DSQ > Winter 2008, Volume 28, No.1

This special issue of DSQ on disability in Canada is being issued at a time of great growth in the field, along with the challenges that have occurred throughout the history of disability. While the wider debate in Canadian society over the integration of people with disabilities appears to beckon a better future, the grim reality of discrimination is never far below the surface. Widespread disdain for the existence of people with disabilities was most recently evident in Canada in December, 2007 in regard to the public response to the National Parole Board's justified decision to refuse day parole to Robert Latimer. He has been in prison since 2001, where he is serving a ten year sentence for the 1993 murder of his disabled twelve year old daughter, Tracy Latimer, a murder he refuses to acknowledge was wrong.1 Erroneously framed as a "compassionate" murder by his supporters and by the perpetrator himself, the continuing widespread support in Canada for a man who murdered his daughter because she was disabled, is clear evidence of how people with disabilities, who are on the one hand protected by law from murder, are on the other hand faced with a large number of Canadians who want exceptions made when the murder victim is a person with a disability and the parent who commits the crime claims he did so on "compassionate" grounds. That so much sympathy for the murderer of a disabled child is so loudly proclaimed and self-assuredly expressed by so many citizens from across the political spectrum in Canada reflects the very serious challenges which continue to impede and threaten the rights of people with disabilities in this country today. Thus, as this recent example shows, whatever gains have been made in rights protection in recent decades, there is no reason to be complacent or overly optimistic about the widespread impact of these gains for Canadians with disabilities among the broader citizenry of this country.

The challenges ahead are indeed significant, yet so too is the population of people with disabilities in Canada. The field of disability studies in Canada, while relatively new, is growing at the same time that people who self-identify as having a disability is increasing from sea unto sea. The 2006 national census found that one in seven Canadians reported living with a disability, which is 4.4 million Canadians or 14.3 per cent of the population, an increase of nearly two per cent from the previous survey five years earlier. When the results of this survey were released, it was noted that this is "part of an overall increase observers say is likely linked to greater awareness and reduced stigma surrounding self-identifying and reporting disabilities."2 The long history of activism among Canadians with a disability in promoting equal rights and access, as elsewhere, is a crucial reason for this wider awareness as is the expanding notion of what is meant by the term "disability".3

Of course, with a wider presence and a well established tradition of activism, it should come as no surprise that disability studies has taken off in Canada in recent years. This growth of disability studies reflects the inter-disciplinary nature of the field both within and beyond our country. Scholarly activists and activist scholars from areas as diverse as sociology, law, political science, women's studies, sexuality studies, English, anthropology, history, education, urban planning, geography, health studies and other fields have all been engaged in various aspects of this work. This growth is also revealed by the wealth of Canadian scholarship that is being produced in the field of disability studies.4

During the last decade, disability studies programs at Canadian universities have reflected this wider public awareness and have contributed, and continue to contribute, to scholarship and activism with both graduate and undergraduate programs. The School of Disability Studies, Ryerson University, Toronto, was the first Canadian undergraduate program of its kind when it started in 1999. The Interdisciplinary Master's Program in Disability Studies at the University of Manitoba, Winnipeg was the first MA program in the country in 2002. York University's Critical Disability Studies graduate program is the first university in Canada to offer a PhD in the field beginning in 2007 (in addition to the MA program which started in 2003). Other universities and community colleges in Canada also teach courses on disability studies at the undergraduate and graduate levels, including the University of Victoria, the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Mount Royal College in Calgary, the University of Calgary, the University of Toronto and the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, Hamilton's McMaster University, Trent University in Peterborough, Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario, and Dalhousie University in Halifax, among others. All of this is evidence of the dynamism of the field and interest in the broader community in supporting disability studies at the post-secondary level in Canada.

This growing academic interest, in turn, has led to the establishment, in 2004 of the Canadian Disability Studies Association (CDSA). The CDSA aims to facilitate contacts and discussion within Canada by connecting academic and activist work with regular meetings each year in different locations under the wider umbrella of the Canadian Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, an annual gathering of academic societies from across the country. When the CDSA met in 2006 at York University the collection of papers found here were presented and were later submitted for peer-review for this publication.

The articles in this issue

The seven articles contained in this special issue of Disability Studies Quarterly were first presented at the third annual meeting of the Canadian Disability Studies Association which was held at York University, Toronto, Ontario, on May 27-28, 2006. This gathering of academics, activists and community members (terms which are not mutually exclusive, of course) included nearly 200 people in attendance, 142 registered delegates and approximately 50 people who attended for free. There were 57 papers, panel discussions and cultural presentations during this two day event from participants who came from around North America, Europe and nearby locales. After the conference was over, and following up on an invitation from DSQ for this special theme issue on disability in Canada, a call for papers was sent out to the 2006 CDSA conference presenters who were invited to submit papers for this issue of DSQ, each of which were peer reviewed. Out of this conference came the present selection of seven articles, six authored by Canadians and one by an American. As will be evident in the pages that follow, Canadian disability activism both inside and outside the academy is immensely vibrant producing original, thought-provoking contributions on disability rights, culture, theory and practice.


