OTTAWA – Conservative MP David Yurdiga says people suffering from disabilities that worsen and ease, like his wife and daughter, are not treated fairly under Canadian law and he wants to change that.
Yurdiga said support for people with disabilities insists that they declare whether they can work or not – it’s a “binary switch.” There’s no support or protection in the workplace for those with episodic disabilities who can generally work but need to take days, weeks, or months off for their health.
After watching his wife’s battle with multiple sclerosis, and hearing from friends and others about the challenges of living with episodic disabilities, Yurdiga introduced a motion in the House of Commons that instructed the Commons’ human-resources committee to study the issue.
The motion passed unanimously and the committee met for the first time to discuss the issue Thursday. Yurdiga said that’s a first step but his goal is legislative change, and that could mean reforming Employment Insurance or expanding disability programs.
Yurdiga’s wife Kathy was diagnosed with MS in 2004 and his daughter has epilepsy.
“I never considered it hard. I considered it the right thing to do,” he says of bringing his wife’s condition into political light. Kathy Yurdiga said it’s been emotional for her but she’s proud of him for taking on the cause.
Kathy said she was in her mid 30s with two teenagers, working as a bookkeeper at their thriving family business, when she was diagnosed with the autoimmune disease that causes gradual nervous-system damage. Afterward, she wondered whether she would be disabled for the rest of her life.
“It just started with small clumsiness. You start dropping things, you just think you’re tired … then it slowly progressed to my fingers feeling funny, my arms feel heavy. Next thing you know, you can’t move your fingers at all,” she said.
A few months after that episode Kathy regained use of her arm, but said she never fully recovered.
“It was scary because you don’t know what tomorrow’s going to bring and I don’t like to admit it but every day I wake up and I think, ‘Am I going to be disabled today?’.”
David Yurdiga said he wants to see legislative and policy changes that would ensure those living with multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, arthritis, and other episodic disabilities are protected, can stay in the workforce and get better access to programs they need.
The Fort McMurray-Cold Lake MP said his family had a support system when his wife first had difficulty using her hands, including their children and people who worked with her in the family business.
“We were fortunate in that we had other staff that could support her and at home we had our children even putting on her make-up, little things, washing dishes,” he said.
That still left Kathy Yurdiga feeling very vulnerable. “I couldn’t use a can-opener,” she said. “My daughter put my earrings in.”
And it’s an issue that seems to have struck a chord with other MPs. New Brunswick Liberal MP Wayne Long told the committee that he suffered from extreme anxiety in his 20s.
“I was almost paralyzed with anxiety and it was a chore to go to work each day,” he said. “There were times when the anxiety was so bad I had to go home. I couldn’t deal with it,” he said.
The committee’s eventual report won’t change anything in itself but Yurdiga hopes it will prompt the government to change the laws to take better account of different kinds of illnesses.