Before the House of Commons adjourned for the summer, the government introduced Bill C-81, the Accessible Canada Act, intended to help create a barrier-free Canada. The proposed legislation aims to identify, remove and prevent accessibility barriers in areas that fall under federal jurisdiction, strengthen existing rights and protections for persons with disabilities, and promote a culture of inclusion. [See plain language summary]
Although there has been growing recognition in federal policy and program initiatives of barriers faced by persons with disabilities, especially since the House of Commons Special Committee’s landmark Obstacles report (1981), this is Canada’s first attempt at accessibility legislation at a national level. Of the provinces, only Ontario (Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, 2005), Manitoba (2013) and Nova Scotia (2017) currently have accessibility laws in force.
Bill C-81 follows extensive consultation in 2016-2017 with over 6,000 individuals and organizations on priorities for the new legislation. A May 2017 report What We Learned
shared major findings. The key areas identified cover federal buildings and public spaces, programs and service delivery, employment, information and communications technology, procurement of goods and services, and transportation. The public and private-sector bodies regulated by the Act will be required to develop accessibility plans, feedback tools and regularly report on progress. The Act provides for periodical independent reviews and fines of up to $250,000 for violations.
Employment a top concern
In the consultation all types of accessibility were acknowledged as interconnected and important. Unsurprisingly however, given the low employment rate (49% according to the latest Statistics Canada data) of working age Canadians with disabilities, equitable employment and job retention were identified as the number one priority – in particular the need for more action on fair hiring practices and workplace accommodation. In the words of Wolfgang Zimmerman, long-time advocate for more effective accessibility legislation including return-to-work obligations:
If you don’t have a job, you don’t have income, you live in poverty, you live with impairment and chronic pain.”
First responses to the bill
While disability organizations and advocates have applauded the legislation as a real step forward, several concerns have also been raised, including:
- How the Act is administered. Three new bodies will be created to oversee the legislation: reporting to the Minister Responsible for Persons with Disabilities, a Chief Accessibility Officer to oversee implementation, an Accessibility Commissioner to oversee compliance, and a Canadian Accessibility Standards Development Organization to develop and recommend standards. Transportation issues will continue to be handled by the Minister of Transport and Canadian Transportation Agency and telecommunications accessibility by the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC.) Lawyer and disability advocate David Lepofsky suggests “that kind of splintered approach to implementation and enforcement is a formula for confusion, delay, duplication and ineffectiveness … We would rather have it all under one roof.”
- The standards process. The proposed Act gives cabinet the power to decide which standards become law, but does not write in the ‘duty to enact’ – leaving open the possibility a future government may choose to never enact them (which, as Lepofsky notes, happened with a 2001 Ontario accessibility law)
- Requirement for a disability lens. Critics argue that standards development only goes so far. The community, including the Council of Canadians with Disabilities (CCD), demanded legislation that makes it mandatory for the government to review its own policies, legislation and program decisions through a disability analysis, just as it now does for gender-related issues. As noted by John Rae, board member of CCD (and of Injured Workers Community Legal Clinic), the federal government would be leading by example – “such an approach would help identify instances of discriminatory laws on the books and signal that the feds are willing to get their own house in order before compelling others to do the same.”
A stated key principle of the proposed legislation is respecting the philosophy of the disability community of “nothing about us, without us.” The office of Kirsty Duncan, Minister for Persons with Disabilities, has responded that these concerns raised will be addressed in committee hearings on the bill.
- Canada. Employment and Social Development Canada. 2018 Jun. 20. News Release: Most Significant Progress for People with Disabilities in Over 30 Years. (Page includes links to draft Act, Consultation report, Backgrounders)
- Monsebraaten, Laurie. 2018 Jun. 21. “Disability Rights Advocates Welcome National Legislation.” Toronto Star
- Perez-Leclerc, Mayra. 2018 Jun. 21. “Federal Legislation affecting People with Disabilities: Where We Are Today”. HillNotes
- Council of Canadians with Disabilities. 2018 Jun. 20. Media Release: Accessibility Legislation a Way for Canada to Realize Its International Human Rights Commitments. Winnipeg: CCD
- McQuigge, Michelle. 2018 Jun. 20. “Federal Government Tables Canada’s First National Accessibility Law.” Globe and Mail
- Youds, Mike. 2018 May 24. “Alberni University Zeroes in on Disability and Poverty.” Alberni Valley News
- McColl, Mary Ann et al. 2017 Dec. A Review of Disability Policy in Canada. 3d ed. Kingston: Canadian Disability Policy Alliance
- Young, William. 1997 Jan. 24. Disability: Socio-economic Aspects and Proposals for Reform. Ottawa: Library of Parliament (Current Issue Review, 95-4E) (History of government initiatives) (see also Overview of Studies Related to Persons with Disabilities, House of Commons 1981-2012)