Friday, February 18, 2011

Frustration and the Never-ending Spiral of Segregaton

See this picture?  I came upon it the other day when I was sorting through and editing my digital photos. It was taken on New Year's Eve.  I have no recollection of why I was angry and looking so ferocious!

This photo does seem to mirror the feelings I had last week: blood boiling fury and head banging against the wall, screaming into my pillow frustration!

It all started on Monday, February 7th, when I checked my mail and opened a letter from ODSP.  I was shocked and horrified to learn that they had put my file on hold, effectively as of February 1st.  (The letter was dated February 1st, so there was no warning at all that they were going to pull the rug from under me!) The reason for this drastic action was that I had not sent in my CPP information nor my business details.

Not letting the grass grow under my feet, I printed out all my business details for 2010 and also wrote this letter:

February 7, 2011

To whom it may concern,

My name is Anne Abbott and I am requesting an internal review. I received your letter on February 7th, 2011 stating that my ODSP file is now on hold. I do not understand why this is so. In your letter you said I did not provide you with the CPP/QPP – Other and Business Income information, please clarify for me what the CPP/QPP is. My worker only told me to provide my income and expenses every year, and I have not been called in yet to give that information. It is no trouble to provide this information at all, as long as I am informed first. I was not informed! I need my ODSP money, I only make $100 a month from my business, if that. Please take my file off the hold.

Thank you,

Anne Abbott

I took this letter with me to the ODSP office the very next day. I asked to see my worker and they said no problem. Within 15 minutes I was in a cubicle facing my worker. There were 2 things I noticed right away. One, was that this woman was not my usual person; and two, she was talking about me in the third person to Lenny. I exploded!

I told the worker to talk directly to me: I was right in front of her and understood everything she was saying! (I just don't understand - they must deal with other non-verbal people all the time! Do they talk about all of them as if they weren't there? And I've been there so many times over the years, you'd think they would know me!) Still fired up, I told her that I thought it was terrible that they had given me no warning at all about cutting me off. Do you know how scared and intimidated I felt? To think that this agency has so much power over my life, and that they didn't think of the consequences of how this might impact my world!

To my amazement, my worker actually apologized and said she would take this matter up with her manager.  Then she left the office and came back with some forms for me to fill out.  One was the application for the CPP (I don't know why she wanted me to apply for a pension when I'm not even 65, it even says on the form that you have to be 65!)

When she handed me the other application, her tone became accusatory, saying I hadn't applied for the Death Benefit within a year. That was really the crux of the matter for ODSP. I defended myself by saying I don't know why I have to apply for the benefit when it will just be taken out of my next month's cheque. She said that was just how things worked.  I groaned inwardly, but said to her yes, sure, I would fill out the application if that would get me my pension back.

What these bureaucrat bastards don't seem to understand is that filling out the form for the Death Benefit opens up old wounds.  I mean, sure, I know that Rob is gone, but I've learned to put that away in a secret little compartment in the back of my mind. They made me revisit that most horrible time in my life, and then they put a cherry on the top of this whole mess by telling me that I can't even keep the money for myself.  How degrading!

And  then, last Thursday, I went to a demonstration at City Hall with DAMN, OCAP, No One is Illegal, and AIDS Action Now, among many other coalition parties.  We did not "storm" into City Hall as some people in the media were claiming.  No, we went in quietly and stood there, listening and absorbing all the information about the budget and cuts.

After awhile we heard the marching band approaching from outside the doors of the committee room.  And then, somebody gave the signal to start yelling things like: "Stop the war on the poor! Make the rich pay!" Ford's slashing of 2000 beds at homeless shelters and much needed late night bus routes being canceled, were also hot topics to be vented.

Ire rose on both sides.  Most of  the councilors had been escorted by security guards back to their offices, but at one point Doug Ford yelled at a member of OCAP to "get a job"  (a fact that he later denied, even though he was caught on tape saying it!) I actually know this person; she works for and gets paid by OCAP, so Doug Ford's comment seems doubly ridiculous!

There were speeches read with great passion by many people. I was one of those people.  Here is my speech:

We are here today to voice our outrage and disgust at the cuts that are being proposed. Slashing the number of beds at at homeless shelters and cutting $100 000 from tenant representation isn't the type of city I want to live in.
Instead of these inhumane cuts, why can't Ford and the city of Toronto do some things that are progressive and uplifting. Instead of tearing down people's hopes and dreams for the future, why not try to help them build them up right from the start.

Begin with the educational system. Stop the segregation of disabled children from other children! Segregation breeds ableism, labeling the disabled child as “different”, and making the impression that they are not really a part of society, or at least not an important part.

This type of societal attitude will follow a disabled child throughout their lifetime. As years go by, instead of being hidden away in “special” school, a person will be hidden away from society in different ways. It will be an extreme rarity for them to appear in television, movies, or other media because their appearance is considered to be “undesirable”. And, what happens in their daily lives will be kept secret: the abuse, degradation, and poverty. A disabled adult will face other types of segregation: institutions, hospitals, and jail. Even with on-site attendant care projects, a disabled person using these services is locked into a world of abuse and frustration with little hope of escape the warped internal politics of each of these projects is infuriatingly similar.

