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 - where we have enough popular support to force policy decisions which really help disabled Canadians.
Spencer: You've written about the need for unity in the disability movement -- how do we achieve it?
Al: If government sees division in a movement, they’ll exploit it to do very little or to just make token gestures.
Government must be given reasons why they need to act on a particular issue. They have dozens and dozens of priories and issues on their plate, so if they can avoid adding another, they will.
The stronger the voice of a movement, the more government has to pay attention. First comes strong popular support, then comes bold political decisions and change. Very seldom do bold political decisions get made on their own.
If government sees division in a movement, they'll exploit it
There are 2 components to this for disability movements: (1) we need to get as many people moving in the same direction as possible, which isn’t easy, and (2) we need to get the public aware of the issues and on our side.
The more feedback policymakers get on a particular topic, like disability poverty, the more they will care, and the more likely they are to act to remedy it.
So when you have a united movement and public support, you have the magic combo that forces bold political decisions.
Spencer: What's your hope for the Canada Disability Benefit?
Al: To eliminate poverty for people with disabilities, and as soon as possible.
We shouldn’t have to wait for years and years of study, we shouldn’t have to wait for years and years of provincial government negotiation. The Canada Disability Benefit should be in people's hands as quickly as possible.
We shouldn't have to wait for years and years of study, we shouldn't have to wait for years and years of negotiation
COVID showed that government can move fast if they want, just look at how fast CERB was in place. People shouldn’t have to wait any longer, enough is enough.
Spencer: Aside from poverty, what are the most pressing issues for disabled persons in Canada?
Al: The twin element of poverty is employment. Many people with disabilities want to work, but barriers are preventing that.
But the other thing, the underlying aspect of any material shortcoming, is attitude—a change in attitude towards persons with disabilities is needed.
For Al, cultural views towards persons with disabilities set the foundation on which material outcomes follow (photo: CBC)
The general public needs to know that people with disabilities have shaped society since the beginning of time, and this should be acknowledged and respected.
The mindset and cultural views towards persons with disabilities underlies all the material struggles they face. Culture's like an invisible anchor attached to boats; no matter how much wind's in the sails, the anchor holds it back.
Spencer: If government had to follow your orders, what would you order them to do?
Al: I would say:
“I order you to fast track and design a Canada Disability Benefit eligibility process ready for the April 2022 budget. It must raise the income of people with disabilities above poverty.
Everyone currently receiving any disability benefit, whether provincial, territorial, or federal, must now be eligible for the Canada Disability Benefit as well, and receive it automatically.
Those who don’t currently receive a benefit should have a fast track application process to consider their eligibility.”
That's an order!
Spencer: Aside from your disability-poverty advocacy, what are you working on now?
I’m working with groups around the world to create a movement for 'natural caring' --- unpaid freely given care, given with love
This type of care gets no recognition; all the money, all the policy attention goes to paid care.
Al explains why he took an interest in natural caring (Video: Ashoka)
A great example's the refusal to recognize family and friends as central part of care team during the pandemic. 80 percent of care's unpaid and the paid system relies on unpaid care, yet treats it with disrespect.
Natural care's also something we can find commonality in. Every day, everywhere, most of us are involved in taking care, whether it be of family, friends, or a neighbour.
It goes beyond race, religion, or politics, and can be a positive, unifying force in a world where there's so much conflict and disagreement.
Spencer van Vloten is the editor of BC Disability. To get in touch, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org!