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Saturday, 11 February 2012

Back-logged: Canada's View on Disability

CANADA IS KNOWN for its amazing acceptance of everyone, from every walk of life. We are, by defualt, a very understanding and accommodating nation, and that notion is-- if nothing else-- part of our national image. And that’s swell, but I’d argue there’s trouble in paradise, specifically when it comes to the Canadian public’s views on disability. I’m not one two point fingers, but I think the confused impression the public has of people with disabilities is due to the contradicting mindsets of Canadian policy makers and those in the news media industry. In my fancy-shmancy my-parents-forced-me-to-get-a-degree lingo, I would say that:Canada’s legislation promotes acceptance and integration in the form of accessibility, but the ideologies inferred by media, specifically news broadcasts, send conflicting messages which favour ignorance. The mixed messages purported from the two influential sources create a back-log effect for the Canadian public’s views and understanding of disability.The cyclical relationship between the news, media and the general public is why we can’t progress, and become the all-accepting mosaic of a country we so long to be. In Laymen’s terms, the reason people speak to me like I’m hearing impaired (instead of in a wheelchair) is because they have received multiple contrasting signals from the government legislation and everyday news media, telling them what to do when it comes to disability. They’re probably really confused.

Gumdrops and Lollipops: Disability Policy in Canada

Canadian mandates on accessibility and equality sound so forward-thinking, they almost ring utopic. Around this time last year, the Legislative Assembly of Ontario released a new standard for accessibility around Ottawa stating that its goal was, “improving accessibility through identifying, removing and preventing barriers in key areas of customer service, employment, communications and information, and the built environment.”(see: www.ontla.on.ca/lao-organization/.../accessibility-2010-2011_en.pdf). The legislation touches on a number of things that effect many people with disabilities on a regular basis, such as improving building accessibility, adding accessible washrooms, and training those in customer service on what I call “disability etiquette”. It all sounds great, and in many ways it is. On the flip side of the coin however, is the glaring fact that people have to be “trained, retrained, or refreshed” on how to “communicate with people with disabilities” This strikes me as both horribly sad and hysterical, as it makes people with disabilities sound like a new species or something. Not to mention it makes all those in the service industry look like fools, for not having the sense to know how to interact with another human being. As ridiculous as it is though, I commend the legislative assembly for admitting that people do need to be trained on how to treat those with disabilities, since more often than not in my experience, prejudice gets in the way of common sense.

The Media, The Problem

While policy-makers are on the right track with implementing laws that enforce equality for people with disabilities, the news media is sending quite a different message. This is problematic, given that both policies and news media are major influences of public consciousness. I recently read that, “a “recent survey released by NADbank shows that [the] total weekly newspaper penetration levels [is] between 75% to 80% of the [Canadian] adult population.”This means that a huge chunk of citizens read the news on a regular basis. I’d venture to say that if you’re reading this, you likely fit somewhere in that 75-80%. Bottom line is, the news, in its many forms and outlets is wide-spread throughout Canada, and therefore influences, to varying extents, the people who consume it.

In the spirit of media influence, I think it was Spiderman’s Uncle Ben who said, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Since news providers have roughly 80% of Canada’s grown-up population watching them, their content--everything from portrays of wars, to depictions of human interest stories involving low income citizens--matters. Unfortunately, news reporters work on a tight, day-to-day/ breaking news timeline which doesn’t allow for much elaboration or explanation of the topics and situations which they so readily convey. This means that we, the public, are left to fill in the blanks in telegram-type titles and 5-7 word bi-lines, which, leaves a lot of room for interpretive error. The curt, brief style of news media essentializes people and stories at best, and discriminates groups and issues at worst.
Though the aftertaste of being stripped to the bare minimum in news stories is likely felt by nearly everyone at some point, I would argue the news’ portrayal of people with disabilities is especially careless. This week, I read an article dealing with the government’s pulling of $300 000 from a program which provided care and recreation for adults with physical and mental disabilities (see: http://www.cbc.ca/news/health/story/2012/02/08/ottawa-cut-program-disabled-adults.html).
The article is most troublesome in its choice of wording when describing the people with disabilities, both on the broadcast, and in the written piece. In the broadcast, the anchorman calls the subjects “severely disabled adults,” failing to specify that all member of the discussed program are physically AND mentally disabled. We, as audiences, are left to infer the occurrence or a developmental delay, on top of a physical disability, simply from the word “severe”. This language is not only problematic in that it is vague, it is also inaccurate. I have a disability that is termed “severe” by professionals, although my cognitive abilities remain untouched. According to what the news would have us believe however, “severe” encompasses only people who face physical and mental disabilities. Rather than using common sense and placing the words, “mentally and physically” in front of “disabled” before the description of the upcoming newsstory, viewers are left with a vague and incorrect impression of disability, likely assuming that “severe” indicates both a developmental and physical disability.
Aside from this issue of incorrectly labeling the people with disabilities it is identifying, neither the article nor the accompanying broadcast mentions whether the program takes on members with strictly physical or strictly mental disabilities. Does each individual who has access to the program have physical and mental limitations, or do some only have one or the other? We are, once again, left to assume these important details, under the blanket the media so easily labels as “The disabled”.

I find it quite annoying that we have policy makers peeing their pants with excitement when it comes to implementing barrier free environments for people with disabilities, while simultaneously some politically incorrect, lazy news transcriber can’t take the time to at least attempt depicting people with disabilities properly. Instead public is left to make their own impressions and, in my opinion, its likely that lack of knowledge, will lead to most people filling in the blanks with some sort of stereotype. This process flies in the face of disability awareness, and hence we have the vicious circle, the is policy, media, public.

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