Looking at some news stories in Ontario causes me to wonder-and worry-about the future facing disabled persons.
Toronto Star columnist Thomas Walkom recently wrote about the plight of one Ontario family in the wake of welfare cutbacks. Matthew Jensen is an eight year old with severe autism who cannot speak feed or dress himself. Matthew is fed through a tube inserted directly into his stomach and still wears diapers. His father took flight shortly after he was born, leaving his mother Charmaine as his care-giver and single mother on welfare.
The Jensens receive various payments and supplements from the government intended for the disabled and these have not been cut. Walkom reported that according to the government rules, Charmaine Jensen is capable of work and so her monthly family benefits are being cut from $1,221 a month to $957.
Well, we all know the Toronto Star and its long-time devotion to the Liberal party. It seemed clear that they were using the Jensen’s plight to embarrass the Conservative government. Obviously, no one intended that this family should be hit so unfairly. The cuts faced by the Jensens were based on rules for the able-bodied and in this case had unintentionally worked to deprive a severely disabled child.
I knew that caught by such an embarrassing story the responsible cabinet minister would announce within days that special provisions would be made for families such as the Jensens. I knew that that the universal reaction in Ontario would be to regard such unintended cuts as inhumane and in need of remedy.
Turns out that I know nothin’.
The readers of the Toronto Star were indeed moved by the story and some seventy people phoned Mrs. Jensen at home. Fully three-quarters of them phone Mrs. Jensen with negative comments-that is, remarks that attacked her, not the cutbacks!
The provincial government meanwhile has not said a single word to suggest there is a problem here. The highest government officials are apparently happy to have the Jensen family endure the cuts they are facing.
In fact, the recent actions of the provincial government have made it clear that its targeting of the disabled is no accident. Among the cutbacks announced by the government during its first 60 days in power, is a cut of over $1 million in the annual grant to the public transit service for the physically disabled in Toronto.
Perhaps the greatest damage to the cause of the disabled will come from the Ontario government’s announced plan to ditch the entire Employment Equity program. That program was intended to ensure that employers hire a fair share of certain specified minorities. One of the minority groups specified by the legislation is the disabled.
Very roughly, the legislation works this way. If a company has one hundred employees working as engineers, for example, and if five per cent of the qualified engineers in the province are disabled, and if that company has less than five per cent disabled lawyers working for it, then the company must come up with a plan to raise that level.
Such plans are crucial to the well-being of the disabled. There is widespread discrimination against them. Indeed, the ordinary rules of business almost ensure that they are discriminated against. Hiring disabled persons generally requires that the employer incur extra expenses such as installing ramps, automatic doors, or revamped washrooms. The profit motive dictates that, everything else being equal, an employer hire the able-bodied candidate.
If the profit motive reigns supreme, the disabled will be relegated to the margins of society and condemned to a life of poverty.
The Conservatives have promised to throw out the employment equity legislation as an undue burden on employers. They have no plans to help the disabled assume a meaningful place in the commercial life of the province. Instead, the Ontario Conservatives under Mike Harris are committed to not interfering with the operation of profit motive-a prime cause of the marginalization of the disabled.
The government’s defenders say that its actions will result in greater profits and lower taxes. But isn’t there something shameful about doing this on the backs of the disabled?