The price of acceptance: Immigrants with disabilities in a system of disadvantage

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Over the last few weeks, we learned that Felipe Montoya and his family were denied permanent resident status in Canada because his child Nico is a person with Down Syndrome.

As community members and service providers who work to bring greater attention to the barriers and challenges some of the most marginalized people in Ontario experience because of race, disability and immigration status, we have heard of many such cases.

Unlike Nico's family, we suspect that many others are unable or choose not to take their case public. This could be for a number of reasons, including little to no social network, lack of financial resources, language barriers, lack/limited knowledge and understanding of rights or due process, fear of deportation, racism, and/or discrimination. This case reminds us that some choose not to immigrate to Canada for fear that they would be denied entry.

Some are denied entry because either they or someone in their family has a disability, while others lack financial resources to support the health needs of their family members.

In 2014 we learned that Jazmine, a 14-year-old Deaf girl living in the Philippines while her mother, Karen, worked as a live-in caregiver in British Columbia, was deemed "medically inadmissible."

Initially, Karen's application to sponsor her daughter, reuniting after many years apart, was also denied due to the belief that Jazmine would be a "burden" on Canada's health-care system because she is deaf. With the support of Karen's employer and community members, including Deaf people, this decision was ultimately overturned.

Jazmine's case provided us with an opportunity to learn more about the Deaf community and Deaf culture and understand that deafness did not equal a burden or disability.

These cases demonstrate that while we would like to think of Canada as a country where we are each valued for our humanity, people with disabilities continue to be treated as second class individuals.

Denying people with disabilities the right to live in Canada reinforces the stereotype that disability is a "burden," a deficit within the individual, and an economic risk to Canada health and social services. To change this rhetoric, we need to examine the barriers around a person that prevent them from being included.

The current Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, 2001 and Regulations also remind us that those born in Canada with disabilities would not be welcomed here if they were in the same position as potential immigrants with disabilities. Separating family members such as Jazmine from Karen and Nico from his family goes against Canada's commitment to human rights.

Over the years, people with disabilities and their allies have worked to educate us about how our attitudes, policies and practices continue to give value to the majority of able-bodied people. 

Unfortunately, this is an understanding that has been far too slow to catch on. The inadmissibility category in the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act suggests that the only "acceptable" immigrants are "healthy" people -- people without disabilities. This reflects an inherent bias towards people with disabilities since it fails to recognize that many people with disabilities can contribute to the labour market. 

Instead, it paints all people with disabilities with a broad brush and implies that, as a collective, they are reasonably expected to cause an excessive demand on the health-care system and other social services. 

Currently, there is no data available about the number of newcomers with (invisible/visible) disabilities who immigrated and who are still living in Canada, which poses specific challenges. This includes lack of visibility, accessible and culturally relevant resources, awareness of needs, and analysis of systemic barriers created by the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act. This continues to reinforce the mistaken belief that immigrants do not have disabilities, which translates to this population being underserved.

The Montoya family held a panel discussion on Immigration and Disability Discrimination on April 6 2016. They indicated their wish to change Section 38 (1) (c) of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act that singles out immigrants with disabilities.

Section 38 (1) (c) frames people with disabilities as being a potential strain on Canada's health and social services telling us that those with disabilities are not welcomed which is why the contributions immigrants with disabilities can/do make to Canada are not seen as valuable.

When we view those who think or act "differently" as deficient, we lose the opportunity to discover new ways to address social and economic problems. 

Moreover, we continue to assess people based on non-disabled worth telling us who belong in Canada and who does not. This follows a long history of exclusionary practices by the Canadian government including the Chinese Head Tax and the Komagata Maru incident.

It is time to re-evaluate Canada's outdated immigration policies and advocate for a long-term strategy that can help change discriminatory assumptions about immigrants with disabilities.


Chavon Niles is a PhD Candidate at the University of Toronto and Senior Coordinator of the Accessibility Initiative at OCASI- Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants.

Ilaneet Goren has a Master of Social Work and is the Diversity Specialist at Community Living Toronto.

Photo: flickr/antefixus21

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