Canadians with disabilities felt a surge of tempered optimism on Wednesday as they watched Canada table its first piece of federal legislation aimed at improving accessibility for people with disabilities.
Disabled residents and advocacy organizations said the introduction of the Accessible Canada Act marked a key step towards greater inclusion and contained several critical points community members had named as priorities during a lengthy cross-country consultation process that helped shape the new bill.
But they also raised concerns about provisions the draft bill appears to lack, such as measures to ensure new accessibility barriers do not work their way into future government laws.
Minister for Sport and Persons with Disabilities Kirsty Duncan, the third person to oversee the legislation in as many years, celebrated the “historic” act as a victory for disabled Canadians.
“We are here because of the disability community and their advocacy for decades,” Duncan told The Canadian Press. “This is the community’s legislation.”
The Accessible Canada Act, presented hours before the house rose for the summer, fulfils a promise to have disability-related legislation on the table by spring 2018.
The Act’s stated purpose is to “identify, remove and prevent” accessibility barriers in areas that fall under federal jurisdiction. This includes built environments, federally run programs and services, banking, telecommunications and transportation that crosses provincial lines.
Barrier, as defined by the Act, includes anything “architectural, physical, technological or attitudinal” that “hinders the full participation in society of a physical, mental, intellectual, learning, communication or sensory impairment.”
The government pledged $290-million over six years towards supporting its implementation.
The six primary areas of focus laid out in the draft legislation echo the priorities that emerged during an eight-month consultation with advocacy groups and disabled individuals across the country.
Those who took part in the 2016 consultations wanted to see laws that would help lower unemployment rates that hover around 50 per cent for those with disabilities, reduce the number of buildings inaccessible to those with physical and intellectual disabilities, and remove accessibility barriers for the country’s interprovincial air, rail, ferry and bus transportation systems.
Those consulted also named government program and service delivery as another key area of focus, in addition to government procurement and information-technology.
Another key demand involved enforcement, as those consulted emphasized the legislation needed to have teeth in order to be effective.
To that end, the Act will see the creation of three new bodies to bolster the new law.
A Chief Accessibility Officer will oversee the implementation of the legislation across all sectors, while a new Accessibility Commissioner will be responsible for compliance. Fines for violating the law could be as high as $250,000.
A new Canadian Accessibility Standards Development Organization would also be put in place. The board of this organization should be comprised primarily of people with disabilities who reflect the diversity of the population, the government said.
Those that fall under the purview of the new law will be responsible for outlining detailed accessibility plans that must be drafted in consultation with disabled people and revisited every three years.
They will also be required to set up tools to gather feedback on their efforts and produce regular progress reports and the degree to which disabled people were consulted.
The persons with disabilities minister would continue to be responsible for most aspects of the legislation, though Transport Canada would have enhanced powers to handle transportation matters and telecommunications issues would remain before the Canadian Radio-Television Telecommunications Commission.
Bill C-81 is not yet final. It will be debated in both the House and Senate and undergo additional readings before receiving royal assent and officially becoming law, a process that will not even begin until Parliament resumes in the fall.
The people who stand to gain the most from the bill greeted its introduction with a mixture of anxiety and relief.
Gabrielle Peters, a wheelchair user from Vancouver, said the introduction of national accessibility legislation represents significant progress for a country that’s long lagged behind Western nations that have had such laws on the books for decades.
Even flawed legislation, she contended, changes the conversation by forcing government to tackle systemic issues rather than focusing on individual stories of hardship.
“We are now engaging on a policy level,” she said. “We are being treated as citizens. Accessibility and disability rights are being regarded as part of the responsibility of our elected officials. It is a human rights understanding as opposed to a human interest story in the newspaper.”
James Hicks, national co-ordinator of the Council of Canadians with Disabilities, also hailed the bill as a step in the right direction. But he also said a critical community demand had been ignored.
The council and other advocates had insisted the new law make it mandatory for the government to put its own policies, legislation and program decisions through a disability analysis, just as it currently does for gender-related issues.
They said 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.
Duncan said the act does not currently include such language, but said the law will change the culture of how things are done in government.
For Hicks, this represents a missed opportunity that will limit the law’s effectiveness.
“There absolutely has to be a disability lens that’s applied to every budget and every new initiative that the government brings out so that we know how to ensure that people with disabilities are not going to be left behind.”
Blind Ontario resident Marcia Yale voiced concerns about the standards development process, saying the law won’t initially have much to enforce when it hits the books.
“The criminal code did not come in as a list of standards to be created later,” she said. “I would rather have seen them miss the spring deadline and have the law completely written.”
Currently only Ontario, Nova Scotia and Manitoba have provincial legislation on the books. Duncan said she hopes the incoming federal legislation will help others follow suit.
“Many provinces are waiting to see what this legislation looks like,” she said. “We hope the government will be a leader in this area.”