Category Archives: justice

The Largest Minority Round Table Discussion: Glee and Disability in Pop Culture

Last week s.e. smith and several other members of the disability community, including Alice Sheppard (a dancer with AXIS wheelchair dance company), TK Small (a lawyer and disability rights activist), Christine Bruno (who works with the advocacy group Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts), and Maysoon Zayidd (an actor and comedienne with Cerebral Palsy).

came together on the WBAI show The Largest Minority to discuss Glee and depictions of disability in popular culture. This particular episode of the radio show was inspired by s.e.’s post, A Very Glee Christmas.

You can download directly from their site: This is a direct download link to save-as. Alternately, you can play it on the WBAI site by going to their archives and scrolling down to Shared Timeslot Wednesday 10pm to 11pm on Wednesday, December 22, 2010 10:00 pm. Alternately, you can read the transcript.

The actual show itself doesn’t start until 3:52 in to the program slot.

It’s taken me a while to get the transcript of this done, for which I apologize. I did mean to get this up far faster than I did. I also should note that I had some difficulties always identifying who was speaking, and there are points in the program where the show’s audio cuts out terribly and I’m unsure what they’re saying.

Read more: The Largest Minority Round Table Discussion: Glee and Disability in Pop Culture

Recommended Reading for 17 December, 2010

Gentle reader, be cautioned: comments sections on mainstream media sites tend to not be safe and we here at FWD/Forward don’t necessarily endorse all the opinions in these pieces. Let’s jump right in, shall we?

United States: Tampa’s ‘Sensitive Santa’ allows children with autism to get photographs, too by Shelley Rossetter at the St Petersburg Times:

The mall’s owner, Glimcher Realty Trust of Ohio, started Sensitive Santa in some malls nationwide two years ago and extended the idea to all its properties this year, said Kristy Genna, marketing director for WestShore Plaza.

Ireland: Deaf man can sit on jury, says judge by Eithne Donnellan at the Irish Times:

A HIGH Court Judge has ruled for the first time that a deaf person can sit on a jury in the Central Criminal Court.

Mr Justice Paul Carney yesterday ruled that profoundly deaf teacher Senan Dunne could sit on a trial jury with the aid of a sign language interpreter. He said objections to having a “13th person in the jury room” in the form of a sign language interpreter could be met by the signer taking an oath of confidentiality and the jury foreman ensuring that she or he was confined to translating what went on.

Just updating you on the situation in Sierra Leone (see RR for 3 December): In Sierra Leone, Disability Congress Writes President Koroma by Abdul Karim Fonti Kabia at the Awareness Times:

The NDC highlighted that persons with disabilities remain severely under-represented in political and decision-making positions; disabled hold only 0.01% of parliamentary seats, and; the current representation of disable persons in cabinet is at 0.0%.

Indonesia: City to Soon Issue Bylaw on Disabilities at

As form of its attention to the disabled, Jakarta capital city government plans to implement local regulations on building facilities and accessibility for the disabled, including the sanctions for the violators. At present, there are approximately 35 thousand disabled people in five administrative areas of Jakarta.

Australia: ‘Warringah Council is seeking feedback on design concepts for the Collaroy Disability Tourism Precinct,’ something you can read about in Disability precinct design feedback wanted at the Manly Daily. Also see Windfall for disabled, also by Brenton Cherry at the Manly Daily:

The vision is to create a holiday destination for people with disabilities and their carers as well as a specialist economic business hub for Collaroy.

It would be a place where not only access to the beach, including to the water using an amphibious wheelchair, is possible, but also restaurants, public transport, accommodation and entertainment facilities.

Here’s the page on the Warringah Council website. Collaroy is a beautiful place on Sydney’s Northern Beaches. I am so excited to hear about this proposal, and hope that more people will be able to enjoy that stunning beach!

Send your links to recreading[@]disabledfeminists[.]com. Let us know if/how you want to be credited. And have yourself a fabulous weekend.

Howard Hyde Inquiry Ignores Ableism As Cause of Death

Note: This post discusses police violence against people with mental health conditions.

The results of the Hyde Inquiry were released on Wednesday.

Some things about the Hyde Inquiry, since I don’t think it’s been widely covered outside of Nova Scotia. I wrote this summary several months ago:

Howard Hyde had a diagnosis of schizophrenia. The treatments he was on were making him sick, so he stopped taking them. He became violent.

