Human rights

New Liberal legislation on disability could fuel systemic change

‘With this new law, people will not have to wait for their rights to be violated in order to claim them’
Photo: The Hon. Carla Qualtrough, Canadian Minister of Sport and Persons with Disabilities. (Photo: PROCommonwealth Secretariat)

Since Jenna Roy started using a wheelchair at 18 years old, many barriers have arisen in her life. She has overcome a lot on the road to a degree in social work.

“We say you can smile on a stairway as long as you want, it will not become a ramp,” she says to summarize her journey, quoting a TED talk given by a comedian with reduced mobility.

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The young social worker, who has just received a job contract after a fierce search for accessible workplaces, points the finger at some community organizations.

“There are organizations that receive federal funding and are not accessible to people in wheelchairs. There are also buildings that are inaccessible. I think it makes no sense,” she says.

The Canadian Constitution prohibits discrimination based on disability.

She is not the only one to deplore this situation.

“How will we finance [accessibility], and who will make the general public understand the barriers we face?” wonders Montreal activist Julien Gascon-Samson, who also uses a wheelchair. “You can not just depend on the goodwill of others.”

Disability access to federal services

Roy and Gascon-Samson hope that these barriers will soon become a thing of the past for them and for the 1.4 million Canadians living with disabilities.

As soon as the Liberal government came to power, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau committed to regulating access to federal services for people with disabilities. He mandated Carla Qualtrough, the minister of sport and persons with disabilities, who was born with a visual impairment, to develop a framework law on accessibility.

The Canadian Constitution prohibits discrimination based on disability. But for many people with disabilities, this is no longer enough. If a person believes that their rights have been violated, they must engage the human rights commission of the responsible jurisdiction, which can take several years.

“Almost as long as the Supreme Court,” explains Gascon-Samson. A human rights decision is necessary to compel an organization to amend its accessibility plan.

Minister Qualtrough considers the current complaint-based system to be insufficient.

“The human rights system at the federal level is very strong, but a person must have experienced a violation to file a complaint,” she says. “So we have to go on a case-by-case basis instead of addressing systemic issues. With this new law, people will not have to wait for their rights to be violated in order to claim them.”

Rethinking disability law

The proposed legislation will be a major project, covering all areas under federal jurisdiction.

“We talk about the banking sector, trains and planes that cross provincial borders, civil service, immigration…. There’s a whole spectrum of issues that could be addressed,” says Mélanie Benard, a lawyer specializing in disability law.

From signage in airports to the funding of employment access programs, to the position of sign languages ​​in relation to spoken official languages, to laws that prohibit persons with certain disabilities from immigrating to Canada and laws that exclude persons with disabilities from many roles in the armed forces — everything has to be rethought.

"We must give ourselves a law with teeth."

Minister Qualtrough recently spent several months on the road, participating in 17 public consultations with people with disabilities and community groups, from Vancouver to Halifax.

“The consultations were a validation of everything we did. People with disabilities have always needed to adapt to live in a world that was not built for them. Now it is time for us to take our place and support these people,” she says.

“Federal funding is our main lever,” says the minister, who hopes the legislation will be passed in early 2018. “If the federal government refuses to invest in inaccessible programs or infrastructure, we could change the culture.”

Decades overdue

Disability rights groups have been waiting for the passage of this law for decades.

“We must give ourselves a law with teeth. This [federal] law should put pressure on the provinces to apply or develop their own laws,” says Montreal activist Laurence Parent.

“Ontario and Manitoba have their own accessibility laws. Laws are under development in Nova Scotia, Saskatchewan and British Columbia. Quebec has its own legislation, but since no financial penalty is imposed on organizations that aren’t following the rules, activists feel it has little bite. Interprovincial transportation, banks and the post office fall under federal jurisdiction, but the provinces must also act.”

Barry McMahon of the Council of Canadians with Disabilities explains that access to employment, accommodation and transportation remain complicated for Canadians with disabilities.

“It was thought that the Charter of Rights and Freedoms was sufficient to ensure accessibility,” he says. “Now the federal government has the opportunity to put in place a standard for the provinces and for any visitor or contractor who works with the federal government.”

“If this law is well done, walls may fall,” concludes McMahon. And ideally, ramps could be built.

Editors’ note: Nova Scotia passed a new accessibility law on April 27, 2017.

This article originally appeared in the French edition of Ricochet and has been translated.

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