Are people with disabilities unwelcome in Canada?

Amy Wallace

Felipe Montoya is a full-time, tenured professor of environmental studies at York University. For three years, he has been living with his family in Toronto.

Montoya, whose family is originally from Costa Rica, submitted an application for permanent residency for himself, his wife and his two children. But the family’s ability to remain in Canada is now being called into question because Montoya’s son Nico, 13, has Down syndrome.

Immigration officials have denied his application because of the “excessive demand” that Nico would place on the health-care system. “Excessive” is defined as anything that costs more than $6,387 per year. The family is now facing the prospect of having to return to Costa Rica.

A letter from Citizenship and Immigration Canada that was sent to Montoya claims that Nico functions at the level of a three-year-old. It estimates that special education support would cost between $20,000 and $25,000 a year.

When a family applies for residency, a finding of inadmissibility against one of its members affects everyone on the application.

This is selectively unfair. It contradicts the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which affords protection and benefit of the law without discrimination.

As the Syrian refugee crisis has demonstrated, we are a country that prides itself on its generosity. Over the past few months, Syrian families have been entering the country with several children in tow.

The average Syrian family coming to Nova Scotia has seven members, according to the province’s director of operations for the Immigrant Services Association.

The majority of government-assisted refugees in Canada are families with five to eight members.

Wouldn’t families with multiple children cost as much, if not more than Nico Montoya?

While two such situations are completely different, it still begs the question: how can one child be singled out for his disability?

Mr. Montoya doesn’t seem to gain any benefit for being in Canada for three years, being a Canadian taxpayer and working a meaningful job.

This is not an isolated case. In 2011, a New Brunswick family faced deportation to South Korea because of their son’s autism. That same year, a French family was denied residency due to their daughter’s cerebral palsy.

It is time we re-evaluate our immigration policy with regards to disability. An article posted on The Council of Canadians with Disabilities website calls upon the Canadian Government to undertake a review of the “excessive demand” clause.

The current approach assumes that people with disabilities are a burden on Canadian society, and overlooks the contributions they can make. Many individuals with Down syndrome lead normal and productive lives, and spend hours participating in volunteer work. They may become employed and get married.

Our immigration policy needs to recognize those with Down syndrome as people, and not define them by their condition. Nico Montoya does not pose a threat to society, and it is unreasonable to assume he’s incapable of contribution.

Actress Olivia Wilde stars in a new video released in honour of World Down Syndrome Day on March 21. The video, narrated by a young woman with the disability, shows Wilde spending time with friends and family and enjoying everyday activities. At the end of the video, the face of the real narrator is revealed. The video was intended to “change the way we look at people with Down syndrome,” but it faced some criticism for portraying the attractive actress rather than the young narrator herself.

While the video is a positive attempt to draw attention to those with Down syndrome, it shows that we have a long way to go.

Integration of children with special needs is also important because of the impact they can have on the greater community. An example of this is Sam Forbes, the dancing Starbucks barista. The Toronto teenager has autism, as well as a movement disorder, which led him to channel his movements into dance. A recent YouTube video of Sam dancing at work went viral, and landed him a spot on The Ellen DeGeneres Show.

After being told that he was unemployable, Sam has since gained confidence and independence from working at Starbucks. “People with autism do not want to be looked at with sympathy,” Sam said in a statement. “Please, please, please keep an open mind about what people with special needs can do.”

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