Monday, December 12, 2016

Cross-country consultations 

for an accessible Canada 

By Randy Pinsky

Recently, Montrealers packed the Palais des Congrès to discuss gaps in the system for those with a disability as part of a cross-country consultation for a national law of accessibility. Stakeholders with physical, hearing, visual, as well as intellectual disabilities, reinforced the need to be considered in all aspects of this planned legislation in order to have a truly ‘inclusive’ Canada.

Armed with powerful testimonies, individuals representing various interest groups expressed concerns and suggested areas requiring attention. From the need for more accessible housing and equal employment opportunities, to services for people with special needs and signing interpreters at health centers, this truly was an active community coming together, determined to be heard.

And heard they were! Stéphane Lauzon, Parliamentary Secretary for Sport and Persons with Disabilities, introduced the parameters of the consultation for this historical law of accessibility, ending with, “à vous, la parole!”

But how did this whole discussion come about? The Honourable Carla Qualtrough, Minister of Sport and Persons with Disabilities (Canada’s first minister for this clientele) and a former Paralympian, was charged with the task of creating a law of accessibility with nation-wide applicability. (See our feature article about The Honourable Qualtrough in the Fall 2016 / Winter 2017 edition of Inspirations.) How ‘accessibility’ was to be defined and implemented necessitated public input and contributions.  

A cross-Canada public consultation tour was launched in September 2016, and will continue until February 2017. Its mission is to identify challenges in daily life and areas in need of improvement, as well as contest misconceptions about disability (and ability!). According to the official website, “the government of Canada is committed to eliminating systemic barriers and delivering equality of opportunity to all Canadians” in order to create a inclusive society.
The Honorable Carla Qualtrough, Minister of Sport and Persons with Disabilities.

While a number of motions for accessibility exist (such as wheelchair-accessible buses), these are often viewed as mere tokens as opposed to truly meaningful actions. Participants argued that the system is slow to change, and operates in a reactive manner with the onus being on the individual with disability; a process Qualtrough terms as “exhausting, expansive and unfairly burdensome”. She continued: “When systems and spaces are accessible, every Canadian wins. Barriers are bad for business”.

As reinforced in the consultation, change is long overdue. Our neighbours to the South have had the Americans with Disabilities Act since 1990, and while some provinces have accessibility legislation, they are recent or still in the process of adoption.

For an accessibility legislation to be truly effective, those directly impacted must be involved at all aspects of the decision-making process. Such a sentiment was echoed in the Montreal consultation by a community leader for the hearing-impaired who stated: “We talk about accessibility and equality but when decisions are made, they are made by hearing people, not us. We are only consulted after they have been agreed upon”. Other speakers with physical challenges reinforced the irony of being expected to approve resolutions made by able-bodied individuals. 

Over 150 individuals representing various interest groups attended the Montreal public consultation on the planned law for accessibility at Palais des Congrès, November 16, 2016. 
Photo credit: Government of Canada Source:

In order for adaptations to occur and for difference to be celebrated, the public needs to be sensitized to the daily reality of those with alternative abilities. Disability activist Aimee Louw (representing Paul Tshuma, an accessibility consultant) expressed the need for those with disabilities to be central to such public education campaigns. Stereotypes and misconceptions can only be contested if the public mindset is challenged; something she feels must be “led by us, ourselves”.

All of these sentiments reiterate the fact that accessibility must be viewed differently; “not [merely] as a series of boxes to check off to show we’ve done the minimum required, but an integral part of everything we do”, as stated in the official discussion guide.
No longer can accommodations be elective and upon demand. Accessibility and access to needed services blends into the realm of human rights, as powerfully described by the mother of a boy with autism.

Often described as an ‘invisible disability’, early intervention for autism is critical to have the best possible chance of a fulfilling life, yet diagnosis in the public system can take up to two years. The lack of resources and services is encumbered by the fact that there is no federally mandated protection. As the mother expressed, “If this is not done at the federal level, what impetus is there to have anything at the provincial?” The recently launched Center for Innovation in Autism, See Things My Way, directly combats these diagnostic delays, and has made significant inroads in reducing wait time.

So what does an ‘accessible Canada’ mean to You? Legislators would do well to heed one participant’s comment; “We talk about dying with dignity, but what about living with it?” In order for this federally mandated legislation to lead to truly inclusive societies, the stakeholders present at the consultations must be placed at the centre of this historical move.