His wife called the mobile mental health team – a project in Halifax that will go to you rather than you needing to go to them. She then called 9-1-1.

Two days later, he was dead in police custody, having been tasered.

Various things went horribly wrong. Among them were -and continue to be – the police’s inability to deal with people who have schizophrenia, amongst other mental health related conditions.

What they should have done was taken him to the hospital. Which they did, for a bit, and then left, returning him to lock-up.

His wife had tried to contact them and make sure that he was okay, and that they were aware that he had schizophrenia.

“I really wanted him to be in the hospital and get the treatment he needed for psychosis,” she said.

He had been taken to hospital for assessment, and the hospital staff requested that he be returned to the hospital after his arraignment hearing. He was not.

Parts of the surveillance tape of the tasering itself are “missing”.

“Hyde began struggling when officers tried to cut the string from his shorts. Though images were not caught on tape, surveillance audio recorded sound of the scuffle. Edwards can be heard saying “Howard, sit down.” Fellow Const. Greg McCormack is then argued to have said “You’re going to be doing the f***ing dance next, Howard,” although his voice is muffled.

It was also revealed that more than 30 minutes of footage of Hyde in a cell waiting to be booked has gone missing.”

I’ve since learned that what was actually said to Howard as the police officers approached him with a knife:

A surveillance camera captured the moment when an officer told Hyde a utility knife would be used to remove a knot from the drawstring in Hyde’s shorts, saying: “I just have to cut off one of those balls there.”

Anyway, as I said, the results were back. After 11 months of looking into the death of a man who police were called to help, we’ve all been told that Howard’s murder was an “accident” and it had nothing to do with his mental health condition.

“The only useful approach is to understand that Mr. Hyde died because of physiological changes in his body brought on by an intense struggle involving restraint,” Derrick wrote. “He did not die because he was mentally ill.”

I suppose this is technically correct. Howard’s death was not because he was mentally ill, his death was because the police were ill-equipped to deal with someone having a mental health crisis. I don’t have statistics about the number of men having mental health crises that are murdered by police officers every year, but I do know that I can’t go a whole month without at least one report, and it’s an issue that the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada feels needs to be addressed.

I think it is naive to state that Howard wasn’t murdered because of his diagnosis. I think it ignores a frightening history of people with mental health conditions being murdered by police officers. I think it ignores that the criminal justice system is not equipped to effectively deal with people with mental health conditions. I think it ignores that there are limited resources available for people with mental health conditions and their families to get the help they need to cope with crisis situations.

I think it completely ignores the fact that Howard’s wife called the police for help, and two days later he was dead.

So yes, Howard Hyde isn’t dead because he had schizophrenia. He’s dead because ableism kills.

Recommended Reading for 2 December, 2010

I am quite, quite as shocked as s.e. that it is December! Gentle reader, be cautioned: comments sections on mainstream media sites tend to not be safe and we here at FWD/Forward don’t necessarily endorse all the opinions in these pieces. Let’s jump right in, shall we?

There’s Respect, and Then There’s Respect by a rather strikingly beautiful, talented and intelligent woman by the name of Chally at the Don’t DIS My ABILITY blog:

I’ve been thinking about how “respect” for people with disabilities is often framed in negative and condescending terms. We’re only worthy of respect insofar as we play the inspirational martyr. We can be respected for struggling through what are supposedly inevitably hopeless, helpless lives. But we can’t be respected for fighting back against the systemic barriers keeping us down, or questioning our care.

Disabled want more by Fungi Kwaramba at The Zimbabwean:

The National Association for the Care of the Handicapped (NASCOH) said that 10 per cent of the country’s population live with disability. Even though there is a Disability Act the laws has not been enforced, and this has seen the continued exclusion of the disabled from mainstream activities.

UK: Spending cuts threaten disability arts festival by Helen Carter at The Guardian:

“DaDaFest is here to present the work of deaf and disabled artists, whose work is on a par with mainstream artists,” says the festival’s artistic director, Garry Robson. “Disabled and deaf people are not simply passive consumers of a tragic destiny but active participants in all areas of life, with a unique and valuable cultural perspective that we plan to share during the festival.”

Australia: Editorial: Shortfall in disability services at AdelaideNow:

While many services are stretched on days such as Christmas, it is hard to imagine an able-bodied person needing to book a taxi three months early to ensure they can enjoy lunch with family and friends. This shortage needs to be recognised.

