Canada’s Accessibility Legislation – Consultations Robert Oliphant, M.P., Don Valley West
Rob Oliphant, M.P for Don Valley West, hosted two consultation meetings to generate comments, suggestions, and ideas from stakeholders and residents in the riding to help inform Canada’s planned, new accessibility legislation. The first consultation was held on January 26th at the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB) and lasted approximately two hours. It was attended by 14 different service provider and advocacy organizations in Don Valley West that serve Canadians with varying disabilities. A full list of participating organizations is attached as Appendix A.
The second, public consultation was co-hosted with Temple Emanu-el, a Reform Synagogue in York Mills, on February 26th with Pam Damoff, MP for Oakville-Burlington, as the special guest. Approximately 40 constituents attended the two-hour meeting. Ten written submissions were also received.
Although the consultation meetings were organized specifically with respect to Minister Qualtrough’s consultation process for the new accessibility legislation, many participants also provided ideas to improve the current services, funding, and programming for people with disabilities.
Findings from the Consultations: The new legislation
The principal point raised about new legislation is that it should not rank needs or goals with respect to accessibility and inclusion, but rather should make a full demand for the rights of people with disabilities to be included in all aspects of Canadian society. It should not introduce a staged approach or allow for half-measures, but should require that employers, service providers and institutions be responsible and accountable for ensuring that all Canadians are fully included. Accommodation needs to become the norm in Canadian society for individuals, corporations, businesses, not-for-profit organizations and institutions providing services to Canadians.
Many participants discussed the definition of accessibility. One stakeholder mentioned that people in the neurological community do not view themselves as disabled. Therefore, it is important to define “accessibility” well. The importance of including “inclusivity” in the conversation about accessibility was also discussed. One constituent suggested framing the consultation process around the idea of building an inclusive rather than an accessible Canada.
It was stated that a clear goal should be established with the accessibility legislation. The goal should not just be to improve accessibility, but to achieve it across the country.
Implementing the legislation
A business owner stated that some accessibility regulations, such as the AODA requirements in Ontario, are vague. Companies that would like to be accessible have difficulty in understanding how to implement accessibility regulations. Another constituent also stated that there needs to be detailed accessibility standards; organizations need to be told what to do and how to do it. There have to be guidelines that allow the regulations and legislations to be implemented in the real world.
Enforcement of New Legislation
The need for proper and adequate enforcement was a popular topic among stakeholders and constituents. It was stated many times that there needs to be oversight of organizations that are provided funding and grants to deliver programs to Canadians with disabilities in order to have quality control and to ensure compliance with existing and new legislation. Transportation was used as an example by a stakeholder. There is no requirement currently for airplanes to have enough space for guide dogs, which makes travelling difficult for people who rely on them.
Many people cannot afford to hire lawyers. The current legislation (particularly human rights legislation) and regulations are set up in a way that the burden is placed entirely on the person who has faced discrimination. The process for someone to go through a complaint against an organization that is not providing accommodation is difficult. Access to justice is costly and onerous. That burden needs to be shifted to the state in the form of enforcement and prosecution if necessary. The example of the advertisement of services and spaces as accessible, which may not actually be accessible, was given. There needs to be a stronger way to enforce laws against such misrepresentation.
An independent, arms-length enforcement agency was suggested as a possible way to have effective enforcement. It was stated by a constituent that a Canada Accessibility Commission should be created.
Foundational Issues: Barriers
Accessibility as a human right was an idea that was echoed by many stakeholders and constituents. A participant from CNIB challenged the existing notions about accessibility by stating that lights turned on in a room, windows or street lighting are accommodations for people with sight as are stairs for people who choose to walk to another floor. Therefore, making spaces accessible for people with limited abilities should not be considered a burden; accessibility for people with disabilities should be considered standard practice just as accommodations are made for people without disabilities.
A barrier identified by many participants for people with disabilities was accessible, affordable transportation. Lack of means of transportation limits the things that individuals with disabilities can do, such as travel for work, recreation or health needs.
Another significant barrier, which was discussed by both stakeholders and constituents, was prevailing attitudes about disability in society. The misconception and stigmas associated with different disabilities is a significant barrier for individuals of all age groups and abilities. The way we speak, the nouns and adjectives we use, and the considerations we make to include all individuals can make a huge impact in the lives of people with differing abilities.
Many constituents commented on the importance of advocacy and sharing positive messages to both Canadians in general and those in decision-making positions. There was a call to introduce a national educational campaign to help Canadians, businesses, and institutions to respect people with disabilities, including physical and cognitive disabilities. A constituent suggested that there be an advocacy program that allows Canadians to learn about actions people can take at home to support individuals with disabilities. There is new technology now, which provides opportunities for everyday Canadians to support such an initiative and for service providers to provide innovative programs for people with disabilities.
Another constituent suggested starting in schools and high schools with books and workshops on accessibility and inclusivity. It was acknowledged that this is a provincial responsibility, but that the federal government should find ways to provide resources to provinces and territories or to incentivize their creation. It was also suggested that an effort should be made to highlight the stories of people across the country who have disabilities and have succeeded in their field of work. Furthermore, it was stated that there are many great programs in Canada currently that are improving the lives of people with disabilities. The suggestion was that there should be a national program that raises awareness and spreads a positive message about the progress that is already made.
