It’s easy to recognize diseases like MS and Parkinson’s as a disability – these conditions affect movement, mobility, and even cognitive function. Sometimes more difficult to accept is addiction as a disability. To those who have never dealt with addiction personally, in the lives of their friends and loved ones, addiction can seem like a series of bad decisions rather than a legitimate illness. Stigma around addiction is strong, and often based around a misunderstanding of the disease and its causes.
Addiction is medically defined as: “A primary, chronic disease, characterized by impaired control
over the use of a psychoactive substance and/or behaviour. Common features are change in mood, relief from negative emotions, provision of pleasure, pre-occupation with the use of substance(s) or ritualistic behaviour(s); and continued use of the substance(s) and/or engagement in behaviour(s) despite adverse physical, psychological and/or social consequences. Like other chronic diseases, it can be progressive, relapsing and fatal.”1 Addiction is clearly defined as a disability in the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC), and since 2006, addicts have been protected under a Supreme Court ruling that “drug addicts and alcoholics can’t be denied benefits that other persons with disabilities receive.”2 While there is varying public opinion on whether addicts should be able to access disability benefits, the shared qualities of addiction and diseases highlight why these shared rights are so important.
In the lengthy definition from the OHRC, disability is: “any degree of physical disability, infirmity, malformation or disfigurement that is caused by bodily injury, birth defect or illness, […] a condition of mental impairment, […] a learning disability, or a dysfunction, […] a mental disorder”3. Further to this, many people with addiction issues suffer from other kinds of disabilities, including mental health conditions; as stated in the OHRC, “there is often significant cross-over between addictions and mental health issues, with many people experiencing both.”4 Despite personal opinions or experiences, the OHRC decision was granted for good reason – based on scientific research and much more than a singular experience. In Ontario, it is the law and the last word.
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