York leads national research project on disability rights research

A woman in a wheelchair is hit by her caregiver, but the abuse is not reported. She has no way to tell someone else without alerting the abuser, and the woman does not have the power to fire her caregiver.

That is just one type of human rights violation faced by people with disabilities. A nationwide research project, led by York Professor Marcia Rioux (right), will monitor and record such human rights violations to put together an accurate picture of the daily lives of Canadians with disabilities. Rioux is Chair of York’s School of Health Policy & Management, Atkinson Faculty of Liberal & Professional Studies, and director of the York Institute for Health Research.

The project has received a major five-year research grant of almost $1 million from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada through its CURA (Community-University Research Alliances) program, announced by SSHRC on April 11.

“Our constitution guarantees equality for all of us, but the reality is that people with disabilities are not treated equally,” says Rioux. “They have nowhere near the kind of autonomy, respect, dignity, or equality that the rest of us enjoy. People with disabilities are still denied their rights on a daily basis. It is absolutely inexcusable that, in the 21st century, in a country as wealthy as Canada, people with disabilities can’t exercise their rights in the same way that others can.”

Rioux, an internationally recognized expert in disability rights research and policy, is the principal investigator on the project, titled “Monitoring the Human Rights of People with Disabilities in Canada.” She and 14 co-investigators (nine academics and six community experts) plus members of 17 organizations in the disability and human rights community, will track the lives of people with disabilities in Winnipeg, Toronto, Quebec City and a fourth city, yet to be determined.

The project assembles an interdisciplinary team to address the complex nature of disability discrimination. It is the first such study to monitor and statistically document the rights issues faced by persons with disabilities. The team will produce a “report card” that Rioux predicts “will lay bare the contradiction between the promise and the reality. This will not be a reflection of peoples’ disability – it will be a reflection of the shortcomings of our society.”

Rioux’s co-investigators include additional researchers from York University, along with colleagues from Université Laval and the University of Victoria, as well as four government agencies, a media research company, key members of Canada’s disability policy community, and experts on disability rights, legal issues, media monitoring, and disability policy, from five different provinces. For a complete list of co-applicants and partners on the project, see the list of successful CURA grants click here.

The collaborators will use rights-based standards found in existing international human rights conventions and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which is currently being negotiated at the United Nations.

Under Rioux’s direction, the project will implement a sustainable system for monitoring human rights by researching legal issues, examining media coverage of persons with disabilities, developing monitoring-training programs, creating a database system, and field testing the system so that monitoring is consistent across Canada and disability rights groups can use the data to advocate for change.

Social justice demands that we ensure that people with disabilities can exercise their rights as Canadian citizens, Rioux says. Statistics show that people with disabilities have much higher levels of poverty and unemployment, and lower levels of literacy.

Human rights violations are an everyday occurrence for people with disabilities, Rioux says. For instance, a blind man may not be able to use a bank machine without support if the keys are not in Braille. During an election, he cannot exercise his right to vote if the campaign literature and ballots are not accessible because they are not supplied in Braille. A woman with a disability who has an attendant must pay two fares on public transit, despite her low income. A woman using a wheelchair is not allowed into a movie theatre because the two designated wheelchair spots are already occupied.

The $998,000 CURA project is part of a larger global project, Disability Rights Promotion International (DRPI) which is facilitating the monitoring of disability rights around the world. For more information, visit www.yorku.ca/drpi.

“This grant recognizes the international excellence of Professor Rioux’s research and enhances York University’s ability to undertake collaborative research that has a positive impact within our communities,” says Stan Shapson, York’s vice-president research & innovation. “This CURA project will enable York University and community organizations to jointly develop new knowledge, tools, and methods, while building research capacity and understanding in an area important to all Canadians.”

The CURA awards were established by SSHRC in 1999 to facilitate stronger collaborations between community organizations and university researchers in order to develop increased capacity and new community-based knowledge on critical issues important to Canadian communities. This program supports a diverse range of innovative research, training and related activities.