Nearly half of Israel’s disabled forgo food, medicine, heat by Ruth Eglash at the Jerusalem Post:

According to a study by the National Commission for People with Disabilities, which was released on Monday ahead of the International Day of People with Disabilities to be marked worldwide on Friday, out of roughly 1.5 million Israelis who consider themselves disabled, 43 percent of those with severe disabilities and 29% with moderate disabilities went without food at some stage over the past year, while more than one-third of those with severe disabilities and 23% with moderate disabilities had to miss out on essential medication because they could not afford it.

Send your links to recreading[@]disabledfeminists[.]com. Let us know if/how you want to be credited.

Recommended Reading for 12 November, 2010

Gentle reader, be cautioned: comments sections on mainstream media sites tend to not be safe and we here at FWD/Forward don’t necessarily endorse all the opinions in these pieces. Let’s jump right in, shall we?

Sydney Morning Herald: Why I’m not in the queue for the disabled loo by Liz Ellis.

There was a debate over policy and procedure but ultimately it came down to human conscience, something that I am incredibly appreciative of. But should I really have to rely on human conscience overriding policy and procedure?

The Globe and Mail: The sound (and sight and feel) of music for the deaf by Jill Mahoney.

Frank Russo helps make music for the deaf.

Working with a team of researchers, the Ryerson psychology professor invented a chair that allows deaf people to feel music through vibrations. He also works with both deaf and hearing musicians to compose music that focuses on vibrations and vision rather than sound.

The Los Angeles Times: Mentally ill prisoners get a second chance by Lee Romney.

Mental health courts are operating in 29 California counties, helping offenders and reducing crime in their communities.

As I mentioned a few days ago, I’m writing for the NSW Don’t DIS My ABILITY campaign at present. Here, have some tacky self-promotion!

…and I’m feeling good

This will be a bit of a shock if you’re invested in disabled bodies as broken and horrible and unlovable, so brace yourself.

I love mine.

Who Gets to Speak?

I’ve been thinking about this man ever since, and the way he read me as abled. But mostly I’ve been thinking about assumptions about the kinds of people who do disability advocacy. Namely, there’s a strong perception amongst the abled public that people with disabilities are unable to advocate for ourselves. Supposedly, our abled family and friends do it all for us.

That’s all for this time. Send your links to recreading[@]disabledfeminists[.]com. Let us know if/how you want to be credited.

The Veil of Ignorance

As some of you who follow me on Twitter know, I spent the weekend in Kansas City with my grandfather, who had experienced an as-yet-to-be-diagnosed health crisis and was in the hospital. (Nothing is dire and he’s expected to make a full recovery and be discharged in the next week or so.) At home in Los Angeles, most of my hospital experience is with Los Angeles County Hospital, an enormous facility that is massively overloaded in trying to meet the health care needs of Los Angeles County’s indigent population. In Kansas City, I was spending time in the Rehabilitation Care wing of what seemed to be a very well funded private hospital. And the differences were monumental.

Los Angeles County Hospital serves about 39,000 inpatients a year, with over 150,000 emergency room visits a year. This is utterly massive, and has led to a lot of complaints about overcrowding, with allegations that emergency room visitors wait an average of 35 hours to be seen – sometimes without even having their vital signs taken. A recent LA Times story showed that likely because of administrative policy hiccups, a patient was admitted to another county hospital and was an inpatient for two days before being assigned a doctor. In another county facility, since closed down, a woman waiting to be seen in the ER bled out and died in the waiting room without being seen. Having spent some time at those hospitals, I can attest that while the relatively new buildings are pretty nice, the old building, in which a lot of care is still provided, feels like a rickety relic of the early 1970s, with sliding metal doors that make the patient rooms feel like drawers in a filing cabinet.

In contrast, this other hospital felt like a palace. There was free valet parking for outpatients. All of the rooms were private and spacious, with room for 9 visitors to fit inside and with a window looking out on trees in gorgeous fall colors. The nurses all knew my grandfather’s name, and his wife’s name, and my name, and my mom’s name. The emergency room in the facility had a gorgeous waiting room looking out into an interior courtyard with fountains and plantings and even a creek running through it. I visited that waiting room often, because that’s where the vending machine with the Diet Coke was, and I never saw more than a handful of people there. Certainly nobody was going to die there without being seen.

