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Opinion Passing Bill C-81 is critical to making Canada accessible for all Canadians

Rick Hansen is the founder of the Rick Hansen Foundation.

I’m often asked, “Where does Canada stand in terms of accessibility?” Without consistent standards of measurement or legislation that define what meaningful access is, it’s a question that’s challenging to answer accurately.

When Canada brought home its Constitution in 1982, it also enacted the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Section 15 of which ensures that individuals – regardless of race, religion, ethnic origin, sex, age or physical or cognitive disability – be treated as equals. This unprecedented move launched an era of hope – an expectation of the Canada we all want and deserve.

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Thirty-seven years later, only three provinces – Ontario, Manitoba and Nova Scotia – have accessibility legislation in place to remove barriers and mandate a minimum standard that enables meaningful access in the built environment and helps create a place where people with disabilities are living to their full potential. While the Charter offered a profound statement of equality for people with disabilities, we still have a long way to go to achieve the outcomes Canadians expect.

The federal government made a commitment to Canadians almost four years ago with the proposal of Bill C-81, the Accessible Canada Act. If it receives royal assent, the bill will require the Government of Canada and organizations under its jurisdiction to ensure that public spaces, workplaces, employment, program, services and information be accessible to everyone.

The Rick Hansen Foundation, along with 93 other disability-related organizations across Canada, is a partner of the Federal Accessibility Legislation Alliance (FALA), which has played an active consultation role in shaping Bill C-81. With the proposed Accessible Canada Act referred to the Senate standing committee on social affairs, science and technology (SOCI), a review of the act began on April 3, 2019. I share in the great collective hope that the bill will be passed in Parliament this spring.

Recent research conducted by Angus Reid Global reveals that in Canada, almost 50 per cent of adults have or have experienced a permanent or temporary physical disability or live with someone who has. For decades, people with disabilities, their families and advocates have been pushing for change that is accountable.

The Accessible Canada Act is an essential piece of legislation for people with disabilities that has long been missing. Among the significant benefits, if passed, Bill C-81 would create two new positions – accessibility commissioner and chief accessibility officer – to monitor compliance with the standards and regulations of the act. The bill would also require continuing consultation with people with disabilities on the development of accessibility plans and regulations. By including them in the conversation, we invite them to participate fully in the social, cultural and economic fabric of our society.

For every day that we delay, there is a greater cost to removing the embedded barriers that people face. This leads to alienation for those living with a visible or invisible disability. No legislation is perfect, but with the impending federal election this fall, Bill C-81 must be passed by the House of Commons and the Senate before they adjourn in June; if not, we risk a setback that would cost us in terms of time to rebuild but could also lead to a breakdown of trust with the disability community.

By passing this historic legislation, the federal government can send an important signal to provincial, municipal and Indigenous governments, as well as the private and social sectors, that they must all do their parts and follow suit.

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I hope that, with the Accessible Canada Act in place, Canada will finally get a chance to measure where we are on the journey toward becoming accessible and compare ourselves with the rest of the world. Canadians are on the cusp of a historic moment. Let’s ensure we see Bill C-81 through and build an inclusive and accessible future for all Canadians.

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