The history of people with disabilities in Canada, is an area which needs far greater attention from a critical disability studies perspective and which presents the lives of disabled people at the centre of analysis. Ena Chadha's article on restrictive immigration laws in Canada from the mid-19th century to the late 1920s regarding people categorized as having a mental disability offers an incisive analysis of the ways in which exclusion was practiced among some of the most vulnerable people in society — immigrants with mental disabilities. Her article describes the connections between social prejudice towards people with mental disabilities and its influence on Canadian immigration policies during this period. As such she shows how the feared "other" led to a long-standing practice of deliberately shunning and expelling immigrants whose only "crime" was their difference in real or perceived mental ability.

Sharon Barnartt examines the nature and scope of disability protests in Canada and the United States from 1970 to 2005. She provides an analysis of how disability protests in Canada arose out of, were similar to, different from or developed independently of disability protests in the United States. Her article reflects the rich history of activism within the Canadian and American disability movements while also indicating the diversity of approaches, tactics and philosophies between activists in both countries. It should not be surprising to readers outside Canada that this country's close proximity to the world's most powerful country has had more than a little influence north of the border in myriad ways. Barnartt's article provides an important comparative historical perspective between disability political activism, north and south, and further adds to our understanding of the relationship between these two countries, this time in a way that has not been previously studied.

Social Policy and Accommodation

As elsewhere, Canadian disability policy has been, and continues to be, significantly influenced by the efforts and decades long struggles of people with disabilities to change past and existing discriminatory practices. Indeed, it was only through the large-scale organizing and protests of people with disabilities that the exclusion of "disability" from rights protection in the 1982 Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms was reversed and inclusion was guaranteed in federal law in Section 15 of the Charter which took effect in 1985. In this instance, activism forced the government to include a previously excluded group in the equal rights provisions of the federal charter.5 The next three articles illustrate how struggles to promote equality through social policy and greater accommodation carry with them a great deal of historical weight, like that of the struggle over the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which only activism and continued vigilance can help to change for the better.

The article by Susan Arai, Peggy Hutchison, Alison Pedlar, John Lord and Val Sheppard discusses survey results of Canadian disability organizations that are "consumer driven." In particular, their article examines how such organizations have propelled disability activism in the context of new social movements which are considered through the concept of social capital. As such, their study provides important contemporary insights into the ways in which groups for people with disabilities seek to work with one another in advancing the struggle for equality in Canada.

The fight for access within the academy reveals that the "ivory tower" is no safe haven for people with disabilities as is evident in the article by Peter Dunn, Roy Hanes, Susan Hardie, Donald Leslie and Judy MacDonald. Their article about the need to advocate for people with disabilities within the social work profession itself focuses on improving accessibility through a "best practices" emphasis and is based on a survey of Social Work schools in Canada, a conference on this topic and a study of the relevant literature.

Venturing out into the built environment, Michael Prince examines how it is possible to imagine a different city in the new millennium which includes people with disabilities to a greater extent than ever before. He argues for greater theoretical reflection on the role of urban society in relation to disability as a way of addressing the "politics of difference." Given the essential importance of imagining the urban space as accessible, Prince offers a thoughtful and thought-provoking analysis for seeing this through to reality as must be accomplished if the barriers that obstruct cities are to come down in Canada and beyond.

Disability Culture, Narrative and Media

The ways in which people with disabilities produce culture, or are depicted in it, reveals a great deal about a particular society and the extent to which disability is, or is not, accommodated in it. In Canada, disability culture is evident in numerous creative expressions at the local, provincial and national levels, reflecting a vibrant and active presence that challenges many of the persistent negative, destructive images that have permeated the lives of people with disabilities down through the ages to this very moment.6 The final two articles are about culture, narrative and representation by and about people with disabilities in contemporary Canadian society. The impact of stories, who tells them and why, can be felt in different ways, sometimes as empowering when crafted by a person with a disability to present his or her own life, and at other times as oppressive when used to promote stereotypes that serve a particular agenda against people with a disability.

An example of the former is provided by Heidi Janz who discusses, through auto/biographical fiction writing and academic analysis, the various possibilities of an approach that uses such different styles. She situates her article within her experiences as a "crip-academic" who engages "split-identities." An example of the latter is provided by Jennifer Walker who describes the contrast between the "double-narrative" of a well known Ottawa media figure with that of the man who killed him, a person with a psychiatric history. She describes the subsequent way in which both people's lives and actions were used to influence mental health policy and debates within the context of "commemoration" and "mythologizing".

Taken all together, these seven articles represent a broad cross-section of work in the field of disability studies in and about Canada that are as engaging as they are vital to promoting the rights and involvement of people with disabilities in civil society. That much more needs to be done, and is being done, hardly needs to be emphasized.