Describing the two hospitals like this, I can guess which one we would all choose for ourselves, our loved ones, and our friends. (The nice hospital, just to be clear. I’d rather be at the nice one.) But often when we’re making policies – especially policies for the health care of low-income people – policy makers are not thinking about how they would like to be taken care of, the facilities they would like to be in. They are making policies for other people, policies they know will never apply to them.

That’s why I’m such a big fan of the concept of the “veil of ignorance.” The idea comes from American philosopher John Rawls’ book Theory of Justice, considered an important text in political philosophy.  The veil requires a person to create a standard of justice without knowing what place or value they will have in that society. As Rawls described it:

Among the essential features of this situation is that no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status, nor does any one know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence, strength and the like. I shall even assume that the parties do not know their conceptions of the good or their special psychological propensities. The principles of justice are chosen behind a veil of ignorance.

I like this idea so much. This would require us to make health care policy without knowing whether we would have the most super expensive fancy health insurance policy possible, or have no health insurance and depend on the indigent care available through the county; without knowing whether we would have a disability or be in perfect health; without knowing any of the categories or identities we would be a part of.

It is, of course, impossible to think about policies without drawing from personal experience, but I believe that policymakers should do their best to assume this veil of ignorance. At the very least, they should consider how their policies will apply to and affect the most disadvantaged person possible, to understand the full scope of potential problems that could be created by the policy. Now if only we could get voters to look at things this way…

The Challenge of Mental Illness in the Justice System Part 3: Victims

This is the third in a three-part post about a talk given by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, The Right Honourable Beverley McLachlin, about the interactions between people who are mentally ill (her term) and the justice system of Canada. Part 1 briefly discussed the history of the treatment of people with mental illness in Canada, and then described the current situation with regards to the criminal court system. Part 2 discussed the interactions between people with a mental illness and the civil courts. Part 3 will discuss the mentally ill as victims of the justice system.

This post will discuss violence against people with disabilities.

All quotes are from my notes and are not verbatim.

Many Canadians will be familiar with several stories of people diagnosed with a mental health condition being killed by police officers. Byron DeBassige, 28, was shot and killed by police officers in February 2008 (Toronto). Howard Hyde, 45, was tasered and killed by police officers in November 2007 (Halifax). Ashley Smith, 19, committed suicide in jail while prison guards watched in October 2007 (Kitchener). Reyal Jensen Jardine-Douglas, 25, was shot and killed by police officers in August 2010 (Toronto). While Robert Dziekanski does not appear to have had a mental illness, his “irrational” behaviour after having been detained in the airport for 10 hours is the reason police officers gave for tasering him multiple times and leaving him to die in October 2007 (Vancouver).

The Chief Justice specifically focused on the case of Byron DeBassige, reading from the Toronto Star article I linked above. She went on to state that she believes that the police wouldn’t have shot DeBassige over two lemons and a knife had they known he was ill. In light of the other cases I’ve linked to, I don’t agree with her – in several of those cases the police were firmly and repeatedly told the person they killed was mentally ill. I don’t believe police officers as a whole have risen above the ableist prejudices that lead to psychophobia (fear of people with mental health conditions), simply because there’s been no real attempt in Canada to combat it.1

The Chief Justice went on to discuss how prejudice and fear can affect people with a mental illness: “I’d like to shift the focus to millions of mentally ill people who do not break the criminal law, who remain untreated or inadequately treated, and at liberty. Too often they are simply victims: Victims of discrimination, ignorance, societal inefficiency, and sometimes of violence that too often ends with their death.”

As a woman with a diagnosed mental health condition, I’m twice as likely as my non-disabled counterparts to be the victim of a violent crime, including rape. [Source is PDF] I’m also significantly less likely to be violent than my counterparts. And yet, even on FWD (in comments that are unapproved), it’s not rare for people to equate my diagnosis with abuse. It’s not uncommon for me to be sitting in a classroom of people who know that I campaign for disability rights and have talked a lot about the prejudices that face people with mental health conditions and have my classmates talk about how “crazy” people are violent. After learning I was going to this talk, one of my classmates told me that, should she ever murder someone, she’d claim temporary insanity and just spend a few months in care and then be released. All I could think of was Ashley Smith, who threw crab apples at the postman and died in jail.

The stark truth is too often we discriminate against the ill. We pass them lying on the street but ignore pleas for housing, reluctant to give them jobs even when they’ve struggled valiantly to overcome their illness. We marganilise them.

