Because It's 2018! "Nothing About Us Without Us" in Canada's New Accessibility Legislation

When Canada ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) on March 11, 2010, it committed to rid the country of barriers that prevent people with disabilities from fully enjoying their human rights. Some examples of systemic discrimination in Canada’s federal jurisdiction include: devices, such as point of sale terminals and set-top boxes for cable TV, that require a user to interact with visual cues without an audio alternative for blind users; mobility devices routinely damaged by air carriers; public spaces, ranging from work stations in the public service to national parks, that are not designed to meet the needs of people with varying abilities.  In 2015, Prime Minister Trudeau tasked the Minister of Sport and Persons with Disabilities, then the Hon. Carla Qualtrough and now the Hon. Kirsty Duncan, with the creation of accessibility legislation. The green lighting of accessibility legislation has finally, after eight years, created the opportunity to begin robust implementation of the CRPD in Canada. 

Key to the success of the CRPD is the principal “Nothing About Us Without Us.”  This understanding guided the CRPD’s authors to engage with disabled people and their organizations, so that we were integrally involved in the drafting of the Convention.  Canadians with disabilities are endeavoring to once again take the “Nothing About Us Without Us” principle to accessibility legislation. The Alliance for an Inclusive and Accessible Canada is working hard to convey the vision of Canadians with disabilities have for this legislation to the Government of Canada as it prepares  draft legislation for consideration in the spring of this year. 

To its credit, the Government of Canada, in addition to hosting its own consultations about accessibility legislation has funded a number of disability community-based projects, as well as organizations in the Indigenous community, to consult Canadians with disabilities and others on what shape accessibility legislation should take.  The largest of these projects, the Alliance for an Inclusive and Accessible Canada, was developed by a unique partnership of sixteen organizations , focused equally on advocacy and service provision. Barry McMahon, a consumer from Ottawa, was elected as the Alliance’s chairperson.  “Accessibility legislation is an opportunity of a lifetime,” states Steven Estey, Alliance Coordinator. “To get it right, the Government of Canada needs to pay attention to the disability community’s take on how best to remedy the barriers that we, people with disabilities, know all too well.”

For just over a year now, since January 2017, the Alliance has been listening and gathering advice from Canadians concerning federal accessibility legislation.  These conversations have made it abundantly clear that the disability community is expecting a robust law with the power to correct and prevent barriers. All across this vast country, time and again we have heard people with disabilities say they are no longer prepared to accept voluntary measures.  For example, the 2011 Intercity Bus Code of Practice that Transport Canada describes as “… a voluntary commitment by intercity bus service operators to serve people with disabilities in a safe and dignified manner.” Similar voluntary codes of conduct exist in many areas that impact on our lives. 

Canadians with disabilities have said that because it is 2018, and nearly 10 years since Canada ratified the CRPD, it is high time to move beyond the voluntary approach to accessibility, an approach that has very clearly allowed discrimination to flourish.  “We have heard a lot of calls for a law with teeth,” states Estey.  Article 9 of the CRPD calls upon countries to “…develop, promulgate and monitor the implementation of minimum standards and guidelines for the accessibility of facilities and services open or provided to the public…”.

All across Canada, Deaf Canadians came out in force to the consultations, calling for their languages, ASL and LSQ, to be recognized as official languages in Canada by the new accessibility law. Article 21 of the CRPD calls for countries to “… take all appropriate measures to ensure that persons with disabilities can exercise the right to freedom of expression and opinion, including the freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas on an equal basis with others and through all forms of communication of their choice…”  These are basic human rights, the CRPD has provided guidance and the  new accessibility law must live up to the standards it set, failure to do so would be failure to meet our obligations under a treaty that Canada willingly ratified in 2010. 

Some disability community members called for the accessibility legislation to correct well-known barriers in existing legislation.  The Elections Act is an example of a law that could be amended. Provisions in the Act make it difficult for Elections Canada to develop alternatives to the paper ballot, such as telephone and electronic voting, which would allow blind Canadians to independently verify that they have cast their vote correctly.  This is something they cannot do with the paper ballot.  CRPD Article 29 obliges Canada to ensure that “…  voting procedures, facilities and materials are appropriate, accessible and easy to understand and use;”.

In addition to hearing from grassroots Canadians with disabilities, the Alliance also held a consultation with experts on disability legislation from around the world. If you missed this event, you can view it on the Alliance’s YouTube channel - During that session experts from many countries expressed support for the view that Canada’s accessibility legislation must emulate the CRPD’s view of disability.  In particular they noted that the Treaty’s preamble states, “Recognizing that disability is an evolving concept and that disability results from the interaction between persons with impairments and attitudinal and environmental barriers that hinders their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others…”  This fuller understanding of disability needs to be reflected in the new legislations to ensure that barriers faced by people with a variety of disabilities are accounted for and strategies to overcome them are put in place.

Through its reports to the Government of Canada, the Alliance has been conveying the views of people with disabilities to the officials tasked with delivering an accessibility act to Canada.  We will know how well they listened to people with disabilities when Canada’s historic accessibility legislation goes to the House of Commons for first reading, which is expected to occur during the spring session.  After that we all have a role to play in ensuring the Government of Canada has listened to the “Nothing About Us Without Us” principle as it develops, enacts and implements accessibility legislation. 

The Alliance’s member organizations are: Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians, Alzheimer Society of Canada, Canadian Association for Community Living, Canadian Autism Spectrum Disorders Alliance, Council of Canadians with Disabilities, Canadian Mental Health Association, Canadian National Institute for the Blind, DisAbled Women’s Network Canada, March of Dimes Canada, National Network for Mental Health, People First of Canada, Realize / Canadian Working Group on HIV and Rehabilitation, The Alliance’s partner organizations are: DeafBlind Ontario Services, Muscular Dystrophy Canada, Spina Bifida & Hydrocephalus Association Canada, National Educational Association of Disabled Students.