Evolution and Shortcomings: Supporting Newcomers with Disabilities

by Emily Matesic

For newcomers, finding access to disability support services can be extremely difficult. In Canada, 69% of migrants reported having unmet healthcare needs. “There is a general lack of understanding of our system. Families were unsure where they can go to access resources and to investigate services. It is very difficult for them to get such information” says a Canadian healthcare service provider. Another provider states: “The system is really complicated. Even for me, it is really complicated as a professional”. In general, there is a lack of awareness in educating the general public in Canadian sanctuary cities, and many providers are not properly trained to uphold policies such as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”. Police in Toronto and Vancouver continue to investigate individuals’ immigration status and alert federal authorities if they do not possess documentation. In these cities, vulnerable migrants and refugees still fear accessing important services for mental and physical health as deportation poses a large threat. This blog post explores the lack of support experienced by newcomers in Canada’s largest sanctuary cities and highlight efforts currently being made to better support immigrants with disabilities. 

In Toronto, sanctuary initiatives are severely underfunded. Frontline workers lack the necessary training required to support immigrants, and in the instance of healthcare, many refugees are refused care or charged for care that should have been free due to the lack of transparency of federal and provincial laws. To address these issues, Toronto is opening clinics that do not require any type of insurance. The City also has pop-up clinics for undocumented workers to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. This service is essential in preventing the start or worsening of disabilities. Toronto is taking steps to become more inclusive by providing more accessible healthcare resources. An area of improvement, however, is the need to increase financial support for vulnerable migrants and refugees as this issue is considered one of the main obstacles to accessing disability healthcare services. Income inequality plays an important role in healthcare accessibility and is one of the main social determinants of health affecting newcomers. 

Provincial exclusionary policies can further complicate access to disability health services for vulnerable migrants. In Montreal, vulnerable migrants who do not speak French must struggle with a new Quebec law that limits the use of the English language. “It’s already difficult enough to understand information under stressful circumstances, adding unnecessary barriers will only increase this risk and undermine providers’ ability to deliver optimal care,” says the Coalition pour des services sociaux et de santé de qualité in an open letter. With these changes comes limited access to healthcare for immigrants. A clause in the new law requires immigrants to learn French within their first six months of living in the province; after this period, they will no longer have access to public services in another language. This situation can negatively impact immigrants with disabilities who may need access to a range of public services, ultimately creating more barriers. To combat this problem, organizations such as the Immigration and Refugee Assistance Centre provide English and French language classes to help integrate newcomers. While the city provides resources for newcomers, language barriers still pose a large issue.

A person pushing a walker

Shamis. 2020. Retrieved from https://unsplash.com/photos/pV5MoLmpW9M

Toronto’s lack of affordability and underfunding for disability services, and Montreal’s current experience with language restrictions affecting immigrants underscore how restricted access to disability health services for newcomers is in Canada’s sanctuary cities. Concrete actions and coordination need to be taken by service providers at the municipal and provincial levels to ensure that some of the most vulnerable migrants can access the health services they need.

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