"Welcome to Canada" unless you have a disability

Canada's appalling discrimination against immigrants with disabilities threatens to derail the country's enlightened track record. The long-standing ban impacts professionals, children and anyone subjectively believed to be a potential "burden," causing families to be denied reunion and stunned individuals to be subjected to significant hardship. 

My husband and I both love a spirited political discussion, so it's good that we agree on a lot of things or home life could become contentious. But there is one place where sparks fly. That's--amazingly--Canada. 

My husband's argument is by his own admission emotional and irrational. Sixteen years ago, he went to the Canadian embassy to apply for a visa as a Czech citizen because we were traveling to the US--in part to get married--and he wanted to go look at the beautiful mountains near Calgary on a road trip. He already had a year-long visa to the US (no small feat) and was confident that the Canadians would give him one as well. 

Now, I'd like to point out that my husband has never been known to put out an arrogant or abrasive vibe. Everyone who knows him will vouch that he is--unlike me--well versed in diplomatic behavior and expression. But I wasn't there, so I can only take his word for it.

The Canadian consul took hum in for an interview and at some point asked--rather acidly, he says--if my husband simply assumed Canada would issue him a visa, because the US did. My husband replied "Yes, I think you will." And his visa was denied. 

I was shocked. This is simply not the Canada I know as a friendly and overly polite northern neighbor. But George W. Bush had just been elected and I was fairly sure that the complaints of an American fiancée could only hurt his case under the circumstances. 

So, we didn't go to Canada for the road trip and my husband has never forgiven them. Any time Canada comes up in political discussion he is uncharacteristically sarcastic and negative.

And Canada comes up a fair amount because we are both very critical of most US imperial and corporate-welfare policies. I was brought to tears of gratitude when Canada refused to forcibly return a few American soldiers who fled there to escape being deployed in the ridiculous and often marginally legal wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I have also heard plenty of stories of Americans going to Canada to buy desperately needed medicine at reasonable prices. And watching the actions of Canada's marvelously diverse cabinet--particularly when they announced that they would take in thoroughly vetted Syrian refugees rejected by Donald Trump--is a delight and a rare breath of fresh, piney air in these stifling times. 

I've always vehemently stuck up for Canada in discussions with my husband or anyone else, which is why the news that Canadian immigration policy flagrantly discriminates against the most vulnerable possible group--children with disabilities--hits me like a sucker punch. 

An article in The Washington Post explains that Canadian policy means in practical terms: "Families can be rejected for having deaf children and spouses can be denied because they use a wheelchair, a practice too harsh for even the United States’ difficult immigration system." And this long-standing policy calls into question precisely how honest the Canadian boast of welcoming refugees from war-torn Syria, where many will have been injured, really is.

The article goes on to list horrifying case studies of families denied reunion or exposed to extreme hardship, due to a member with fairly minor disabilities. A German woman, with multiple sclerosis--a condition that can be fairly mild and is certainly not contagious--who married a Canadian man was denied a residency permit. A family was even stopped at the airport in 2008 after their immigration from Britain had been approved because their daughter had an apparently visible genetic difference. The family of a Costa Rican professor hired by Toronto University was denied residency because of a child with Down Syndrome.

I have to say, flat out, that in the year 2017 this list--and it goes on in The Washington Post--leaves me breathless and gagging. And it makes me look back again at that moment when my husband was denied a visa and wonder if behind the humanitarian and progressive face presented by Canada there actually lies a smug, entitled and ultimately self-serving heart, as he has always maintained. 

Photo by Larry Dickerson  No, those are not Syrian refuges. That's me in the red coat in February or March 1980 in northeastern Oregon. Note the super-thick glasses--definitely not admissible to Canada, even today.

Photo by Larry Dickerson

No, those are not Syrian refuges. That's me in the red coat in February or March 1980 in northeastern Oregon. Note the super-thick glasses--definitely not admissible to Canada, even today.

