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Bill C-81, the Accessible Canada Act: An Act to Ensure a Barrier-free Canada, while long overdue, is a welcome step in the right direction. It has been 38 years since Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau signed the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, thereby guaranteeing Canadians with “mental or physical disabilities” equality and freedom from discrimination. Provinces have established accessibility standards and rights, and it is good to see the federal Government act on this file. In fact, federal standards would have the benefit of crossing jurisdictions, as the federal reach is pan-Canadian. This provides provinces, in turn, with a good opportunity for reflection: how do their standards line up? Is any one left out? Is there room for improvement? Are provinces doing enough to ensure equality is met for those with visible and invisible disabilities?
That’s not to say that Bill-81 is a silver bullet; it is a step, but it lacks the depth of a destination. In late October last year, the Council of Canadians with Disabilities and Communication Disabilities Access Canada submitted an open letter, signed by over 90 Canadian disability organizations, expressing some of their concerns that the Act omits several vital elements. Indeed, the Act is relatively skeletal, reads as recommendations rather than requirements (notably, the language suggests that the Government “may” provide accessibility in key areas, rather than “shall”), and imposes no timelines for implementation. The letter lists other valid concerns and recommendations for strengthening the Bill, and it would be wise for the government to take heed. Accessibility rights are equality rights, and they speak to the dignity of the individual. A country’s character can be judged by how it treats its most vulnerable, and we should aspire to facilitate workplaces that provide equality of opportunity and, by extension, dignity, to all who aspire for public service.
Recently, Justin Trudeau has revealed that discussions on accessibility are ongoing. During a town hall event in Milton, Ontario (January 31, 2019), the Prime Minister answered a question about making sign language an official language by acknowledging that the question had come up in a previous town hall, and that he plans to discuss this with Kirsty Duncan, the Minister of Sport and Persons with Disabilities. It is somewhat disappointing that, following consultation in 2016-2017 with over 6,000 Canadians, 18 in-person public meetings with local leaders from the disability community, and 110 experts, the Prime Minister only recently became aware of this concern, but it is a good sign that he is willing to engage further on this file. Likewise, while the report based on the consultations (Assessible Canada: Creating new Federal Accessibility Legislation: What we Learned from Canadians, May 29, 2017) mentions as its first point that “The new legislation should be ambitious and bold” (emphasis in original), the Act as it currently reads hardly fits that description, but it at least represents federal aspiration toward removing barriers and provides the legislative foundations for growth.
Bill C-81 puts the 1 in 7 Canadians with disabilities in the national spotlight, and, once enacted, can provide a degree of uniformity in accessibility standards across the nation. Now is a good time for provinces to re-evaluate their programs and ensure that the best practices from other provinces are adopted into their own. Accessibility is, in principle, about equality and fairness: we should aspire for a country where accessibility standards are equal across the board and no barriers are left in any public space, regardless of province. This will also require training and ongoing education for federal decision-makers. As evident from his town hall response, the Prime Minister himself acknowledges he is still learning about the needs of Canadians with various disabilities, and it can be assumed executives will have a lot to learn once the bill is enacted and they begin putting accessibility reforms into practice. The Bill as it now reads is a good start, but it contains a few shortcomings, such as the terminology of “may” rather than “shall,” that still need to be overcome.
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