International Day of Persons with Disabilities

Federal disability law must tackle more than just discrimination in employment

Canada’s comprehensive disability legislation is eagerly awaited — and its focus is still not clear
Photo: UN Geneva

Today is the International Day of Persons with Disabilities. This marks a good occasion to discuss Canada’s first ever comprehensive federal disability legislation, the Canadians With Disabilities Act.

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Disabled people and organizations representing them participated in public consultations in 18 Canadian cities in 2016, letting the government know what would fit best in the federal accessibility legislation. There were representatives of national organizations like the Council of Canadians with Disabilities, the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, unions, and other community organizations.

The legislation is expected to be tabled in spring 2018 — it was originally supposed to be ready by the end of 2017 — and it is not yet exactly clear what it will contain.

Focus on employment

In August, a report was released summarizing “the government’s discussion with Canadians” over the course of the public consultations. When Kent Hehr was shuffled into position as minister of sport and disability that same month, he mentioned that he hopes the legislation will include support for care workers.

Minister Kent Hehr
VAC

Prior to that, in February, former Minister Carla Qualtrough said that employment will be a major focus. Employment is a huge concern for a lot of disabled people, and a major source of struggle and precarity for many disabled and deaf people, as demonstrated by Canada’s 50 per cent joblessness rate for disabled people.

Many organizations applauded the approach outlined in Qualtrough’s comments. Other disability advocates expressed concern about employment as the focus for the legislation, fearing that this could further marginalize people who are less “productive” according to capitalist standards.

What I heard in the public consultations in Quebec City and Montreal went much deeper than employment. People expressed concerns about the basic foundations of our understandings of disability.

What was made clear in the consultations and report is that a lot more goes into working while disabled than getting hired and not being openly discriminated against.

Key issues left out

Michael Bach, executive vice-president of the Canadian Association for Community Living, attended the Toronto consultation. As someone who has worked in the field of disability inclusion and employment for years, he has seen attempts at different levels of government come and go.

Bach is optimistic and doesn’t get the sense that the bill will be limited to employment. According to him, the government’s approach is focused on addressing transportation and physical and communication barriers — which will then improve employment rates.

Gift Tshuma, access service advisor at McGill University, agrees there is more to employment beyond getting hired, focusing on the nuance in job retention. Tshuma says that human resources departments are not equipped to serve the needs of all employees with disabilities, often leaving “a group that’s further marginalized, [within] an already marginalized group.”

Tshuma points to the disability labour issues that were largely left out of reports from the government. For example, disabled people will work overtime to find resources to make them effective at their jobs. The onus is often placed on disabled employees to fund necessary adapted equipment, alternative communications formatting, or an attendant to assist with physical tasks while at work.

According to Tshuma, disabled workers are more likely to be supported if these are one-off purchases like an ergonomic desk, whereas long-term processes of accommodation are not understood or not pursued due to the stigma of financial burden.

The feds should lead by example

A participant from the Montreal consultation who wished to remain anonymous highlighted the trend of short-term employment of disabled people, which allows employers to meet diversity benchmarks. The belief that disabled people are an economic burden often results in termination after short-term contracts, rather than long-term positions.

The minutiae of daily life, such as the length of a ramp being constructed or the placement of automated door buttons at new construction sites, greatly affect equity and represent significant discrimination.

Bach says the federal government can set an example. He’s calling on the federal government to start accessibility at home, acting as a model for other sectors. He suggests the government implement job-retention strategies and practices for ongoing accessibility in the federal sector. He wants a disability lens applied to all policies, to ensure that future policies do not pose barriers. “[It] needs to be an ongoing thing, at the centre of each policy,” Bach says.

While the federal government could play an important role in modelling equitable employment and developing disability policy analysis, there are other responsibilities such as education that are shared between levels of government.

Monica Van Schaik, a learning disabilities consultant and Relationship Development Intervention specialist, wonders how legislation focusing on employment can be effective “if we have school systems [under provincial jurisdiction] across the country, that significantly [deprioritize] the development and education of disabled kids?”

Studying the history of construction codes in Canada has shown Stephanie Chipeur, a doctoral student and wheelchair user, that disability barriers often occur outside of the scope of federal legislation. The minutiae of daily life, such as the length of a ramp being constructed or the placement of automated door buttons at new construction sites, greatly affect equity and represent significant discrimination. These types of things may not be covered by federal legislation. Chipeur believes the establishment of a national commission on disability to monitor and set standards, which all levels of government would be encouraged to apply, would decrease those daily barriers.

Shifting attitudes

What I heard in the public consultations in Quebec City and Montreal went much deeper than employment. People expressed concerns about the basic foundations of our understandings of disability. Some believe that stigma around disability will shift as the legislation comes into effect. Others believe that the government can’t change people’s attitudes, but should focus on incentivizing accessibility with tax breaks and provincial funding packets to address discrimination.

Thirty-nine per cent of those surveyed selected employment as the highest priority, followed closely by 32 per cent who selected the built environment. Transportation and communications accessibility were also major priorities. Until the Canadians with Disabilities Act is tabled, we won’t know how the government has incorporated the input of the over 6,400 participants in the public consultations.

On this International Day of Persons with Disabilities, with its theme of “Transformation towards sustainable and resilient society for all,” Chipeur’s words provide an important reminder: “Focusing on [disabled people] becoming productive bodies is not the point of accessibility.”

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