One of the things that I love about being Canadian is that many aspects of our health care system is free. The parts of our health care system that continue to cost money are incredibly problematic but when it is all said and done we have one of the best health care systems in the world. At least that is the claim. As a women with multiple disabilities as well as a health care provider, and a social worker, I champion the health care system as a “very Canadian” value.
The comprehensiveness and the universality of the system however, is very un-Canadian when it comes to servicing many traditionally disenfranchised groups. In this article I will focus on people with disAbilities in particular.
When I first moved back to Toronto after attending university in Kitchener, Ontario, it took me almost 5 years to find a doctor. I went to doctor interviews — 10 of them — of doctors who were apparently accepting new patients. When the doctors met me in person they would say that their clinics were suddenly full even though I had made an appointment. I also got explanations such as: “they only deal with one medical issue per appointment” or that “they lacked the training to handle such and such medical conditions”. For years now, I have had an amazing family doctor. She was hard to find!
As it turns out, it can be equally hard to find accessible services both with regards to attitudes and physical access. This is an all-too-common experience of people living with disabilities when attempting to use the health care system, I had that experience recently at a clinic that I was referred to. The sign at the clinic is pictured below:
I am not a scooter user but I do use a manual wheelchair. Seeing this sign made me feel unwelcome. On top of that the staff at the clinic looked very surprised to see me. When I asked about how the clinic staffs could assist me, a staff member asked me if I could transfer on my own. I can transfer on my own — and the ability to do so was essential to use the clinic because the hallway is too narrow for my incredibly small wheelchair. When I asked the staff at the clinic if they had a transfer board (out of curiosity) they did not know what a transfer board was. The clinic staff offered to refer me to a more accessible clinic. This response is simply unacceptable.
One of the main tenants of the Health Canada Act is the one of universality. In the act this means that, 100 percent of ensured persons have uniform access to the terms and conditions. In this case the term “uniform” means same access. It also means “equal” access but that is an entirely different article. Yet like so many clinics such as the one donning this sign it is known and accepted by many that people deemed “less able” are not welcome in health clinics in both direct (the message in the sign) and systemic ways (this clinic was not physically accessible). In my view, public clinics without public access should not be publicly funded.
In Canada, access to health care is a right. It cannot be deemed a right for some and not for others. In international law, access to health care has been linked to security of the person because it is so closely linked with overall wellbeing. And yet the health care system that makes the rule of universality breaks that rule on a regular basis. Having done research on this issue, I learned that because the clinic sign says, “We will be happy to assist you”, they are not breaking the current Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities (AODA) Act – even though how the clinic was happy to assist me was that they could refer me to another clinic! This too is unacceptable in my view.
When I can use public services without barriers, and when my community can do the same, this will signal a fundamental shift in the health care system. when myself and others can go to clinics that we have been referred to for testing without barriers, I will know that the community values my health, my wellbeing and my health care rights in the way that the Canadian Health care system ought to be, but has yet to become.