A Third World Existence
GUEST COLUMN by CASS LAMBERT
August 5, 2009
Disability is a new challenge in my life as a humanist and I have been stunned by how people's perception of me and my contribution to society has changed. Suddenly I am no longer equal. This being against my long time core beliefs has altered my perception of our country and life as a whole. I have been a humanist my entire life, even before I knew the definition and existence of the word.
According to the Human Rights Code of Canadian law "preservation of personal dignity is central to the promotion and maintenance of freedom and equality for Canadian Citizens." Our Charter of Rights and Freedoms in Canada states that "every individual is equal before and under the law". As a person coping with a new disability, I have been dismayed to discover that although the general consensus is that Canada is a leader in human rights, this is simply not the case.
As soon as the word "disabled" was applied to me due to several serious diseases which cause chronic debilitating pain and severe fatigue, my quality of life plummeted. Not only was I suddenly dealing with the onset of these illnesses, but also how I was perceived by society. I went from working two jobs that I enjoyed immensely and volunteering actively for several non-profit groups to some days not even being able to get out of bed and take care of myself without the assistance of my husband. Suddenly I was not equal to all those around me. I was separate; I was part of "them".
The Duty to Accommodate a person with a disability was thought to be a tremendous step forward in the protection of a person with a disability from harassment and prejudice at work. When I presented this to my employer shortly after receiving my first handicapped parking pass, it, in fact, had the opposite reaction. I was suddenly a threat and with hair loss and substantial weight loss, I was suddenly uncomfortable to be around. My managers at my employment started to try to create a toxic work environment in hopes of causing a constructive dismissal. They simply wanted me to go away, far away, over there with "them".
I was harassed daily about my humanist and atheist beliefs even being subjected to rude and hurtful comments about the fact that I choose not to celebrate Christmas, as it primarily is a Christian holiday. I was bumped, jostled and made fun of by employees acting on the instruction of their managers. Distasteful jokes in my presence about my atheist beliefs were a daily occurrence. I also was starting to be overworked and this additional stress led to me developing another auto-immune disease.
Due to this, I was encouraged by my physicians to halt working. I am currently waiting to go before the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario against my employer. I have been waiting for over six months and still have three more weeks to go. In the meantime, my life hangs in the cruel balance of this large corporation.
I have also discovered that although accessibility is guaranteed as part of our Human Rights Code and particularly the Ontario with Disabilities Act of 2001 this is simply not the case. In actuality I have experienced many occasions when I was unable to access a building with my walker that I also use as a wheelchair due to the fact that it is not wheelchair equipped. This is the case in my local government buildings as well.
How is this acceptable? If there was a sign on the door that said "no women" this would be considered completely unacceptable. How have persons with disabilities been forgotten? Quite simply once the word "disabled" was applied to me, my quality of life deteriorated to what I would consider a third world existence in a first world nation. How can we be proud of our country if it is so limiting despite attempts to correct this issue?
The fact that I am struggling for the very Human Rights that our country guarantees us as citizens disgusts me as a humanist. I am also bothered by the fact that I am referred to as disabled and not as a person. We do not call someone with cancer "cancerous" after all. They are simply a person dealing with a tragic disease. I am applying for welfare for the first time in my life and it is humiliating. I also have been discouraged by the lack of empathy and support in my community when I am out trying to take care of basic errands that most people complete without hardship or an after thought.
Many times I have been horrified to see people ignore my obvious need for help, even something as simple as opening an unequipped door. This task is almost impossible to do on one's own while using a walker or wheelchair. This often causes me to abandon my errand and contributes to my plummeting self-esteem. For the first time in my life I have struggled with whether or not I am a good person. I have always extended a hand out to my fellow humans in need despite their, race, color or religious beliefs. I have been all accepting of my fellow humans trying to build a bridge between us instead of a wall.
In the Middle Ages persons with disabilities were treated very poorly because it was considered God's will or even a demonic possession. They were often segregated and left in horrible living conditions often to perish. It is ignorant to think these beliefs do not still exist in our society today as a whole. The use of the word "cripple" is still used and applied today to person's with a disability.
I encourage all humanists to be aware of this issue and take steps against this occurrence. A person with a disability should not be ostracized and judged simply based on their handicaps.Reach out in your community. There is probably someone with a disability suffering right now that needs your help.
As humanists are we not supposed to improve the world around us with positive actions? Building bridges between different sectors of society in hopes of improving not only ourselves but also our worlds?
In the meantime, I will continue to live my now third world existence while fighting angrily for what most Canadians take for granted: the right to be equal and valued despite our differences.
Cass Lambert is from Bowmanville, Ontario, Canada