Implementing a Disability Justice Framework: an interview with Sarah Jama

Our mission is to build a just and accessible Ontario — where people with disabilities have personal and political agency.

Photo of Disability Justice Network of Ontario's Sarah Jama.
Disability Justice Network of Ontario's Sarah Jama.

It’s just not about access to space; I have the right to exist and the right to be free as a person with a disability, as the way that I am.

Sarah Jama, co-lead of the Disability Justice Network of Ontario

The trek towards a fair and inclusive Canada continues to be a long one. One population in particular — individuals living with a disability, remain one of the most marginalized and excluded members of our society.

An overview of the data paints these startling realities. Women with a disability are twice as likely to experience violence, and only 47% of people with disabilities are employed, compared to 74% of those without. Although disability rights are enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, barriers to accessing services and human rights still persist.

Currently, in Canada, governments are re-evaluating their commitment to disability rights and legislation. This past summer, the federal government introduced the highly anticipated Bill C-81, Canada’s first nation-wide disability legislation. Shortly after, Justin Trudeau announced his decision to add the responsibility of “accessibility” to the role of the Minister of Public Services and Procurement.

Provinces across Canada are also placing a greater focus on disability rights. Last year, British Columbia put forward a plan to build a “truly inclusive” province by 2024, including much-needed simplification of  the application process for benefits. In Alberta, the government passed legislation to create the role of a provincial disability advocate, to assist in improving how people interact with and receive services. P.E.I’s new AccessAbility Supports program provides individuals living with disabilities with supports from a needs-based framework, along with increased financial assistance, also extending the program to those living with disabling mental illnesses.

But while other parts of Canada are moving forward to strengthen disability rights, Ontario’s new Progressive Conservative government has announced alarming policy changes to Ontario’s social assistance rates and poverty reduction programs. Instead of the 3 per cent rate increase set to come into effect this fall, beneficiaries will now only receive at 1.5 per cent increase, while the government undergoes a ‘100 day’ review of its existing social assistance program. The government’s decision to cancel the basic income pilot plunged thousands of people into a forced state of vulnerability, placing social assistance and poverty reduction back onto the public’s radar and into the policy agenda. Amid these drastic changes, a new advocacy organization has entered the fray. The Disability Justice Network of Ontario  (DJNO), an organization focused on disability justice, is looking to intervene — possibly even redirect the government’s approach.

I spoke with co-founder of the Disability Justice Network of Ontario, Sarah Jama, to discuss the inception of DJNO and how focusing on disability justice, instead of service and supports, can change the conversation and the outcomes.

Brittany Andrew-Amofah: What is your new organization and how did it come to be?

Sarah Jama: Our vision [The Disability Justice Network of Ontario], is to create a world where people with disabilities are free to be. Our mission is to build a just and accessible Ontario — where people with disabilities can thrive; foster meaningful community relationships; and build power, capacity and skills, to hold people, community and institutions accountable for the spaces they create — where people with disabilities have personal and political agency.

What happens when a person with a disability has concerns about their supports and needs advocacy? Where do they go? We quickly found out there was nowhere. We also realized that people with disabilities are some of the most marginalized in our communities. So when we talk about gentrification, housing, access to food justice — a lot of it affects people with disabilities disportionately. So we got together to talk about ways to move away from treating people with disabilities as if they only just care about access to space and being an economic benefit to society.

Andrew-Amofah: How do you define disability justice?

Jama: It is a concept that was created by a group called Sins Invalid. The framework moves away from talking about access — towards creating societies that are accessible, and where people with disabilities are legitimately allowed to exist. Instead of just looking at businesses, it’s looking at education, the justice system, policing, and all these institutions that work in tandem. It involves looking holistically at our society and what ways to support people with disabilities and their right to live and be free.

A move towards a disability justice framework includes where can one can go to make sure their needs are being met. But, also be advocated and supported for, whether or not they have money or need access to a space. It is a move away from just access, and towards justice for everyone who has a disability.

Andrew-Amofah: What does advocacy through the Network look like?

Jama: We are looking to build capacity in people with disabilities to be able to advocate for themselves and push for their own needs. We’re also creating a curriculum that will help organizations looking to implement a [disability] justice framework to be able to do that, and look for policy changes when applicable. We’re focused on building capacity in people to work together in coalitions to have their needs addressed. This will be done through our youth advisory council, and by supporting different organizations and people with disabilities who are trying to to do grassroots work. Most importantly, we want to build a network of people with disabilities and organizations that serve people with disabilities in a non-siloed way.

Andrew-Amofah: The Ontario government recently announced cuts to social assistance, raising ODSP rates by only 1.5 per cent. What do you make of this? And what sort of implications will this have on those receiving benefits?

Jama: This change is very heartbreaking to a lot of people. A lot of people are frustrated. The changes that were supposed to come into play were to allow people with disabilities to keep more of the money they make, if they get a job, while being on ODSP. As of right now you can only keep a small fraction of what you make. That doesn’t incentivize people to go through the trouble of getting a job as a person with a disability, who already is jumping through a lot of hurdles.

