Provincial Update: Building a mass movement for disability rights

Submitted by Joel Harden, MPP for Ottawa Centre

Recently, I received heartfelt pleas from people with disabilities on social media. 

Folks were upset that the Province of Ontario had announced emergency help for equine (horse, mule, donkey, etc.) businesses, while people with disabilities have languished on poverty incomes during COVID-19 as their costs increased.

I was furious, and pledged to raise hell, but something seemed wrong. Having been raised in a rural home, I heard of stables with therapeutic riding programs for people with disabilities. What equine businesses were getting this help? Were we Iashing out against allies? 

So, I inquired further, and got this reply from a family friend: 

“…these subsidies aren’t for people’s pets, these subsidies are for horses that are used in lesson programmes … riding programmes have been shut down for a long time so people are having to feed and care for animals that are essential to their business but who aren’t, at the moment, bringing in any income through their work in the school … so, while we should be paying out more to people on ODSP [Ontario Disability Support Program], I also think supporting small businesses in COVID is important.”   

The doubt I had now took shape. Many folks applying to the Equine Hardship Program were supporters of disability rights, and are in need of help. They either ran therapeutic riding programs or supported people who did. We needed an alliance here.

An individual in a wheel chair pets a horse in a black and white photo
Photo courtesy of Jennifer Semach.

I called Amanda Holt, another horse owner. I explained the plight of disabled Ontarians, and asked her to write something we could share. Here’s what she wrote:  

“I take strength from my horses when I connect with them. And I hope that you, the strong equestrians of Ontario, will use that strength to raise your voices for those who need our support now. If you own a horse, love a horse, ride/drive a horse, or just like looking at these gorgeous animals, raise your voices in gratitude for what we have and in concern for those who need immediate assistance.”

I then called Jennifer Semach, co-owner of Walkabout Farms Therapeutic Riding Association in Minden Hills, Ontario. I shared Amanda’s statement with her, and asked if she would consider one as well. Within the hour, Jennifer offered this: 

“Many wonderful people have been tagging me in reference to the Equine Hardship Program being offered by our provincial government. I am grateful to have the opportunity and option to apply, however we won’t be and this is why: social isolation, poverty and essential programming cancellation due to COVID-19 has impacted those living on ODSP and children with disabilities in the worst way. 

These families need our government to immediately provide meaningful financial aid to those who are hardest hit in this crisis. The isolation, financial constraints [and] limited support [are] magnified especially for those with permanent disabilities and the families that have lost respite care for [their] loved ones during the COVID-19 crisis.”  

As we work for a more enabling province, it’s worth remembering our allies are everywhere. We need a broad alliance for action, and the Ford government must feel that pressure.

That’s why I’m asking all horse lovers to jump on social media, and follow Amanda and Jennifer’s lead. Use the hashtag #ODSPoverty so your words and pictures are seen. We need a mass movement for disability rights, and you can be part of that movement. 

Tell Premier Ford to raise ODSP rates now. 

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