And the feeling of being thought as a lower member of society will also continue throughout a person's lifetime as they fight to secure their basic rights only to be met with sneers or stony silence from government officials who promise to make the environment accessible and to make poverty go away, but don't follow through.

Instead of making cuts which will hurt more people than help them, why don't YOU Rob Ford, follow through and make the necessary changes that were promised to us: accessible and reliable transit, barrier free buildings, and an end to poverty! Do something humane for the City of Toronto for a change, Rob Ford!

Stop the school segregation of disabled children! End the ableism before it begins!

People may say that this strong stance against segregation of disabled children is too much. They need special care, don't they?  They need to be treated a bit more gently because they're "special".

Let me tell you about my experience with segregated schools.  When I was 5 years old this big blue bus picked me up, along with several disabled children, every day through the week days and brought us to the Ontario Crippled Children's Centre.

After everyone got off the bus, we were all taken to the physio therapy room where we were exercised for two hours or more. Sometimes physio therapist students would come in, and we were told to perform for them and show them what we had learned.

After physio therapy, speech therapy, and maybe an hour of schooling, we had lunch.  Lunch on Fridays was particularly frightening for me because the person who usually (and very oddly, come to think of it!) served me was my speech therapist, and she, quite cruelly, force-fed me fish, something I had repeatedly told her that I despised.

 I also despised my speech therapist. One day, when I was in her office, with no parent present for emotional support, she told me that unless I put everything aside (school, friends, even daily exercises), I'd never be able to talk.  I was only 6 years old, and what she said crushed me!  I had wanted to be able to talk so badly, and she wiped out any hope of me eventually being able to do that.  Even back then, I was a well-rounded, socialized person, and that choice of giving else up that I loved was no choice for me at all.  Instead, I developed my own mode of communication.

After lunch-time came nap-time. Half a dozen blue exercise mats were laid out on the floor, and we kids were placed upon them, three to a mat.  If we chatted amongst ourselves or even (how dare we!) giggled, we were either yelled at or carried by one arm and one leg to another mat.

When I reached the age of 7, the Centre told my parents that I seemed listless and depressed, and they figured that the reason for this was that my young mind wasn't being challenged enough.

So, I was transferred to a school called Sunny View.  And,  admittedly, Sunny View was way better than the Ontario Crippled Children's Centre.  Learning was top priority, doing exercises came second.

I do have one bad memory from being at Sunny View.  I was 10 years old, and it was suddenly decided by the matrons that the kids were too heavy for them to transfer on and off the toilets and that the male janitors should be doing the lifting.  Admittedly, it was an era before mechanical ceiling lifts, but surely the matrons could have worked together and done two-person lifts.  The janitors were large and sweaty, and stank of stale beer.  They assisted me only once with the washroom - and then never again!  For six more years, I simply refused to use the washroom while at school.

(I should mention that around this time, when I was 9, I went to Blue Mountain Camp, a camp for children with disabilities. It was there that a male councilor peeled my wet bathing suit. He complained to his peers around him that this wasn't his job, and I thought to myself, how can you complain when I'm lying before you, totally naked and feeling utterly humiliated and vulnerable?)

When I was 16, a bunch of us got transferred to a regular high school.  I liked the English and Art classes, and although I didn't feel I was a genius in History, my teacher insisted that I was his best pupil.  I made friends, too, cool friends who respected the person I was and offered every day to help me eat my lunch. I couldn't help but think why couldn't school be like right from the beginning?  Kids helping other kids and learning from each other!

I had to quit high school.  There was just one bus that took all of the disabled kids from and to their homes, and because everyone lived in different parts of the city it took me up to three hours to get home.  I was too exhausted to do my homework.

The Board of  Education provided me with a home tutor. I really liked Carol - she was cool, and understood that I was a real person with brains and ambitions. My mom would provide tea and cookies during our lessons, and Carol would occasionally bring along her three little children.  It was a wonderful atmosphere, and I got my grade 12 in English and my grade 11 in History.

Am I saying all disabled children and teens should be home tutored? Hell no! What I am saying is, right from the start disabled children should be integrated with other children so that there's understanding and empathy on both sides. I will say it again: segregation breeds prejudice, which spirals downwards to poverty, abuse, and "differentness". Surely it wouldn't be difficult to make all schools accessible! Didn't the OAA state that by 2025 everything would be accessible? Shouldn't that include schools, too? Not that I'm saying that we should wait until 2025. And didn't McGuinty say he wanted to stop poverty? When I was 18, I was put on Family Benefits, which morphed into ODSP. No one suggested that I should get a job, or even more education; it was just assumed that this was the end of the road for me, and financially and in some ways socially, yes, it was.

Fortunately, I empowered myself by creating my art, and writing about my life. It is my fervent hope that by these means society will wake up and see the injustices that disabled people experience on a daily basis.