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YES! Ontario’s mental health and human rights policy can help

By Lucy Costa, Advocate with the Empowerment Council

poster and brochures for the OHCR policy on mental health disabilities and addictions

I support the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) policy and in fact, I support any and all avenues that discuss the rights of people with psychiatric disabilities and/or addictions – whether via the Ontario Human Rights Code or the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act or the CAMH Bill of Client Rights (pdf).

Why? Because:

  1. Rights processes unsettle the status quo, they defeat denial by challenging powerful institutions or practices that entrench prejudice or inequality even in well-meaning individuals and organizations.   
  2. The principle that one cannot be more or less human than any another member of our society is the most unprecedented act of love and equality we can all aspire to.

As limited as legal instruments may be, I believe we shouldn’t succumb to a buffet of opposing arguments for example, that rights are a “hollow hope” or, that rights “have gone too far” in protecting clients from needed treatment. This only succeeds in obscuring the significance and meaning of dialogue that can occur through tribunals, lower and higher courts particularly for people who are otherwise rendered voiceless.

Can we do more improve access to justice? Yes. Do the courts or tribunals work for everyone? No. The noteworthy work of authors such as Sherene Razack and Dian Million speak brilliantly to the way in which legal processes become a spectacle of colonial power instead of delivering justice to historically oppressed groups.

Though we have much more work to do, there have been some notable gains:

  • Prior to 1988, psychiatric patients were restricted from voting in psychiatric facilities, now election representatives visit psychiatric hospitals to facilitate elections for inpatients. (See: Lifting voting restrictions on mental patients (video))
  • In 2007, the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal released a decision upholding the right of people with a mental health disability to be appropriately accommodated in the workplace under Ontario’s Human Rights Code after a complaint was filed by an individual who was fired when he disclosed a psychiatric disability at work.
  • In 2008, the Dream Team (a group of consumer survivors dedicated to housing advocacy) filed a Human Rights complaint against a member of Provincial Parliament (MPP) who made derogatory remarks about people with mental health and addiction issues.
  • In 2010, an important case at the Ontario Court of Appeal acknowledged that serious alcohol or drug dependence constitutes a “disabling condition” and therefore individuals with addictions should not be discriminated against and should be eligible for Ontario Disability Support Program benefits.
  • I am also reminded that a Charter challenge on the right to housing was heard at the Ontario Court of Appeal this past May (2014) and this included interveners who cared about the lack of housing in our province.
  • Currently under way: A class action whereby individuals can file claims seeking compensation from the settlement funds from Huronia Regional Centre and other institutions to “right the wrongs” committed against people with intellectual disabilities.

Since people with mental health and addiction disabilities constitute a substantial percentage of our local and global community, we should care about this policy. And since we are all vulnerable and will struggle with some sort of disability at some point in our life, we should care about this policy.

I would also like to suggest that we move away from the current over reliance on the ambiguous language of stigma that never identifies who or what is causing discrimination and open up to the conversations and possibilities of “rights in action.”

The OHRC policy ventures into new territory on how mental health and addiction discrimination should be addressed in employment, housing and social services. There is potential for change and “action” by naming, identifying and changing practices.

The Empowerment Council would love to know what you think.

What challenges and opportunities lie ahead?

Where do you think law and policy  should  be in 10 years?

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6 Comments Post a comment
  1. Danielle #

    A great reminder of the strengths and limitations of legal rights for people with mental health and addictions issues. Thank you for reminding us of some of the gains that have been made in recent years and hats off the the OHRC for moving forward with this new policy.

    June 26, 2014
  2. ronbinsnest #

    Thanks to the Empowerment Council for their advocacy and continued work in ensuring that our rights aren’t violated, and when they are, that there is legal recourse. The historical summary really reminds us that we have to keep fighting (no institutional right to vote until 1988!) and I hope that the new Ontario Human Rights Commission’s new policies only strengthens our right to choice, freedom, and resistance.

    June 26, 2014
  3. Lucy Costa #

    Dear Danielle and RobinNest, Thank you for taking the time to comment, I and the EC appreciate your support !

    June 26, 2014
  4. There is still the ongoing stigma of persons with mental health issues in employment. Most employment support agencies tend to place people with mental health issues into low paying, low skilled work, implying that is all they can do. We have to move ahead and beyond the five f’s: food, filth, filing, fetching and flowers. Not that there is anything wrong with these jobs, but implying these are the only jobs we can and want to do is wrong … we need to put out there that people with any kind of disability are able to do the same range of jobs with the same range of skills and intellect and education that others have in the community. Many people with disabilities have multiple degrees and this is not getting recognized in the community …

    July 15, 2014
  5. Lucy #

    Thank you Angela. I agree with your point that some employment support agencies hold prejudicial views based on internalized stereotypes of what people with mental health issues are capable of achieving. These kinds of prejudicial practices also validate the fears that people feel in respect to disclosure : if I discloses I will be viewed and understood as less competent, less reliable and less valuable, which of course is not true.

    Here is a case I read that I found inspiring in regards to one woman who brought forward a human rights case against an employer for discriminatory low wages. Good for her !

    http://www.thestar.com/news/gta/2014/03/07/disabled_woman_wins_discriminatory_pay_case_at_ontario_human_rights_tribunal.html

    July 18, 2014
  6. Username404 #

    Greetings, one barrier that I find exists is that to make an OHRC complaint, it needs to be the person directly involved/discriminated against. This assumes that the individual feels empowered enough to do so and that they will expect if not at least results from doing so, that reprisal would not occur. I find it unfortunate that this does not allow much for observers to act on with regards to systemic prejudices and discrimination (e.g.: issues of addiction & mental health)

    July 26, 2014

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