Updated: Jul 17, 2021
Author and advocate Al Etmanski
By Spencer van Vloten
July 10th, 2021
A giant in the Canadian disability community, Al Etmanski's impact has been profound. An Order of Canada recipient, Al co-founded Plan Lifetime Advocacy Network, successfully lobbied for the world's first Disability Savings Plan, and is currently a leader in the Disability Without Poverty movement.
Spencer van Vloten talked with Al about how he became an advocate, his successes and frustrations, and why working together is so important.
Spencer: How did you start your journey as a disability advocate?
Al: My journey began as a community organizer, and I believe that any profound change that happens, happens when grass roots are involved.
My 2nd daughter, Liz, was born with Down syndrome, and at that time I redirected my energy and organizing knowledge towards the issues faced by people with disabilities.
I happened to get lucky, and was appointed executive director of what's now called Inclusion BC; at the time it was called the BC Association for the Mentally Retarded, but we changed its name to the BC Association for Community Living.
Al with daughter Liz and wife Vickie (photo: Etmanski and Cammack family)
Back then, everything was institutionalized or segregated. I applied my community organizing trade to these issues, and we became a fairly effective lobby group.
BC was the 1st big province to close its major institutions, 3 segregated schools were shut down and classes became more integrated, and sheltered workshops were closed.
We were very active and out there in those days, blocking roads, suing government, and getting our voices out in the media. We were also able to bring together and mobilize the disability community in a way it hadn’t been.
Spencer: You talked about your successes, but what has been the biggest frustration over the years?
Al: My biggest frustration's how difficult it is to get government recognition that poverty and disability shouldn’t go hand in hand.
50 percent of people who are poor in the federal government’s poverty reduction strategy have a disability, and 40 percent of Canadians in poverty have a disability.
An Angus Reid poll showed that Canadians understand this: 89 percent believe the Canada Disability Benefit should bring disabled persons above the poverty line in acknowledgment of extra costs, and the public also supports fast action on this.
That tells me that the public is ahead of the government on the issue, and it also makes me wonder if this may be a moment when hope and history rhyme -