The [overall] employment rate to begin with for people with disabilities is very low. We know that stigma is at an all time high when it comes to hiring — a lot of people can’t even get passed the front door to find jobs. To get rid of this change and to not [fully] allow people with disabilities the right to access employment or the right to live on ODSP (which is not even a living), is an attack on some of the most marginalized people in our communities.

Andrew-Amofah: What is your vision for ODSP or social assistance services for people with disabilities?

Jama: I’d like to see a lot less hurdles. There is a lot of burden of proof and a lot of check-ins, which can be difficult to constantly do, especially if someone has a permanent disability. There’s issues with workers always rotating every few months — so you don’t really get to develop a relationship with your worker.

What I would like to see:

  • Is more funding: a living wage for people on ODSP
  • An ability to build a relationship with your worker, by having a worker for more than a few months at a time
  • More funding supports for medical equipment
  • More support from workers with finding accessible housing

Overall the whole system needs to move away from proof of disabilities and towards supporting people and their right to exist in different communities.

Andrew-Amofah: You have a provincial mandate, does that mean you won’t advocate or engage with policy issues affecting those who live with a disability on the federal/national level?

Jama: No, it doesn’t mean that at all. We looked at Hamilton as a place to start, because Hamilton has the largest proportion of people with disabilities [in a given city]. I’m a big believer of working where you live and living where you work. We’re hoping to build a base in Ontario, especially since Ontario had the first ever provincial [accessibility] legislation. We’re also going to be weighing in during elections. Some of that means it’s important to know and be aware of accessibility legislation on all levels of government.

Andrew-Amofah: How will Bill C-81 be integrated into your work?

Jama: We’ve looked through it and we have some critiques, we’re debating what is the best way to put that out. One of the big things that stuck out to me was the fact that the RCMP are exempt from following the legislation depending how they seem fit. Other things were the structure. I don’t like how the onus is on people with disabilities to consistently file complaints, I don’t think that is an effective model — especially since many people with disabilities aren’t able to. Rather, I think it should be the government that’s doing the work to make sure they’re holding their own standards accountable.

Andrew-Amofah: Is there a province or jurisdiction that is leading the way?

Jama: Ontario was the first province to have a provincial piece of legislation, so I’m interested to see what the 2025 deadline will look like especially with this new government. We also have the first Ministry of Accessibility in Ontario now, which will be interesting. I think in a lot of ways, although there are many issues with AODA, we have done a lot of pioneering for people with disabilities. I think the federal act was modelled after this legislation. Manitoba have been using similar structures. PEI is doing a lot of work around mental health and making sure people with invisible disabilities are included under the disability umbrella. Canada as a whole, I’d say is more than a decade behind in regards to the work that needs to be done in terms of accessibility. Majority of our provinces don’t have provincial [accessibility] legislation. When we do look at legislation that exists, there’s not a lot of financial incentive or support for the changes that need to be made around accessibility — so it’s piece of legislation [at times] with no teeth, that says you should be accessible but not [always] how, or here’s the money we’ll give you in order to make sure you are accessible.

Andrew-Amofah: How does race and other identities impact the way a person living with a disability receives services?

Jama: From my own personal experience as a Black woman with a visible disability, you experience a lot of racism, classism and ableism, all at one time while navigating services. Often times, we’ll see people with disabilities who come from low income families are sent to not the greatest places for care. People who tend to access services tend to be predominately White, as well as the leadership [at these services]. It’s very hard to find a space to exist as a person of colour — as a Black person, with a disability, and to claim these identities as not being separate but together. If you look back, the link between colonization and ableism has also been there. People who were Black were told you were different cognitively and physically, and that link has always stayed with us. If you look at the Alberta Sterilization Act, it targeted people with disabilities and Indigenous women. A lot of these issues are linked, but we’re not taught to see it that way.

Andrew-Amofah: Are there mentors you look up to?

Jama: Two women of colour that I really respect is Ing Wong Ward and Alice Wong from the Disability Visibility project in San Francisco. San Francisco has a huge history of disability organizing and she’s doing a lot of online organizing people with disabilities, especially women of colour in their work.

Andrew-Amofah: How has your organizing experience helped you to do this work?

Jama: Because of who I am I’ve never been someone who works in silos. I see the link on transit issues, poverty issues, and housing issues, and disability issues — so I work in all those places. I understand the harm that silos create in our communities and that these silos are just fabricated in our minds. That understanding has helped me to come into this organization, really evaluating and looking into what other organizations are doing, seeing their flaws, but also seeing how we can work together to move towards creating a society that focuses on justice and not just access.

Andrew-Amofah: How do you plan to work with politicians and policymakers?

Jama: We are thinking of implementing the #CripTheVote campaign during the [Hamilton] election. But, we’re manly focused on building a grassroots community of people with disabilities. If it turns out the community wants to focus on lobbying or different tactics we’ll definitely support that, but our goal is to help them build capacity to do whatever work they see fit and building a community that has been traditionally ignored. I think it’s up to the politicians and people in those positions of power to reach out to us.

Andrew-Amofah: What can people do to support your work?

Jama: You can come to our launch to learn more about our organization. We’re having our launch September 13 at 7:00 pm at the Spice Factory [Hamilton, Ontario] to talk about ways to get community members involved. We could use allies for volunteering and you can support us by donating.

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