As I write this column I find myself concluding another week of constituency clinics covering numerous northern communities in the riding. MPPs are back to the Legislature on Monday. I take pride in being able to say that my face is no stranger to virtually any community in Algoma-Manitoulin. There is no doubt in my mind that constituency clinics play a vital role in keeping MPPs in touch with what is going on in the riding as well as what issues are foremost in people’s minds. As I travel, it gives me the chance to see how our roads are maintained, construction and development of infrastructure, new businesses opening and so on. One of the best sources of information are the coffee shops and restaurants I stop at where I inevitably end up having casual but enlightening conversations with patrons.
Meeting people face to face keeps things real for me. Facial expression, body language and tone of voice tell so much more than words on a page or telephone. I often see and speak with individuals who live with a range of disabilities. They share with me the real struggles that they experience, some of which are compounded by government regulations and policies.
As a result of pressure by the NDP on the Conservative government, former Ontario Lieutenant Governor David C. Onley’s independent review of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) was finally tabled in the Legislature. In his report, Onley states, “Every day, in every community in Ontario, people with disabilities encounter formidable barriers to participation in the vast opportunities this province affords its residents – its able-bodied residents…For most disabled persons, Ontario is not a place of opportunity but one of countless, dispiriting, soul-crushing barriers.”
Under the Liberals and Conservatives, Ontario has fallen profoundly short of ensuring all people with disabilities have access to the education, health care and employment opportunities they deserve, as well as the infrastructure to support their access to, and use of, public spaces.
Because of delays in tabling the report and halting the crucial activities of the AODA-appointed advisory committees, the Ford government has dragged its heels on removing barriers to people with disabilities.
It is imperative that the Ford Conservatives thoroughly review Onley’s independent review and commit to implementing its recommendations in a timely manner. Ontarians with disabilities deserve a government that listens to them, and views their inclusion in all areas of society seriously and with compassion.
One real gut-wrenching issue that has suddenly arisen are the changes to support for families who have children who fall into the autistic spectrum. Ontarians know that Doug Ford’s cuts to autism services are hurting families, creating untold financial, physical and emotional strain on parents who were relying on—but will no longer get — anywhere close to adequate funding for their children’s therapy.
Last month, the Conservatives announced an overhaul of the Ontario Autism Program (OAP) that included capping yearly funding for children over five at just $5,000 before income-tested claw backs. Intensive behavioral therapies can cost as much as $70,000 per year for families with high-needs children, meaning families will be on the hook for tens of thousands of dollars under the new OAP.
Parents and caregivers have no other alternative but to simply send their children into regular classroom settings in local schools as of April 1st. As a result, there is going to be a sudden and unexpected influx of thousands of children with autism in schools. Educators and parents immediately rang alarm bells because the schools lack the necessary workers and resources to deal with this sudden surge in student population. This will directly ultimately affect all children’s education.
Working with children on the autistic spectrum takes special training – training which most school teachers do not have. The program and service that these children being dumped into schools will not be anywhere even close to what they currently have – and really need. Laura Kirby-McIntosh, an autism advocate who is also a school teacher, stated, “If this government thinks they can blow up the Ontario Autism Program and say ‘Oh, it’s OK, teachers will do it’ — no.” So many classrooms are already struggling with large class sizes and diverse student needs. Teachers and support workers are already run off their feet. How can they possibly manage with even more students, especially when appropriate resources are not available?
Doug Ford’s “First ever government for the People,” is proving to be callous and uncaring for those who have special needs and for those who face any of a wide range of barriers. They are making cuts that go far beyond finding a few efficiencies that will save money but not detrimentally affect services to the people of Ontario.
Days ago when parents and supporters for people with autism were protesting at Queen’s Park, they called on Minister Lisa McLeod to come out and talk to them face to face – but she refused to make any appearance. Maybe the minister would have a different perspective if she met the real people of Ontario face to face. I know it does me a world of good.
As always, please feel free to contact my office about these issues, or any other provincial matters. You can reach my constituency office by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 705-461-9710 or Toll free 1-800-831-1899.
Michael Mantha MPP/député