We need to know more if we’re going to avoid the specter of mentally ill as victims. Related to this is the lack of social coordination on behalf of the mentally ill. All who play a role in an ill person’s life must find ways to communicate and talk to each other. They fall through the cracks. There must be better communication between agencies if we are to prevent more mentally ill people from becoming victims.

This last quote is, in sum, why I felt a lot of frustration with this talk. Throughout, the Chief Justice talked about agencies, she talked about police officers, parole officers, and judges, she talked about what people can do. At no point did she quote an actual person with a mental illness. At no point did she suggest that people talk to those of us who have a mental health condition, and find out what we want and need. At no point did she talk about attempts by the justice system to include people with mental health conditions on tribunals or in the discussions about how the justice system can do better on this issue. Nothing about us without us really shouldn’t be a daring concept, but it seems it is.

Despite all of my complaining, I actually did enjoy this talk. It’s not very often that people admit that prejudice and fear play a strong part in the way people with mental illnesses are treated, by society in general and the justice system in particular. As a Canadian, it makes me happy that the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court is speaking about this, because her authority lends weight to what she’s speaking of, and because I know the Supreme Court is aware of the issues that she’s raising. I also appreciate that she takes the time to speak on this issue often. I was recently emailed the text of a similar talk she gave in 2005. Making law students and lawyers (as well as the general public) aware of these issues may help prevent future cases like Ashley Smith’s suicide.

I would obviously like that more awareness of these issues was addressed in a helpful and thoughtful manner in the newspapers, in classrooms, and on the internet. Chief Justice McLachlin is doing good work, and I’m very glad of the opportunity presented by Dalhousie University to see her talk in person.

Dal News wrote about this presentation as well.

  1. There is, however, an attempt to point out that “mental illness costs Canadians $51 Billion a year“. I don’t think we battle prejudice against mental health conditions by talking about how much it costs, especially since I think it would be more accurate to say “discrimination and stigma related to mental health conditions costs the economy $51 Billion a year”, but what do I know? I’m just a crazy lady.

“The Challenge of Mental Illness in the Justice System” – Part 2: Civil Court

This is the second in a three-part post about a talk given by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, The Right Honourable Beverley McLachlin, about the interactions between people who are mentally ill (her term) and the justice system of Canada. Part 1 briefly discussed the history of the treatment of people with mental illness in Canada, and then described the current situation with regards to the criminal court system. This part will discuss the interactions between people with a mental illness and the civil courts. (Everything in quotes is from my notes, which are not verbatim.)

One of the anecdotes the Chief Justice opened her talk with was about an incident that occurred when she was articling. She discussed receiving a phone call from a woman who had been institutionalized, and told her that she only had two minutes to be on the phone. “I’ve been locked up, and I need to get out,” she whispered. The Chief Justice related how this woman had been forcedly institutionalized by her very respectable husband, who decided she was “overly emotionally, somewhat hysterical, had convinced the doctor to sign the papers. The authorities had come and she was taken to the mental institution.”

I got the impression – perhaps wrongly – that the Chief Justice wanted us to see this woman as someone who had been wrongfully institutionalized because she wasn’t actually mentally ill. She told the anecdote as part of the history of institutionalization, having just described it as a way “to get rid of someone you didn’t want, like a wife giving you trouble.” [s.e. smith wrote about this a bit when reviewing Fingersmith at this ain’t living.] This is a pretty common narrative when people discuss fear of institutionalization, and you’ll often see this story play out in pop culture. It gives the impression that forced institutionalization isn’t wrong, except when it’s someone who’s totally sane. The mentally ill, on the other hand, can be treated without care.

The focus of this section of her talk was on the “difficult ethical and legal problems” arising in the civil court. “On the one hand lies liberty of the individual, and the right of the individual to make decisions. On the other lies the tragic reality that the mentally ill cannot make rational decisions. Surely, their loved ones argue, we should be able to impose treatment to the point where they can have the capacity to make rational decisions about his or her treatment.”

Again, the Chief Justice focused on the change in how people with mental illness can legally be treated as a result of the Charter. She touched briefly on the history of forced hospitalisation, and how this had originally been forced treatment as well. Now, apparently, people are only forced into hospitalisation if they’re considered a danger to themselves or others. (From what I’ve gathered talking to people in Canada who have been hospitalised as a result of mental illness, there’s a lot of pressure to agree. This can vary from loved ones saying “We just want what’s best for you!” and the attendant guilt-related issues, to “if you don’t agree we’ll call the police and you can go to the asylum instead”.)

