Disabled? See you later

Canada’s “excessive demand” restriction on immigration is discriminatory

On Monday, Quinn Albaugh’s column (“Unreasonable accommodation,” Commentary, March 6) described the way “reasonable accommodation” policies have ensured that privileged groups of people, who have never experienced what it is like to wear a niqab or use a wheelchair in Quebec, decide what is sufficient for the people who do. Albaugh remarked in their insightful piece, “Who decides what’s reasonable?… The dominant groups decide what’s reasonable for groups with much less political and social power. The people actually affected have little say.”

This logic needs to be mapped onto discussions of disability policy in Quebec and Canada, particularly in light of obstacles to immigration and assimilation for people with disabilities. Section 38(c) of Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Protection Act declares a foreign citizen “inadmissible on health grounds if their health condition…might reasonably be expected to cause excessive demand on health or social services.”

The “excessive demand” clause, like “reasonable accommodation” policies, sets up this way of thinking: able-bodied people set the standard for what is acceptable use of the health care system; beyond whatever they require, there’s a bright line where the actions we should take for people with mental or physical disabilities turns into “excessive” or “unreasonable.”

In practice, what this means is that Canada prevents people with physical or mental disabilities, even ones who pass the point system, from becoming citizens. This year, David and Sophie Barlagne are fighting to keep the lives they’ve built since coming to Quebec from France on a work permit in 2005. David owns a computer-software business and Sophie voluntarily teaches French to other immigrants, according to the Montreal Gazette. They have been denied permanent resident status because one of their two daughters, Rachel, has cerebral palsy. The Gazette reported that “Barlagne has been told they must leave the country after his work permit expires next year, because his daughter’s medical needs place an ‘excessive burden on social services.’ According to documents filed in Federal Court in Montreal, the ‘excessive burden’ amounts to $5,200 a year in special educational costs” (“Family with disabled daughter launches appeal to remain in Canada,” February 23).

They aren’t the first to lose status because of discrimination against disability – just last year, immigration officials deported Chris Mason, a permanent resident who became paraplegic while working in Canada. MP Judy Wasylycia-Leis puts it best in the open letter published on her web site: “This outdated and discredited approach views persons living with disabilities primarily as a drain on the economy and ‘a burden’ to society. It reinforces a negative stereotype that those living with disabilities continue to have to struggle against. It is even likely in this context that world-famous physicist Stephen Hawking would be rejected if applying to immigrate here.”

The “excessive demand” clause is an excuse allowing immigration policy-makers to rationalize their prejudiced belief that the social and economic contributions of people with disabilities will never exceed the costs of their health care. This economic valuation of a human life, based on the inaccurate social stigma that disabled people aren’t productive, is beyond disturbing.

What’s “excessive”? For Rachel Barlagne, Canadian immigration officials have decided it’s $5,200 per year. What if her “costs” were $10,000? What if they were $10? At what arbitrary point does able-bodied Canada decide that that price is above what her lifetime presence here will contribute, what she will invent, or whom she will help? If Canada wants a just immigration policy, we cannot allow officials to let an applicant’s level of mental or physical ability influence the make-up of Canadian society.

Hannah Freeman is The Daily’s copy editor. Write her at hannah.freeman@gmail.com.