Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Canada’s euthanasia debate implies a double standard for people with disabilities.

An interview by the Ottawa Citizen with Taylor Hyatt, a Carlton University student who lives with cerebral palsy.

Taylor Hyatt
On Feb. 6, 2015, the Supreme Court of Canada struck down Canada’s assisted suicide law, opening the door to assisted suicide (Carter v. Canada).

This is an incredibly complex topic, one fraught with moral and ethical issues. This interview with Taylor Hyatt, a Carleton University student, gives her opinion from the perspective of a Canadian with a disability.

Tell us about your disability.

My disability defines my life. I was born three months prematurely, and as a result I have spastic diplegia cerebral palsy. I use a walker or electric wheelchair for mobility.

Do you feel that you are treated differently are a result of your disability?

Growing up, I was treated quite differently. I lived the first 19 years of my life in a small town, with many of the same people in my class every year. I stood out socially in the worst way. Normal teenage recklessness never really appealed to me. I’ve always been a bit of a bookworm and I take academics very seriously. I would rather be found with my nose in a Jodi Picoult novel than out at a party. On top of that, school accommodations and the general inaccessibility of my area meant that I had to maintain closer relationships with the adults in my life — physical therapists, teachers, and my family. One of the most prominent examples: I can’t drive, and public transit in my area left a lot to be desired. Nobody wants their mom chauffeuring them to the mall if they’re a day older than 16. I’m grateful that I was able to get the help I needed, but my circumstances didn’t do me any favours. In a nutshell, most of my peers had no idea what to do with me.

How have things changed for you over the past years?

Moving to Ottawa (which I now consider my hometown) for university was one of the best things that ever happened to me. I am now surrounded by a much larger and more diverse group of people in a city that is better equipped to serve residents with disabilities. I found my place quite quickly… sometimes I’m still amazed at the difference between my life now and what it used to be. Right now, I’m in my last year of a linguistics degree at Carleton University — one of the most accessible schools in Canada. I’m living in an accessible residence room with full-time attendant care provided through the school and I’m on a waiting list for an accessible apartment

What are your thoughts on the current Canadian euthanasia debate?

Carter v. Canada has definitely put the issue back on Canadians’ minds. The ruling on Feb. 6 went beyond what assisted suicide supporters claimed to be hoping to accomplish. The requirement for someone seeking assisted suicide — besides reaching the age of majority — is that they have a “grievous and irremediable” illness or disability causing “enduring and intolerable” suffering. There are no limitations restricting the practice to those with terminal illnesses, contrary to what many Canadians expected, and no definition of suffering. As well, the one-year timeline for new legislation proposed by the Supreme Court has been shortened significantly by the federal election.

Does giving doctors the right in law to intentionally cause death negatively affect people with disabilities?

Yes. What concerns me most is the potential shift in the way our society views disability. Right now, I’m a capable and independent young woman of 23. The mobility gear I use fits into the typical understanding of disability. Even though we have a long way to go to ensure a truly accessible society, seeing a walker or wheelchair user is not a rare event. Yet there still seems to be a feeling of unease. There is a subtle difference between being grateful for your physical abilities and assuming that life with a disability is unbearable. I’ve never encountered anyone who has explicitly said, “Boy, I’m glad I’m not in your position” but attitudes imply it. By the time I am 43, 63, or even 83, I wonder if that will have changed. Especially for progressive conditions that can affect mobility, I can see a doctor advising someone, like me, that it would be better not to live than to experience some of what I have.

Is the Supreme Court decision which states that laws prohibiting assisted death discriminate against people with disabilities a false idea?

Absolutely. I see a double standard here. Mental health campaigns have become more visible than ever, and rightly so. I would argue that the court decision, rather than the law it struck down, is discriminatory.

Why is assisted suicide — “death with dignity,” some say — called a positive development for people with disabilities when there is no effort to help us live with dignity? I wish the law prohibiting assisted suicide had remained untouched. Now, I suppose the best I can hope for is a strong and diverse group of people to speak out against euthanasia, along with more time to clear up these misconceptions.

My city and country are far from being perfectly accessible, but I need to acknowledge the progress we’ve made. The Supreme Court decision only takes us backwards.

For more information on this topic visit the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition.

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