In describing “the issue being whether the person possess sufficient cognitive ability to make rational treatment decisions about his or her health”, the Chief Justice focused on the particulars of one case, referred to as the Starson Case. [There’s a brief overview of it on Wikipedia, and here are some follow-up news articles and discussion.]

Again, according to my notes:

At the time of the action Professor Starson was detained in a psychiatric hospital as a result of a finding of Not Criminally Responsible. The physicians believed he needed medication, but Professor Starson refused. His physicians found that he was not capable of making a decision with respect to his medical treatment.

He applied to the Ontario Capacity and Consent board to review that decision. The Board agreed with the doctors. He was in almost total denial of the illness (Wikipedia tells me he was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder) so could not relate information to his disorder.

The matter was appealed to the courts and the lower courts in Ontario ruled he was capable of making decisions. This case then went to Supreme Court and the issue was the interpretation of the test for capacity. The majority ruled that Professor Starson had the capacity to make a choice and accordingly the Board’s order was overturned.

The story doesn’t end there. After the Supreme Court decision in 2003, his condition deteriorated. In 2005, his treating physicians found him incapable of managing his care. With his mother providing substitute consent, doctor’s began medicating. In 2007 he was discharged to outpatient status. In 2009, he was still contesting the decision to be forced into treatment.

The Chief Justice then went on to describe the debate about the treatment of people who are mentally ill as being between those that argue that the law should never permit mandatory treatment, and those who argue that mandatory treatment should be expanded to cover more instances than it does. In Canada, she said, “Liberty can be curtailed only exceptionally – when there is genuine risk of harm to his or herself or others, or when a person is cleary incapable of making decisions necessary for medical care.”

One of things I noted in this section of her talk was the very distancing language the Chief Justice used throughout. While at one point she did describe how we can feel sympathy for Professor Starson’s fight to determine his own treatment versus that of his mother’s fight to get him the treatment she felt he needed, most of the time the Chief Justice spoke as though no one in the audience would ever be touched by these decisions. As I said in the first part of this, I’m uncomfortable with a circle drawn around people with a mental health condition, and another around people who work in the legal or medical profession, with no overlap. The whole thing read a bit too much like “you can tell who’s crazy by looking at them, so I know none of you are.”

There is one more part to this discussion, which focuses on the mentally ill as victims of the justice system.

“The Challenge of Mental Illness in the Justice System” – Part 1: Criminal Court

On Tuesday evening, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, The Right Honourable Beverley McLachlin, gave a talk in Halifax about people with a mental illness (her term, which I will use throughout) and their interactions with the justice system, both civil and criminal. For me, it was an interesting, although slightly, frustrating talk (I dislike the way people with mental illness and people who work in the medical or legal profession were treated as two different and distinct groups, with no overlap).

Like most people who follow disability-related news, I’m well aware of both the high levels of mentally ill people incarcerated in Canada and the frightening number of fatalities when someone with a mental illness interacts with the police. [Read More on this on FWD: Record of the Dead. I love policy. Publicity and the Taser. What is Justice.]

As the Chief Justice herself said, it’s an issue that many people want to sweep under the rug. I often see people wanting to pretend that each incident of a person being killed by the police as an individual issue, rather than a disturbing trend. As an activist, it’s heartening for me to know that the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada believes this is a systemic problem, and one that we need to fix.

I’m going to divide my discussion of this talk into three parts, just as the Chief Justice herself did. Part one is an introduction to the situation in Canada, as well as touching on issues that can occur when people with mental illnesses interact with the criminal justice system. Part two will focus on civil cases, specifically on people who have a diagnosed mental health condition refusing treatment and the response of the court. (I’m sure that will be fun. /sarcasm) Part three will talk about people with mental health conditions being victims of the justice system.

The Chief Justice began her talk with a brief history of the treatment and stigma around mental illness, focusing on how people used to believe that mental illness was a sin, or a sign of possession, or the fault of the mentally ill person. She then went on to detail how scientific advances have combated these stereotypes. (I wanted to move the country where mentally ill people are not blamed for having a mental health condition or considered weak or told to shut up, but I think we come at this from different perspectives.) She also touched briefly on the history of forced institutionalization in Canada, first in sanitariums outside of the city, and then in hospitals within it. She ended this section by discussing the de-institutionalization movement, which often left people with a mental illness with no skills to find a home or a job, and no ties to the community having been in the institutional setting for years. To quote my notes, which are not verbatim:

“The streets are dominated by many people with mental illness. We must now interact with them in society. Where once the legal solution was simple, now it is complex and expensive. Decent housing, drugs, hospitals, psychiatrists cost money. With so many competing demands on the health care, the claims of the mentally ill hover on the margins.”