You see, before I was an American (yeah, it took a month for them to file my birth certificate so technically there was a before), I was a child with a disability. My family's house burnt down while my mother was pregnant with me and my family, including my then one-year-old brother lived in the back of a truck through one snowy, mountain winter. I was born in the spring in the loft of what was then a one-room cabin built by hand around that truck, the fresh-cut boards still smelling of sap. 

And my mother, having endured all that and living in physically harsh conditions, then found out that her new baby was blind. 

We weren't immigrants, but given all that had happened, we didn't look much different from your standard refugees. 

And no one could have predicted it then, but I became an immigrant 22 years later--to the Czech Republic, which--soon after I came--joined the European Union. 

And the comparison to Canadian policies could not be more striking. 

As an immigrant in the EU, I was officially classified in the worst of four possible categories of disability, though I technically have some sight. I once ran into overt discrimination because I was an immigrant with a disability and that was from a doctor who refused to issue me legally mandated medical documents, because she did "not believe foreigners should get the benefits of society" even if they pay the same taxes as everyone else. I dumped her in our wonderful European single-payer health-care system and got another doctor. Problem solved.

Many terrible things have been said about the notorious Foreigner's Police in the Czech Republic and yet astoundingly after 20 years of dealing with them I have never felt that they discriminated against me because of my disability. Far from it. While their 12- and 18-hour waiting lines and their occasional collusion with the Ukrainian mafia are egregious, they never seemed to notice my white cane.

Not only did I not face discrimination from Czech or EU authorities, I was given the same benefits of society that a citizen has, as soon as I had the equivalent of a Green Card as the spouse of a Czech and EU citizen. And I was even given disability accommodations when I took a citizenship test after fifteen years as a permanent resident to assess knowledge of the language and culture, because--surprise surprise--Czech officials actually cared more about whether or not I, as a prospective citizen, had truly integrated into their country and become one of them than they did about my physical difference.

Having seen a thing or two in my time in many parts of the world, I was always waiting for the discrimination shoe to drop. But it never did. 

I'm not a big tax payer, but it's hard to say whether that has more to do with my disability or with my profession as a writer. My husband pays a full share and I make a lot of his work possible. I am an exceedingly good bet for the Czech single-payer health-care system, being extraordinarily healthy. My disability has only once required medical attention and that was for cataract surgery, which eventually affects more than half of all adults. 

Oh, and then there are the savings the state has gained since I adopted two infants from an orphanage that the Czech state would have otherwise had to support for 18 years--given that they were considered "unadoptable" due to local ethnic prejudices. I never had to pay a cent for the adotions (for the record) and I also never got a cent for taking that burden off of the Czech state. I did get a family and a country that welcomed me, however. 

And so for once, I stand in awe of my good fortune--the simple luck that I am in the EU and even Eastern Europe, rather than the much admired land of Canada.

And to Canadians I want to say this. You have my heartfelt thanks you for giving sanctuary to American soldiers forced into illegal situations. Thank you for taking in refugees, including refugees from my adopted country the Czech Republic, when ethnic tensions, violence and rampant discrimination here caused thousands of Czech Roma to flee to Canada. You complained and sent some back, but some were able to stay and thus escape a different form of discrimination--racial discrimination--here.

None of us are perfect. But this policy of blatant discrimination against people with disabilities is disgusting, unwise and ultimately self-defeating. You are an enlightened society and can easily absorb the fact that people with disabilities are no more likely to be a "burden"  to your society than any other group of immigrants.

For centuries, uninformed and misguided policies around the world have called immigrants in general a burden. And nation after nation, that opened up to immigrants and enjoyed their energy and industry has shown those exclusionist policies to be simply ignorant. 

The same is true of societies that have opened up to full participation by people with disabilities. Such openness has only ever helped a society and boosted economic growth.

People with disabilities are different. That's true.

But given access to the same rights as other people, we have never been a burden. Just as we are different, our contributions are outside the norm and often therefore in areas others would not have gone to address needs in society that otherwise would have been left wanting--such as my adoption of children considered un-adoptable by locals. 

Canada, this policy is beneath you. Fix it. Please.