I would like to thank the editors of Disability Studies Quarterly for being so enthusiastic in encouraging this special theme section on disability in Canada, especially co-editor Scot Danforth for all of his work on this issue, including proof-reading the final articles. I would also like to thank all of the peer reviewers whose work contributed to the production of this volume and who are listed below:

  • Len Barton, University of London
  • Irene Carter, University of Windsor
  • Vera Chouinard, McMaster University
  • Josh Evans, McMaster University
  • Nancy Hansen, University of Manitoba
  • Richard Ingram, Ryerson University
  • Archie Kaiser, Dalhousie University
  • Connie Kvarfordt, University of Windsor
  • Claudia Malacrida, Lethbridge University
  • Rod Michalko, University of Toronto, St. Francis Xavier University
  • Melanie Panitch, Ryerson University
  • John Radford, York University
  • Marcia Rioux, York University
  • Judith Sandys, Ryerson University
  • Tanya Titchkosky, University of Toronto
  • Aileen Wight-Felske, Mount Royal College, Calgary

Alongside gains that have been made in recent decades in Canada, prejudice and barriers continue to impede access for people with disabilities. So too does resistance and challenges to discriminatory attitudes and it is in this spirit that the following articles are offered.


  1. See, for example, editorials, articles and letters to the editor in Canada's self-styled "national newspaper" The Globe and Mail as well as the Toronto Star between December 5-10, 2007. For background on this story from a disability studies perspective see: Ruth Enns, A Voice Unheard: The Latimer Case and People with Disabilities (Halifax: Fernwood Publishing, 1999) Return to Text
  2. Canadian Press, "1 in 7 Canadians live with disability: StatsCan", Toronto Star, December 3, 2007. Return to Text
  3. See for example: Diane Driedger, The Last Civil Rights Movement: Disabled Peoples' International (London: Hurst & Company, 1989; Bruce Kappel, "A History of People First in Canada," in Gunnar Dybwad, Hank Bersani Jr., eds., New Voices: Self-Advocacy by People with Disabilities (Cambridge, Mass.: Brookline Books, 1996): 93-129; Irit Shimrat, Call Me Crazy: Stories from the Mad Movement (Vancouver: Press Gang Publishers, 1997; Mary Tremblay "Lieutenant John Counsell and the Development of Medical Rehabilitation and Disability Policy in Canada" in David A Gerber, ed., Disabled Veterans in History. (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000): 322-346; Geoffrey Reaume, "Lunatic to Patient to Person: Nomenclature in Psychiatric History and the Influence of Patients' Activism in North America", International Journal of Law and Psychiatry. 25:4 (July-August, 2002): 405-426; Deborah Stienstra and Aileen Wight-Felske with Colleen Watters, eds., Making Equality: History of Advocacy and Persons with Disabilities in Canada (Concord, Ont.: Captus Press, 2003); Euclid Herie, Journey to Independence: Blindness — The Canadian Story — The Canadian National Institute for the Blind (Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2005); Alberta Association for Community Living, Hear My Voice: Stories Told by Albertans with Developmental Disabilities Who Were Once Institutionalized (Edmonton: Alberta Association for Community Living, 2006); Melanie Panitch, Disability, Mothers and Organization: Accidental Activists (London: Routledge, 2008). Return to Text
  4. See for example: Jerome Bickenbach, Physical Disability and Social Policy (Toronto: Univeristy of Toronto Press, 1993); Marcia H. Rioux and Michael Bach, eds., Disability Is Not Measles: New Research Paradigms in Disability (North York, Ontario: Roeher Institute, 1994); Dick Sobsey, Violence and Abuse in the Lives of People with Disabilities (Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co., 1994); Rod Michalko, The Mystery of the Eye and the Shadow of Blindness (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998); Rod Michalko, The Two-in-One: Walking with Smokie, Walking with Blindness (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1999); Rod Michalko, The Difference That Disability Makes (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2002); Tanya Titchkosky, Disability, Self, and Society (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003); Dianne Pothier and Richard Devlin, eds., Critical Disability Theory: Essays in Philosophy, Politics, Policy, and Law (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2006); Tanya Titchkosky, Reading and Writing Disability Differently: The Textured Life of Embodiment (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007). Return to Text
  5. Marcia Rioux and Michael Prince, "The Canadian Political Landscape of Disability: Policy Perspectives, Social Status, Interest Groups and the Rights Movement" in Alan Puttee, ed., Federalism, Democracy and Disability Policy in Canada. (Montreal and Kingston: McGill Queens University Press, 2002), pp. 18-19. See also a general discussion on legal issues: Dianne Pothier, "Legal Developments in the Supreme Court of Canada Regarding Disability", in Dianne Pothier and Richard Devlin, eds., Critical Disability Theory: Essays in Philosophy, Politics, Policy, and Law (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2006): 305-17. Return to Text
  6. As one example of an ongoing public disability arts event, the School of Disability Studies, Ryerson University in Toronto, has a very well established cultural program with an annual event each summer to celebrate the diversity of deaf and disability culture in Canada. See also the widely acclaimed film by Bonnie Sherr Klein, Shameless: The Art of Disability (Montreal: National Film Board of Canada, 2006). Return to Text
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