The United States along with Sweden and the U.K have taken the leap forward to enshrine disability rights into law. The Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law by President George Bush (senior) in 1990. Since its creation, this hallmark legislation has become the standard for other countries. Canada is a country which prides itself on being a multicultural country – welcoming to people from other cultures and countries. Yet, it still struggles when it comes to the creation of a proactive policy for people with disabilities. Presently, the Provinces of Ontario, Manitoba and Quebec are the provinces with a disability rights act. Ontario’s legislation was signed into law in 2005 and is officially known as the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act. Manitoba signed a similar piece of legislation into law in 2013 known as Accessibility for Manitobans Act. These acts generally seek to remove the barriers faced by persons with disabilities. Given that these are in three provinces it leaves the rest of the country without a unifying piece of legislation.
In August of this year, journalist Andre Picard advocated for a national legislation in an article for The Globe and Mail. He wrote: 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. He argues, and rightly so, that the argument politicians use against such legislation is how expensive it will be for the country to enforce national inclusiveness and a barrier-free society, but it’s more expensive to exclude people from society and prevent their full participation.
The statistics for people with disabilities continues to be somewhat grim. “In 2011, the employment rate among disabled people between the ages of 25 and 64 was about 49 per cent compared to 79 per cent for people without disabilities. When they do work, Canadians with disabilities earn anywhere between 10 and 15 per cent less than similar workers without disabilities… And, just last year, The Globe and Mail reported on the failure of the Canadian government to monitor compliance when it comes to disability discrimination.”
Legislation, in and of itself isn’t the full answer. It must have “teeth”; the power to truly make a difference in peoples’ lives.
The recent election of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is supposed to herald a ‘new and more inclusive society for all Canadians’. While these are wonderful, welcoming words, they don’t create a new society simply because we say so. We have to do the work. It’s not only time for politicians to speak up and frame a national bill, it’s also time for activists to push the agenda forward. The non-partisan group Barrier Free Canada is doing its best to lead the way. All other disability rights groups and organizations need to join with them now. The sooner we put this on the agenda, the sooner it will be that we get down to the challenge of how to word the Act so that it can indeed make true change.
The need for the act is obvious, but we must also ensure that such an act protects the rights of all people with disabilities. In Canadian society, as with so many other countries, people with mental health challenges are often the most vulnerable. Their needs must be taken into account so that we begin to destroy the unfortunate stigma that still exists around mental illness. Any national act must somehow frame the text so that all people with mental health issues receive the support they require in order to live meaningful and valuable lives. One of the greatest barriers for people with mental health issues is inclusiveness when it comes to employment. There must also be a framework in the act that provides and ensures funding for the type of support they need in order to be a respected part of the Canadian workforce.
Another valuable aspect of the act should be the education of the Canadian public around disability issues. We still live in a society where people discriminate against persons with disabilities no matter how hard we try to deny this. Too many buildings continue to be designed with a lack of accessibility in mind. Building owners still get away with putting up inadequate ramps, elevators that are too small and inaccessible bathroom facilities. Barrier-free design is not a new concept, yet somehow we still see buildings that don’t employ these principles. A national act would hopefully provide the legal means for building a barrier-free world for all Canadians. If you believe in a barrier-free Canada then it’s time to empower ourselves and join the movement for true change.
Child with flag photo available from Shutterstock