of ways. Provinces, you know and territories will create the standards and the guidelines, and they’ll do the regional interest.

I think one of the unique things in Canada is because we’re so geographically large, we totally understand regional response, and it’s okay to be something different and because we’ve had this Covid, everyday experience of government, I think now we’re going to have a definition of which level of government should do what.

And I also think that the at the end of the day, and I have said it earlier in my conversation, we’re going to hold governments more accountable on a very personal level because we, now have this. What I think is a better understanding.

For People with Disabilities & Business

For people with disabilities, though I think is how do we now have conversations about businesses are going to change some businesses air going to do not be around.

Some businesses air going to be able to provide half service. Well, let’s push the conversation and the accountability to…while you’re rebuilding your business while you’re re-establishing your business, how can you make it more accessible?

For example, if you’re a restaurant who maybe had 50 tables and now might have to have 25 how will that design be more accessible for everyone, so that everyone, even people with disabilities can come into the business? And the second thought, and I thought for today’s conversation, I’d really like to talk about what’s happening with slogans. More of Life After Covid-19 with Alfred Spencer interview continues.

Accessibility Act in Ontario

You know, we’re using the slogan, all of us are using it…”We’re all in this together,” and I think as Canadians, we really believe this. But I want to take that sort of thought and the Ontario experience on what a slogan can do. You know, in Ontario as they rolled out the Accessibility Act, they sort of had over 10 years they had sort of three distinct periods or three distinct themes.

The first one was, “It’s the right thing to do,” and we know as Canadians and in the response to Covid people are really conscious of what’s the right thing to do. We also in Ontario, they looked at “It’s good for business,” and I want to talk a little bit about that later as I move forward.

But the most important one, and the thing that we’ve got to take forward and as people who advocate for people with disabilities, and people with disabilities, through their own voice is we have to make sure that everyone understands that no one should be left behind.

And I can tell you from the Ontario experience it was the “No One should be left behind,” that really moved the measure in Ontario. More of Life After Covid-19 with Alfred Spencer interview continues.

Wage Variants Discussion for Men & Women

When we look at the pandemic experience, we know that people believe that it’s the right thing do and that we know that no one should be left behind. I think where we get a little confused, I’m going to talk a little bit about this later, is I’m not sure, we may be “all in this together” in fighting the pandemic, I’m not sure we’re all in this together in the impact of the pandemic. Because I think it’s brought huge discussions about wage variants, women versus men, etcetera, etcetera.

But I think as I say that, I want to point out something that I think is really basic to the discussion for people with disabilities and what’s happened across the country. Communities have responded unbelievably to this the Covid. Food banks have popped up like stores, I mean, places that didn’t have food Banks have them now. You know, we’re taking people from the streets and putting them in shelters. And people are actually believing that’s the right thing to do.

And we’re taking social media and our response to social media has become the norm, you know? I mean, it’s where everyone is delivering their message. More of Life After Covid-19 with Alfred Spencer interview continues.

Alfred Spencer Accessibility Directorate Ontario is interviewed by Beth Robertson of the Conference Board of Canada about Life After Covid-19 for persons with disabilities on Accessibility TV

Signs of People Caring for People

And I think the cool thing, and the thing that actually happens at work in all communities, is that neighbors are actually helping neighbors. Whether they’re getting them food or medication, or walking their dog or, just going to a window and saying Hello. We’re seeing this whole, I would say I wouldn’t say renaissance but a re-vigour of people caring about people.

Well, before we run out of time, I wanted sort of focus on the biggest change that I think that has happened, and Max alluded to it, and we’ve started to look very differently on how we work and how we learn and how that can be happening. More of Life After Covid-19 with Alfred Spencer interview continues.

Remote Jobs & Work from Home

You know, people now are having debates about whether they can work at home or not work at home. I think, though, that what people are not understanding from a disability perspective is that what they’re asking for is accommodation.

And people with disabilities have since forever been asking for an understanding for the need for accommodation. And I’m hoping that that employers will not only understand what the regular employees, so to speak is asking for but what other people might ask for.

You know, we’ve accommodated people to work at home. We’ve accommodated people to have variable working hours starting at different times, maybe because of child care needs we’re holding virtual meetings and teams. And, I mean, who hasn’t been on zoom in the last in the last month. More of Life After Covid-19 with Alfred Spencer interview continues.

Accomodation for People with Disabilities

Those are all things that people with disabilities have been asking for Ad Infinitum, for a long, long time, And I think that we cannot, we can’t miss the chance to demonstrate to people that what they’re asking for is what other people have been asking for a long, long time.

Beth: That’s a really good point.

I think what’s you know has happened, though, is that this interest in working virtually has also done something else. And that is the experience now is not only to work virtually, but think of what’s happened to people?  And I want to talk about this because it has financial impact. More of Life After Covid-19 with Alfred Spencer interview continues.

Working from Home

If you’re working at home, and I will use the Toronto experience, if you’re not paying for Metro Link’s, which isn’t cheap every day, and you’re not paying for a TTC pass to get you from the Union station to your work, you’re probably somewhere in the ballpark of $500 a month that you have in your pocket.

If you’re not paying for child care because you’re at home or you’ve had to balance your hours, you’re actually saving money. And what does that mean?

