Special means to an end

Published on Tuesday March 18, 2008

The Mehta family

BILL GRIMSHAW FOR THE TORONTO STAR Claire Mehta, centre, with her family at home in Ottawa her daughter Anisha, husband Ardeshir and her sons Arthur and Cyrus.
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By Helen Henderson Disabilities Reporter

At age 52, Claire Mehta knows all about uphill battles.

As a child in a wheelchair, she had to fight to be included with other kids her age at school and at play. She became a lawyer, got a job working with the federal Indian Affairs department in Ottawa, married and had children.

But Mehta's firm belief that communities should integrate people with disabilities throughout all stages of life was tested when her elder son, Cyrus, started school.

Cyrus was diagnosed with multiple disabilities, including Tourette Syndrome (a neurological disorder) and epilepsy. Mehta and her husband Ardeshir were adamant that they wanted him included in regular classes. He had a tough time.

"Finally, we decided to try him in a special class," she says. Which is how Cyrus ultimately came to find himself included in life.

In the special class, "all the problems stopped – to the point where eventually he was able to go back into a regular class," Mehta says.

Today, at age 21, Cyrus is thriving at university studying psychology and philosophy. "Hidden disabilities are different," says Mehta. "The things that worked for me didn't work for him."

To anyone who thinks the disability community is one seamless mass of heroic struggles amid tragedy and pain, Mehta's experience is evidence of the complex, interwoven layers that mark its evolution.

In the past quarter-century, since disability rights were included in the Canadian Constitution's Charter of Rights and Freedoms, it is a community that has found its voice, speaking out on poverty, unemployment, the lack of affordable housing and the need for more education resources – issues that concern society as a whole.

Mehta herself will go down in history as someone who made a difference. Under her maiden name, Clariss Kelly, she was the original complainant in what became a lengthy battle with VIA Rail over passenger cars that are inaccessible to wheelchairs.

The case went right up to the Supreme Court of Canada, which ruled only last year that, under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, people with disabilities have a right to barrier-free transportation.

"The VIA decision shows that the standards we uphold should be based not on costs but on human rights issues," says Pat Danforth, chair of the transportation committee of the Council of Canadians with Disabilities.

In Europe and the U.S., "they look at cases like VIA as state of the art," says David Baker, a lawyer who has been a central player in some of the most significant disability rights cases, including VIA. "But in terms of actual access, we're still the pits," he adds.

"There's more of an awareness that disabled people should be part of everything today," says Mehta. "But there's still a long way to go."

Battling to be recognized costs a lot, emotionally and financially, she says. "It takes a lot to continue."

In deciding to try a segregated class for Cyrus, "I looked like a traitor and there was a lot of pressure on me," she says. "But what's reasonable for one may not be reasonable for another."

Today, asked about her future plans, she says: "I want to take a nice, long train trip across Canada."