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Province House rally calls on politicians to commit to equality for people with disabilities

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KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – Some 100 people gathered at Province House earlier today to remind the government (and voters) that the Liberal government did not meet its commitment to stop warehousing people who live with physical or developmental disabilities in institutionalized settings. 

That promise was made when the Liberals assumed power in 2013 and both Stephen McNeil and then Community Services minister Joanne Bernard said that they would wholeheartedly support the so-called disabilities roadmap. This roadmap lays out a detailed plan to close large institutions within ten years and put supports in place so that its residents can live independently and in their own communities.  

As we have often reminded readers of these pages, today, eight years later, we’re not even close to meeting the roadmap targets. Meanwhile, waitlists for community living supports have increased.  

Donnie MacLean is the president of People First Nova Scotia as well as of the People First Annapolis chapter. People First is an organization run by citizens labeled with intellectual disabilities. Its motto is Nothing about us without us.  

“We must keep the roadmap going. It’s kind of a slow process right now. The government hasn’t really been working on it, and they’re behind. We want them to get on the ball and get this done, so people can get out and have homes that they can live in,” MacLean tells the Nova Scotia Advocate.

Vicky Levack, a fierce disabilities rights advocate, was one of the speakers at the rally. Levack is young, yet has no choice but to live in what is essentially a place for senior citizens. She isn’t happy about it.

“The reason I am here today is because I feel that the government does not listen to me, or anybody with a disability for that matter,” Levack told a cheering crowd. “It’s as if we don’t matter to them.”

As Vicki has so powerfully attested, people with disabilities in Nova Scotia continue to face a tragic alternative of social abandonment on the one side or controlling institutionalization on the other,” said Sheila Wildeman, a Law professor at Dalhousie and a member of the Community Housing Action Group (CHAG), one of the organizers of the rally.

“Why can’t we de-institutionalize disability? Why can’t we build communities that honour the beauty and the humanity of our neuro-diverse and physically diverse brothers and sisters, rather than continuing to invest in incarceration and unresponsive institutions,” Wildeman asked.

“Ableism works alongside colonialism, racism, and hetero-patriarchal violence to reinforce existing patterns of haves and have nots. Those who are seeking responsive disability support to live as equals in our communities are told no, get to the back of the line. Only if your needs are high enough can you come to the front of the line and submit to a controlling and punishing institution. There is no justice without disability justice.”

After the rally, which featured other speakers, parents and people directly affected as well, I spoke with Wendy Lill, playwright and former MP, whose activism as a member of CHAG was instrumental in the creation of the roadmap by the then NDP government. 

I remember first meeting Wendy at another Province House rally, very much like the one today, while I worked for the Halifax Media Co-op.

“I think that rally, in 2012, played a part in galvanizing the political class to set up the roadmap,” Lill says. “Very shortly after that, the roadmap process began. 21 people were chosen from across the province, and we met for a period of six months and banged out a very reasonable, doable report based on lots of research and analysis. We came up with a plan that would let people out of institutions, deal with the wait list, and create enough community-based options for people to live in their in their own neighbourhoods,” Lill says.

So what went wrong?

“I always come back to the issues of leadership and resources. It has to start at the top, there has to be a commitment at the Treasury Board table to move this forward. That leadership hasn’t been there, not consistently,” says Lill.

See also: Speaking truth to power: “I don’t need you to be proud, I need serious systemic change”

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