Webcast archive: Disability discrimination = more than ignorance

This week, we discuss appropriate reactions from a disabled person encountering prejudice, and review a talk given by assisted suicide advocate Jocelyn Downie.

In this episode of Euthanasia & Disability, Amy Hasbrouck, Christian Debray, and Taylor Hyatt discuss:

  • Disability discrimination is more than ignorance
  • Royal Society of Canada speaker promotes euthanasia expansion

Please note that this text is only a script and that our webcast contains additional commentary.


  • This week we saw a commentary posted on Facebook by Emma van der Klift and Norm Kunc from Broadreach Training and Resources looking at how people see disability discrimination compared with other kinds of prejudice.  The commentary described an interaction between Norm and service employees triggered by an error in his flight reservation (which had him booked to Portland, Maine rather than Portland, Oregon). The employees, who were “only trying to help,” questioned whether Norm had the capacity to travel and if he knew where he was going.
  • Norm and Emma noted that If a person acts on the belief that women or people of colour are less intelligent or capable than men or whites, this is (correctly) seen as sexism or racism.  But if a person behaves as though disabled people are less intelligent or capable, this is called a “lack of education.”  They pointed out this double standard, and talked about why it’s important to call such behaviour what it really is – discrimination.
  • Norm and Emma talked about the link between sympathy and prejudice:
    • Though these ideas may seem to be opposites, sympathy and prejudice often exist together.  The authors gave the example of a person who received a sympathy card on the birth of a child with Down syndrome, as if that were a tragedy.
    • People who show this form of prejudice believe deeply that they are right, which justifies their arrogant behaviour.
    • Any objection to such “kindness” is seen as proof that the disabled person doesn’t know what they need and has a bad attitude.
  • If the airline employee really didn’t have any pre-formed ideas about the disabled person, the interaction would show them the truth – in this case that Norm was capable and knew where he was going.  The fact that the non-disabled person didn’t respect his answers to her questions means there’s more going on than simple ignorance.
  • Disabled people are encouraged to be “understanding and patient” in the face of such prejudice.  We’re supposed to excuse bad behaviour because it’s done with “good intentions.”
    • This is not true for people of colour; women are still sometimes accused of being “bitchy” or having no sense of humour if they challenge sexist behaviour.
    • Also, third parties are expected to call out racism, sexism and homophobia when they witness it.
    • If we fail to be “patient and understanding” we’re seen as “maladjusted” and expressing our bitterness about being disabled.
    • What should be understood as a political interchange is transformed into evidence of the disabled person’s inability to cope.
  • The anger that women and people of colour feel in response to discrimination is:
    • seen as an appropriate reaction to the harm of bigotry, and
    • an important first step in changing the dialogue and bringing about social justice.
  • Norm and Emma quoted international mediator Adam Kahane, who worked with the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. “When we talk politely, we are following the party line, trying to fit in and so keep the social system whole and unchanged, even though [the system] may be diseased or counterfeit … When somebody speaks personally, passionately, and from the heart, the conversation deepens.”
  • Politeness both supports the status quo and shows that the status quo is working well enough to keep the disadvantaged group in their place.  When disabled people refuse to be polite we’re not “bitter” or ungrateful; we’re saying the status quo doesn’t work for us.  The question is: how to be impolite in a way that enables the dominant culture to understand that the status quo no longer works for them, either?
  • Norm and Emma note that “You can only foster insight through dialogue. But first you have to get their attention!”
  • Assertiveness is an individual solution. It takes finding a balance between going ballistic and going limp.
    • It’s possible to use, manage and direct anger to speak the truth about what’s happening.
      • It can be hard to harness the anger that comes from a lifetime’s worth of discrimination.  Letting out a little at a time and using it, with the pressure of unresolved hurts pushing from underneath, can be like trying to take a teaspoon of lava from a live volcano.
      • On the other hand, people who are disabled from childhood are taught to be compliant, to not recognize when their rights are being trampled on, so it can be hard to figure out when and how much to react.
    • State clearly what is needed.
    • It may be impossible to resolve the situation with the person you’re dealing with; their mind may be too closed.  Be prepared to start over again with a supervisor.
  • If assertiveness is the individual option, what is the collective solution?
    • One idea is to work within the system for as long as that brings results, then go outside the system with direct action and protest; or
    • The “good cop–bad cop” technique, where two disability activist groups work on the same issue at the same time; one group represents mainstream values and asks nicely, while the other makes demands and takes direct action to get results.
    • Are there other options?
  • And finally, how do we balance honesty with the need to get our message across when working on the issue of assisted suicide and euthanasia (AS/E)?
    • Even the words we use sometimes make people uncomfortable?  When talking about hastened death, what does it mean to say “assisted suicide and euthanasia” or “medical aid in dying” or “death with dignity?”
    • Are disability activists who oppose AS/E too aggressive?  In her article “Views of disabled people regarding legalized assisted suicide before and after a balanced informational presentation,” Dr. Carol Gill cites a New Mobility survey from 1999 that found 37% of disabled supporters of assisted suicide said they feared criticism from other disabled people for expressing their views.  In another study, 53% of respondents believed a disabled person would experience criticism from other disabled people if they expressed support for assisted suicide.
  • As Emma and Norm pointed out, disabled people get tired of having to always educate the public, take on barriers and confront social bigotry.  We need to be aware that taking a break sometimes, though necessary, is a luxury that not everyone with a disability can afford.  There’s no rule that says we have to beat-down every barrier and patiently persuade every person who pummels us with pity.  But when we do, we’re not just doing it for ourselves, we’re doing it for the disabled people who follow along after us.


  • Jocelyn Downie praised the progress on providing access to medical killing during a lecture earlier this month on behalf of the Royal Society of Canada (RSC).  Dr. Downie is a Faculty Associate of the Health Law Institute at Dalhousie University, a member of the RSC, and a prominent advocate for AS/E in Canada. Dr. Downie spoke to about 40 people on “Medically-Assisted Dying: Next Steps for Canada” in Ottawa on March 15th, focusing on making AS/E available to more people, with fewer restrictions.
  • Dr. Downie said the definitions of some terms in the statute imposed unconstitutional barriers on people who want AS/E, including what is a qualifying medical condition and the requirement that the person’s death be “reasonably foreseeable.”
  • She said the definition of a “grievous and irremediable medical condition” in Bill C-14 improperly goes beyond the terms used in the 2015 Carter decision, by requiring that the illness or disability be “incurable” and “in an advanced state of irreversible decline.”
  • She also called the “reasonably foreseeable” death requirement “unconstitutional” and said she hopes the courts hearing the Lamb and Truchon/Gladu cases would reach the same conclusion.  She said the attorney general of Canada should not be defending these provisions of the Medical Assistance in Dying (MAiD) law.
  • Dr. Downie seemed disappointed that the attorney general is not planning to propose any amendments to expand eligibility following the release of the Council of Canadian Academies reports last December. She expressed her hope that the Royal Society of Canada would recommend extending eligibility to mature minors, to incompetent people via advance directives, and to people who ask for AS/E based on mental illness.
  • Dr. Downie described a multi-faceted strategy including federal and provincial legislation, court challenges, and providing direct services to doctors and individuals to increase the number of providers & make the assessment process easier.  This includes training volunteers to act as witnesses to a euthanasia request, and proposals to ease the capacity requirement.
  • She said there is no indication that ineligible people are being euthanized, that safeguards are being ignored, or that there was a slippery slope, despite the fact that nearly 8,000 euthanasia have been recorded through December of 2018.  No one in the friendly audience challenged these claims, though they were false (see our statistical report and webcast from December 14, 2018).