Activist: policies rooted in systemic ableism

People disabled in vehicle accidents find that the policies of SGI and MPI can sometimes make life extra difficult.

“They were making me the problem and the problem was my car, you know what I mean? Like, I was looking for a mechanic and they sent me to a doctor,” said Winnipeg’s Debbie Patterson.

She is currently in the process of filing a human rights complaint against Manitoba Public Insurance (MPI) because of the proverbial hoops she’s been faced with while trying to adapt her vehicle to suit her disability. 

Patterson is looking to add hand controls, which would allow her to accelerate and brake without having to use her feet, if and when her multiple sclerosis impacts her driving ability.

However, doing so became a challenge because of policies she says are rooted in systemic ableism, a word used to describe discrimination or bias against those with disabilities. 

This was particularly frustrating for her because the 2013 Accessibility for Manitobans Act (AMA) was supposed to remove barriers like this that disadvantage disabled people. 

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“[I] had to really do some digging to figure out who would put hand controls in my car,” she said. “And then I talked to this guy at a mobility place who said, ‘No, we can’t do it until you go through this process with Manitoba Public Insurance.’ And I thought he must be wrong.”

After she confirmed the process with her occupational therapist, Patterson began what she describes as a number of forms, unnecessary medical exams, argumentative phone calls and a series of letters. 

According to MPI, in order to have hand pedals installed, an individual has to complete an assessment to determine if the driver has the functional and cognitive ability to be able to operate a vehicle and to see what type of modifications to the vehicle may be required.  

Once this assessment is completed the report is sent to MPI. 

“We are able to then work with the customer and the community occupational therapist to determine what type of vehicle would best suit their needs and which could be modified,” said Brian Smiley, a spokesperson from MPI, in a Feb. 23 email to The Flatlander.  

Patterson thinks the MPI process is unnecessarily prohibitive. 

“I think if you’re choosing to spend $1,000 to put hand controls in your vehicle, you’re doing it out of an abundance of caution, you’re doing it to be a safer driver,” she said. “It’s not like it makes you a more dangerous driver.” 

She doesn’t understand why MPI would restrict access to hand controls.

“It’s not like people are going to abuse them,” she said. 

Smiley said the processes are in place, in part, to ensure MPI is being fiscally responsible. 

However, he noted MPI reviews informal customer feedback from its case managers to see if the system can be improved. 

Patterson has yet to be able to put hand controls in her vehicle because to do so requires an assessment she feels puts her at a high risk of being exposed to COVID-19 as she would have to travel to a hospital for an exam and share a car with an assessor.

Allen Mankewich is a Manitoba-based wheelchair user who has driven since he was sixteen. 

He says while there is legislation like the AMA, more could be done to help people, like Patterson, by adding a clear complaints and enforcement arm to the provincial legislation.

“If you compare it to the Americans with Disabilities Act, which has very clear guidelines, and very clear penalties, the legislation that we have in Canada, either provincially or federally, seems to be very lacking, comparatively.”

Mankewich said the wider attitudes about disability make inaccessibility issues, like the one Patterson faces, all too common. 

He said filing human rights complaints to address these problems can be long, arduous and expensive.

“You don’t automatically get a lawyer who’s going to fight your case for free,” said Mankewich.

On the Saskatchewan side of the border, Blake Lamontagne is a Regina-based wheelchair user, who found himself arguing with Saskatchewan Government Insurance (SGI) about buying a particular type of vacuum that would be easier to use, thus improving his quality of life.

 “I’ve got a Roomba now, but I mean it took me like four years to get one,” said Lamontagne. “They eventually came around.”

Tyler McMurchy, a spokesperson for SGI, said, in a March 2 email to The Flatlander, each claim is adjudicated on its own merits.

“We do our best to provide a decision promptly, however at times more investigation, review and due diligence is required,” he said.

McMurchy said Saskatchewan’s Automobile Accident Insurance Act dictates what criteria must be met for funding decisions to be made. 

“Is the specialized mobility device safe for the customer? Does it have supporting literature to deem it safe and reliable,” said McMurchy. “We also obtain the opinion of a medical consultant with the requisite expertise to review literature.”

Lamontagne said a rulebook, like the Insurance Act, means too many presumptions are made throughout the process. 

“Just because something works for me, or I asked for something and it worked, doesn’t mean that it’s going to work the same for you. Right? It’s got to be more personalized,” he said.

However, McMurchy said SGI’s processes are important to ensure they are treating their customers fairly and consistently.

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Jessie Staples, from Lloydminster, was paralyzed in a vehicle accident as a teenager. 

As a quadrapaliegic, Staples found it difficult to get a job after completing a commerce degree at the University of Saskatchewan. Like most recent graduates, she also didn’t have much experience and her disability limited what jobs she could do, as well as which ones she was perceived to be able to do, an issue that affects many disabled Canadians.

Offered a part-time job, Staples jumped at the opportunity and was soon offered full-time hours.

The challenge came when she realized she needed to reduce those hours. 

“The work-life balance wasn’t giving me enough time to keep up with the added time it takes being quadriplegic,” she said. “In order to cut back, SGI was like, ‘Well, we’ve decided, based on the fact you’ve been working full time that you can work full time. So you have to go through a medical evaluation in order to prove basically that you need to cut back, which is a bit of a hassle.”

Payments she receives from SGI because of her injury are meant to top up her income after being disabled, and can be a wage replacement. If Staples had to reduce her hours because of her disability, SGI would have to pay her more.

Sorting out this issue with SGI included a medical evaluation. In the meantime, she continued to work full-time to avoid an awkward situation with her employer. 

“If you don’t live with a disability or know anyone who is disabled, it’s hard to understand what we deal with,” she said. 

Important work at a critical time.

Over the last 20 years, on the Prairies and beyond,  local newsrooms have shrunk, which means not much investigative journalism gets done in Saskatchewan and Manitoba. The Flatlander is changing this.

 

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