One thing the Chief Justice highlighted in this section was the lack of hospital beds for people needing a psychiatric evaluation. When I worked in a mental health-related job, I know there were dedicated beds at the hospital for people brought in for psychiatric evaluation, but because beds were at a premium, they were sometimes given to other types of patients. This, in turn, both increases tensions between people who work within the mental health system and people who work primarily with physical illness (as though these are entirely separate things), as well as making it more difficult for police officers to bring people who may be living with a mental illness into the hospital for evaluation. Many of us can agree that a prison cell isn’t a place for someone who is having a mental health-related crisis, but sometimes there’s no place else to go.

The Chief Justice then introduced her discussion of people with mental illness and the criminal justice system by bringing up the Charter challenges to the system that existed pre-1982.

As a brief history lesson: Canada instituted the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982, which guaranteed rights such as the right to be free from discrimination based on mental or physical disability. Now cases can be brought before the Supreme Court as “Charter Challenges” – the case is about whether or not the law itself is illegal by violating the Charter. In terms of people with mental illness in Canada, if they were found to be “not guilty by reason of insanity”, they were held under a Lieutenant-Governor’s Warrant, taken to an institution, and held there without any trial, without a judge, and with the case only being reviewed periodically. It was, in essence, incarceration without trial or any possibility of parole. This was Challenged as being unconstitutional, and the system had to change.

Again, to quote my not verbatim notes:

Parliament got to work and they drafted a series of provisions, known as Part 20 of the Criminal Code. These provisions are very advanced. They have set up an alternate route whereby mentally ill people who are charged with crimes are, after a hearing before a judge, declared Not Criminally Responsible. If they are declared NCR, then they do not go through the ordinary court system. They go before a NCR Board (this is Provincial). The board has an obligation to determine what is the least invasive way of looking after their illness. May give them an absolute discharge if there is no danger to the public and they can be released into society. They can give a conditional discharge, which is a discharge under medical supervision, and this can vary from part-time hospitalization to being in the community. Or they can, if the Board feels the danger to the community is such, require the person to remain in custody in a hospital.

There are reviews every year. The board deals with their cases and gets some familiarity.

This system is working very well. It works humanely. It works in a fair manner where mentally ill people can come before boards in an informal way. It is also providing adequate protection to the public. This is on the whole a positive development.

We still have problems: lack of hospital facilities. Before this system can start to operate a judge has to say that the person is NCR. Requires psychiatric assessment in a hospital. Sometimes trouble getting them into the hospital. A number of judges have spoken out about this. Reported in newspapers. Also problems in finding facilities for young people. 13 year old girl ended up having charges stayed because the authorities were unable to provide a proper youth setting for her evaluation and care. She was sent to prison instead, which was totally inappropriate. I mention these cases to show there are strains in the system.

I’ve had a bit of interaction with the Mental Health Courts from when I worked in the system. Like many things involving people with a mental illnesses, these courts are underfunded and very busy. There are very strict rules about who qualifies as “mentally ill enough” to be seen in this court, which means that people who should be here are instead sent back to the regular criminal courts. Everyone involved looks at this and knows it’s a problem, but the money isn’t there to solve it.

The Canadian Government Is Going To Court So They Don’t Have To Make Web Content Accessible To Screen Readers

[Content Note: Not all of the links I have included in this piece have comments, but many of them do, and those comments are basically full of “Stupid disabled people wasting everyone’s time and energy by wanting the world to treat them like human beings” comments.]

If you’ve been following Canadian politics this week, you could very easily come away with the impression that the most significant – or perhaps even the only – thing going on with this week’s opening of the Federal Parliament was the Gun Registry Vote.

That there’s a federal court Charter challenge brought forth by Donna Jodhan arguing that blind Canadians are being discriminated against by the Federal Government for refusing to make their website content accessible to screen readers is not really getting a lot of attention. (Cripples these days! It’s like they don’t sell papers/make page views.)

