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Twenty-five years ago, the U.S. adopted a momentous civil liberties law, the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The purpose of the law was four-fold:

  • to provide a clear and comprehensive national mandate for the elimination of discrimination against individuals with disabilities;
  • to provide clear, strong, consistent, enforceable standards addressing discrimination against individuals with disabilities;
  • to ensure that the federal government plays a central role in enforcing the standards; and
  • to regulate commerce, in order to address the major areas of discrimination faced day-to-day by people with disabilities.

In short, the ADA gave people legal rights to be full participants in everyday life, and it has had a revolutionary effect.

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The most visible impact is the tearing down of physical barriers: Schools, stores, sports stadiums, government buildings, public transit that are accessible to people with mobility-impairments are now the norm.

The law has been used by thousands with psychiatric, development and physical disabilities to leave institutional care in hospitals, nursing homes and other facilities and receive care in the community.

Discrimination against those with disabilities is no longer tolerated in the workplace, and employment rates have improved, though the jobless rate among people with disabilities remains stubbornly high with about two-thirds out of work (compared to about one-quarter of those without disabilities.)

This is a reminder that anti-discrimination laws, while important, are not enough; a supportive social safety net is also required to ensure inclusion and full citizenship.

But back to the law: As the U.S. celebrates the ADA, it's worth reflecting how Canada compares.

In this country, there is no comprehensive legislation protecting the rights of people with disabilities. What we have instead is a mish-mash of vague principles and tame enforcement bodies.

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees persons with disabilities the right to "equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination based on … mental or physical disability." The Canadian Human Rights Act also prohibits discrimination, as do provincial human rights codes.

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The fundamental difference in approaches is that, in the United States, the ADA was proactive – it forced governments and private businesses to tear down barriers or face punishing sanctions, and it gave people with disabilities legal tools to demand change.

In Canada, we continue to treat inclusion of people with disabilities as a privilege rather than a right.

That needs to change.

It's well past time for a Canadians with Disabilities Act.

The non-partisan group Barrier-Free Canada is calling on all the federal parties to make a commitment to this approach. And despite some high-profile support, such as that of disability activist Rick Hansen, the campaign has not received attention in the mainstream political discourse.

What better time is there for our political leaders to take a stand for a barrier-free and inclusive Canada than during a federal election campaign?

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There are roughly four million Canadians now living with a physical, psychiatric or developmental disability. That number is expected to rise to about nine million by 2030. (Let's not forget that aging – not injury or genetics – is the principal cause of disability.)

The barriers people with disabilities face are many: physical, legal, bureaucratic, communication, technological and, above all, attitudinal.

We don't have an inclusive society because of deep-rooted fears about those who are "different." We also tend to have erroneous beliefs that accommodation is expensive when, in fact, the biggest economic and social cost comes from excluding people from participating in society to the full scope of their abilities.

Change has happened in Canada but it has been painfully slow.

The purpose of a Canadians with Disabilities Act would be essentially the same ones as laid out in the ADA a quarter century ago – to speed up the march toward equality and inclusion.

What Barrier-Free Canada is calling for, in a nicely articulated statement of principles, is legislation that moves beyond the rhetoric of breaking down barriers to creating a structure in which plans to do so will actually be devised and implemented, and the rules enforced.

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Aspirations, values and bons mots – like those in our cherished Charter of Rights and Freedoms – are not enough. There needs to be concrete action to give values life.

As Barrier-Free Canada states: "The Canadians with Disabilities Act must be more than mere window-dressing. It should contribute meaningfully to the improvement of the position of persons with disabilities in Canada. It must have real force, effect and teeth."

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