The idea of attitudes and perceptions was also discussed in terms of employment. It was stated by participants that some employers fail to see people objectively and recognize the comparative advantage that many people with disabilities may bring to an organization. Employers need to be open-minded and recognize the various ways in which the company can benefit by hiring people with disabilities.
There were a few ideas to encourage employers to hire people with disabilities, which included the government and community organizations inviting employers to roundtables and town halls to discuss hiring challenges and address them. It was also suggested that businesses should be provided with data that demonstrates to the employers that making structural or program changes in their organization for people with disabilities will be beneficial to the company. This data will encourage businesses to make spaces and companies more inclusive and accessible. It was also stated that it is important to reach kids when they are young and get them to start working at an early age. There should be funding and grants available to employers to hire young people with disabilities.
Furthermore, a stakeholder commented that along with new legislation, it is important to provide tangible support to employers. If the employer does not feel comfortable, they will not consider
making changes and providing new opportunities. It was suggested that a national accommodations fund be created to support employers and allow them to hire without risk. The fund should target small to medium sized businesses and should be operated by an NGO.
However, a stakeholder also recognized that some people with disabilities are not employable. Many of these people live below the poverty line. Programs and financial programs need to address this problem as well with the equivalent of a living wage for all Canadians with disabilities.
There was also discussion about the lack of affordable housing that is especially problematic for people with disabilities. People who receive support from the Ontario Disability Support Program, for example, require rent assistance in some cases. It was suggested that the federal government designate infrastructure funding to build affordable housing for people with disabilities.
Various issues in the education sector were identified for people with disabilities. A stakeholder commented that there are breaks in services that should not exist since people do not outgrow disabilities. The age of an individual is often irrelevant when it comes to disabilities.
The education system, stated constituents, needs to be improved to support people with disabilities. In many cases, teachers are not trained to teach students with disabilities or schools may not be able to accommodate students due to various rules, such as guide dogs not being allowed in classrooms. Proper education is important to build a strong foundation and allow an individual to obtain gainful employment and other opportunities in the future.
Principals from schools in Don Valley West that serve students with disabilities also attended the consultation. There was concern that there is lack of funding for continuing education and other services that are required by individuals with disabilities over the age of 21. Parents at Park Lane Public School have formed a steering committee to find a model in other countries that is effective in addressing this problem.
It was also stated that parents of young children with medical challenges need support. They, in some cases, have a difficult time accepting the new reality of having to support their child with a disability and find it challenging to navigate through the process. There seems to be a decline in service organizations to support such families.
Funding and lack of federal-provincial/territorial cooperation and coordination for programming and policies
There was agreement among all participants that financial support from all levels of government is important to ensure compliance with accessibility standards. This is important for
programming so that there is no financial barrier to either accessing or providing accessible spaces and services. Some areas where increased funding was requested included pilot projects, start-ups that focus on hiring people with disabilities, and funding for support workers.
Funding for research was also discussed at the meetings. Stakeholders commented that sometimes it is difficult to find data that support their programming. The United States has many research programs, and it is important for Canada to invest in more research within the Canadian context as all knowledge is not transferrable between two very different countries with different laws and different cultural norms.
Additionally, there was a discussion about existing funding programs. A stakeholder commented that existing funding programs need to be challenged. Some organizations have to explain, for example, why they have not utilized wage subsidies even though the organization believes that there is no evidence to support the claim that wage subsidies are beneficial. As a result, their funding package may be altered.
Participants also discussed the need to have conditional funding for provinces and territories as well as local and national organizations. Provinces and territories need to be accountable if they receive health funding. Furthermore, the federal government should demand that funds not be used to create more barriers or perpetuate existing ones.
A stakeholder stated that the accessibility review is a good opportunity for various departments and levels of government to work together to ensure consistency in programming. Different provinces and territories provide varying levels and types of services, which may mean that an individual is required to travel to a different province or territory to access the required services. There is a desire to have provinces and territories work together to get consensus on approaches to funding and programming. There are some responsibilities that have been delegated to municipalities, but it was stated that other levels of government need to get involved and ensure consistency.
Other Concerns Raised
Some other comments by participants included the lack of personal support workers to provide assistance to individuals with disabilities. There are a few stakeholders and service provider organizations that are having challenges finding a PSW for their clients. It was also stated that home care services that are funded by the federal government are needed.
One constituent also mentioned that it is important to teach business students about accessibility and inclusivity rather than simply focusing on sustainability as this can ensure that the next generation of entrepreneurs and employers provide an accessible working environment for individuals of all abilities.
Stakeholders and constituents also pointed out that it is important to focus on immigrant and visible minority groups, who may face additional challenges when accessing services and spaces that are accessible. Improving communicative access and reducing language barriers is important.
It was also suggested that a committee be formed at the federal level of everyday citizens who can provide regular input on how the existing and new legislations are being implemented and identify any areas of improvement.