So, I think that my answer to that is that people with disabilities can work as Max said, they can work virtually. They can work flexible work hours. More of Life After Covid-19 with Alfred Spencer interview continues.

ODSP Workforce is Educated

And in fact, if you have a disability and you’re on medication, flexible work hours are absolutely key. And I think that the other thing I think we have to present is that people with disabilities are educated. You know, in Ontario they know that 50% of the people on ODSP, for example, have some level of post-secondary education.

So, I mean, they’re ready, willing and able to work. So, I think I’m looking at the time Beth and I sort of want to give you one another example before and then I want to sum up.

Right now, there’s an opportunity that I think all of us should grab onto. Canada is focused on putting 5000 people into jobs at the federal level. I think with what we’ve learned through these discussions through Covid, it is, you know, that the federal government does more than collect taxes. There are literally hundreds of different types of jobs with different qualifications that you know can be open.

And I think that what the government needs to do is, not only do they need to be able to demonstrate, but they also need to be able to challenge the provincial government and municipalities to do likewise. And then I think you know, you bring in your local BIA’s and your Chambers of Commerce and your franchisees and you have this response that I think is really, really important.

The other thing on getting back to the role of media, and this is absolutely key, as we move forward with this opportunity, the feds have to tell the story, and it has to be about success. And they have to demonstrate that these 5000 jobs, and the people that are taking these jobs who have disabilities, are actually bringing value and commitment to the job. More of Life After Covid-19 with Alfred Spencer interview continues.

Tell Disabled Success Stories

And then I think that we once we’ve told that story, I think they have to also then be able to take those businesses or the employer side and both sides, not just this story about of this person with the disability had a success, but why did it make a success for all Canadians. The biggest barrier to employment for people with disabilities is attitude, and I think that what we’ve seen is attitudes are caused by myths or misconceptions.

And I think that we now know that people can work and be accommodated. We know that people, and Max’s point about the productivity, why wouldn’t that be true of a person with a disability?

Given the time, though, I want to play Devil’s Advocate here, and I want to throw out two thoughts. And this is the policy perspective that I want to people to think about.

As we sort of pondered today, we have, without a doubt, created a scene, a gulf in how we value jobs. Getting back to my statement about how it’s been different for us. It’s very different if you’re at home working and you’re getting a full-time salary than if you’ve been laid off and are looking for benefits. More of Life After Covid-19 with Alfred Spencer interview continues.

Workplace Role of PSW’s

But what we’ve seen is that the work for people who are the most vulnerable, were paying the least amount of money. We’re talking about the role of PSW’s. When you hear the press talk, it isn’t about doctors, although if it is, they talk about commitment, but they’re not talking about financial burden.

And so, I think that as the national discussion, I would forecast or predict that we’re going to have to have a various serious discussion on how we value work for people who are dealing with the most vulnerable. And then, secondly, I think, and I and I’m not criticizing government because I think they did what they had to do. More of Life After Covid-19 with Alfred Spencer interview continues.

A Call for National Discussion

But I want to leave this thought with everybody: almost instantaneously, the government decided that students who couldn’t work over the summer would get 1400 or $1700 a month to cover expenses in Ontario. A person with a disability gets $1100 a month. And I would say to you, that is a call for a national discussion on the rates for social assistance.

So, having said that, I will either let you ask me another question or alternate. I’ll turn the mike over to somebody else. Thank you for having me today.

Thank you, Alf. Well, actually, you have already answered my second question about regulations and policies. You’ve covered some important topics that I’d like to delve a little further into as we proceed, including the state of the Accessible Canada Act and other provisions that promote and further a “Inclusion” focused agenda with the Government of Canada.

Alfred Spencer Bio

Alfred Spencer is the former Director of the Public Education and Outreach Branch at the Ministry for Seniors and Accessibility.  Now retired, he has been involved in the delivery and design of numerous programs to assist marginal groups to find employment. Alf spear-headed the implementation of over 100 community projects related to creating awareness of accessibility issues, including programs for early childhood educators, elementary school teachers, and post-secondary students and professionals. Most recently, he has been named to the Canadian Paralympic Inclusion Committee and is also an advisor/panelist to the newly announced Canadian Universities Association Leed Competition – a national competition dedicated to the development of tools and resources to improve accessibility across Canada.

Beth A. Robertson Bio

Beth A. Robertson is the Senior Research Associate for Inclusion; Education and Skills; Future Skills at the Conference Board of Canada in Ottawa. She is a social scientist who specializes in Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, with expertise in the areas of gender, disability, technology and industry. She has served as Director of the $1.1 million small grants program “Gendered Design in STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics) for Low and Middle Country,” based out of Carleton University with funding from the International Development Research Centre.

In addition, she was Adjunct Curator of Gender and Globalization for Ingenium: Canada’s Museums of Science and Innovation. Robertson has hosted mini-documentaries for Accessibility TV and was co-primary investigator of Carleton University’s Disability Research Group. She has curated exhibits, published articles, given public presentations, organized symposiums and developed pedagogical materials related to accessibility, human rights and technology.

Accessibility TV

Accessibility TV is a Canadian entity which reaches individuals, companies, organizations and governments related to Accessibility issues, information and ideas. Our audience exceeds the 4.4 million Canadians who live with a disability by including policy makers, corporations, companies and the army of family, friends and organizations who directly support the 1 in 7 Canadians with a disability on a daily basis.

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