The Festival of Freedom

Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms — to choose one’s   attitude in any given set of circumstances.

– from Man’s Search for Meaning, by Victor Frankl

freedom_festivalIt’s Spring again, and with it we celebrate the renewal of the planet, the return of nature’s greenery, the sunshine on our faces, the rain showers replacing sleet and snow, and the promise of summer.

Human beings seem very moved and connected to the seasons, and more light-hearted, happy and energetic when it is Spring. In this season, we have a celebration with which I am most familiar, that of Passover. According to the Wikipedia, “The Jewish people celebrate Passover as a commemoration of their liberation by God from slavery in Egypt and their freedom as a nation under the leadership of Moses. It commemorates the story of the Exodus as described in the Hebrew Bible especially in the Book of Exodus, in which the Israelites were freed from slavery in Egypt. According to standard biblical chronology, this event would have taken at about 1300 BCE (AM 2450).

Since the story of Moses appears in the Holy Books of all three Abrahamic faiths, I am going to risk being particular and talk about the message of Freedom. What does it mean to celebrate Freedom, what does it mean to be a free people, and how does that relate to the rights of people with disabilities, or any marginalized people? How can we extrapolate from one cultural experience and benefit another?

The Freedom from slavery described in Exodus is literally physical freedom, as slavery affected several generations of Jews in Egypt, (following the time when Jews had been welcomed by the Pharoh because of Joseph’s successfully interpreting Pharoh’s dreams and preparing Egypt to survive a great 7 year drought.) Jews are required to consider that in every generation we must free ourselves from slavery AND remember that we were once slaves in Egypt, and therefore, work to free others who are enslaved.

According to the scriptures, (or the myths whichever one prefers), the Jewish people became too multitudinous and the Egyptians feared or were jealous of their success, so they declared them non Egyptians and enslaved or bonded them to work for the State, and the story goes, used their labour and denied their rights and freedoms. As time went on, their number must have still increased for Pharoh demanded the death of all Jewish male children. One child is saved, Moses, who is rescued by Pharoh’s own daughter, and as the story continues, he grows up to challenge Pharoh, and eventually wins freedom for his people, taking them forward to claim the land that God had promised.

What is inherent in the story are the many ways that “freedom” can be interpreted. All of the people are to be “equally” free, not some demeaned by others, or having fewer freedoms. Today, as Jews study the story and tell it again and again, each year remembering and renewing a commitment to freedom, we are required to think about the concept. Are we free of things that hold us back from achieving what we are capable of achieving? Are we enabling others to be free? Are we free to express our views, to access services and to participate actively in our society? Are we among the voters in a democratic country? In other words do we appreciate and express our freedoms by active engagement? It is really not that long ago that women in Canada did not even have a vote!! Voting rights for women were introduced in several provinces in 1916, then in 1917 in others, but federally not until 1921. One of the icons of March of Dimes is The Honorable Ellen Fairclough, first Canadian federal cabinet minister and a former Chief Marching Mother.

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, promulgated in 1982, was a tremendous landmark, guaranteeing basic rights to Canadians, but original drafts did not include protection of rights for several groups, people with disabilities, the LGBTQ community among them. March of Dimes was an advocate, and actively pursued the inclusion of people with disabilities. I am reminded of our protestations on the Not Withstanding Clause that allowed Quebec to opt out of certain provisions, as we feared that this could include not providing protection of rights for people with disabilities. We know today that is unlikely to occur; and that Human Rights legislation at the federal and provincial levels, guarantee equal treatment before the law. At the conclusion, many important aspects of freedom were embellished in the Charter and here are significant aspects of what are called Fundamental Freedoms:

Everyone has the following fundamental freedoms:

  • (a) freedom of conscience and religion;
  • (b) freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication;
  • (c) freedom of peaceful assembly; and
  • (d) freedom of association.

I recommend reading the entire Charter document which describes other freedoms that we cherish.

We should think about other ways of viewing freedom; for example, freedom from other people’s perceptions and attitudes that hinder acceptance, be it socially, psychologically or morally. These are harder to define, but this speaks to the idea that ‘justice needs to be seen to be done,” not just that it’s said to be done. So, appropriate customer service in retail, access to recreational venues, fair pricing for transportation services regardless of disability, support in caregiving, and other softer areas of life, are now addressed in the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, and this Act has just undergone a major review. The Act declares that Ontario will be barrier free by 2025 and as it’s been in place since 2005, we are at the half way mark. While still a long way to go, in my view, this Act makes concrete the ideas of freedom, including inclusivity, accessibility, equality of opportunity, and basic consideration in seeing people with disabilities as people first, disabled second.

So, as Spring moves into summer, may everyone enjoy the radiance of sun and longer daylight hours, but recall that it’s not sunny for everyone. Many people do not have basic freedoms in today’s world, many women have few or no rights in countries that don’t value equally all of their citizens and remember that here at home, we have the challenge of creating a society that is fully inclusive and ensures that people with disabilities can exercise their freedoms.