A little bit of background information first. Canada has a Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which went into effect in 1982 and is the Thing against which laws and the like must be “tested” in order to be considered actually legal in Canada. To give some lovely controversial rulings, the reason Canada has no abortion law is because it was found to violate the Charter’s guarantee to security of the person (and no law has since been passed) and it was found that refusing to include “homosexuals” in protections against discrimination violated Section 15, or the right to Equal Protection Before the Law, even though sexual orientation wasn’t included in Section 15.

Section 15 is the important one here:

15. (1) Every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination and, in particular, without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability.
(2) Subsection (1) does not preclude any law, program or activity that has as its object the amelioration of conditions of disadvantaged individuals or groups including those that are disadvantaged because of race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability.

Now, I Am Not A Lawyer, and it’s been about 10 years since I studied the Charter, so I’m going to leave that out there and not discuss my personal interpretations because they don’t matter. What matters is two things: 1) What the court says and 2) That the Federal Government is arguing that they shouldn’t have to be accessible to screen readers in court.

The latter is, of course, being read as Jodhan wasting tax payers money in a frivolous lawsuit, not the Federal Government for refusing to have accessible content.

From what I can tell, this is what’s going on: In 2004, Jodhan attempted to apply for government jobs online. However, the site wasn’t set up to allow screen-readers to access the site, so she was unable to do so. In 2006, she attempted to fill her Census out online, and again, the federal government website was not accessible to her screen reader.

On Tuesday [September 21], Jodhan will argue in federal court that her inability to apply for a position on the federal jobs website or complete the online version of the 2006 Census breached her equality rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

She will also argue that this violation and her ongoing inability to access the government’s online information and services constitute a breach against all blind and partially sighted Canadians, said Jodhan’s lawyer David Baker.

About 3 million Canadians have visual or other impairments that make it difficult to access the Internet.

The Federal Government is, in turn, is responding with “What, you think you should have a right to access the same information that everyone else can? Ha ha! Ha ha!”:

Internet access to government services and information is not a right guaranteed in law, the government says in its written submission to the court.

“Alternative channels available did allow (Jodhan) to access services and information independently, in a manner that respected her privacy and dignity,” it says.

With more than 120 government departments and agencies and more than 23 million web pages, “it is unlikely that the government’s web presence will ever be perfectly accessible to all,” it adds.

Frankly, if the Federal Government doesn’t think that their websites provide information in a timely fashion, and that access to that information isn’t something that they should prioritize, why are they bothering with them in the first place? And if they do think it’s important, why are they in essence arguing that “It’s important for most people, but not for the three million Canadians who won’t be able to access it?”

I support Donna Jodhan’s fight for equality of access to information for all Canadians. I hope you do, too. If so, I strongly encourage you to email your Member of Parliament and let them know. Perhaps if enough of us contact the government and let them know we value accessibility for Canadians with disabilities, they’ll start acting like we shouldn’t have to go to court just to get it.

This is the email I sent to my MP, who happens to be Megan Leslie, and cc:ed to the leader of the NDP. Please feel free to adapt it to send to your own MP. (This should give you their email address.)

Dear Megan,

I recently learned of Donna Jodhan’s Federal Court case, arguing that the Canadian Government must provide screen-reader accessible content on their websites, as reported in the Toronto Star (–blind-woman-says-federal-websites-discriminate-against-the-visually-impaired) and the CBC ( In light both Section 15 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and Canada’s recent signing of the Declaration of Rights of Disabled Persons, I’m appalled that the Federal Government would waste tax payers’ dollars in arguing that 3 million Canadians should not have the ability to access government services online or apply for government jobs online.

In this day and age, it’s ridiculous for the government to argue that access to the internet is not necessary. According to the Toronto Star, government lawyers are arguing “Internet access to government services and information is not a right guaranteed in law”. While I agree that this is technically true, in refusing to provide this access, the government is arguing that blind and visually impaired Canadians should have less access to government services and information than Canadians who are sighted.

Megan, every day it is clearer to me how many societal barriers are put in place that prevent people with disabilities in Canada from full participation. The time and energy the federal government is frivolously spending in defending their lack of web accessibility could be far better put to use in bringing the government’s websites up to the same standards as those in other countries, standards that are reasonable to expect in the 21st Century.

This is such an important issue, and I hope that the NDP will work to bring awareness of it to Canadians, and encourage the federal government to stop fighting against people with disabilities, but fighting for them.

Thank you,

Anna P.
cc: Jack Layton

In The News: Toronto StarUPICBCGlobe & Mail

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