The missing links to disability equality in Canada

Five ways to move persons with disabilities off the sidelines and into the mainstram
March 2, 2020

Cartoon of man surveying designs for an accessible building built at the top of a mountain.

On March 4, 1975, I attended a public forum in connection with a study on the unmet needs of blind Canadians. That night, I jumped feet first into community organizing.

Already in 1975, the beginnings of Canada’s disability rights movement were well underway. Persons with disabilities all across the country, but especially in the west, were examining their situation and discovered:

  • a chronic lack of physical access throughout their communities;
  • a lack of accessible transportation;
  • a lack of accessible and affordable housing;
  • an absence of personal care programs;
  • a number of service agencies that had taken on the role of speaking for us, but did not involve us to any meaningful extent in their decision-making; and
  • a chronic level of unemployment that amounted to a travesty in an affluent country such as Canada.

South of the border the activism of the civil rights and women’s movements was bearing fruit. Persons with disabilities decided that if self-organizing could bring about improvements in the United States, similar actions could and should bring about progress here in Canada. We began to form our own organizations to provide persons with disabilities with a vehicle for self-expression and collective action.

Now, 45 years on, it is astonishing how many barriers still exist to the full participation of persons with disabilities. Weak building codes aren’t adequate to create full, physical access to our social spaces. There is not nearly enough accessible and affordable housing. Transportation systems are only slowly being retrofitted to make them more accessible. Unemployment and extreme poverty rates for persons with disabilities have barely improved, yet the cutbacks to essential services keep coming.

These are only a few of the barriers that continue to prevent persons with disabilities from playing the roles in our society they want to play—roles that are readily available to our non-disabled counterparts.

Does this mean that no progress has taken place? Definitely not. But the pace of progress over the past 45 years has been painfully slow, often occurring only after extensive lobbying and fights on the part of disability rights organizations. This progress has taken two steps forward and one and a half steps back.

So, what is needed? The following five changes would make a big difference.

Vigorous use of a “disability lens”
Every initiative—every new program, grant, contract or piece of legislation—should be looked at through a “disability lens.” Government bodies would have to demonstrate that none of the dollars involved in the initiative will be used to perpetuate existing barriers or contribute to the creation of new barriers. Fail the disability lens test and the initiative fails too.

Smart procurement policy
Governments and businesses possess immense purchasing power in the marketplace. By only purchasing items that are accessible and usable by a large number of people—and by spelling this out in requests for proposals—these two important social institutions could apply immense pressure on manufacturers to produce more accessible goods and products. An accessibility focused procurement policy in Canada would surely influence other countries to meet their obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

A change of attitude
Due to slowly improving accessibility in our physical spaces and transportation systems, more and more individuals with disabilities are out and about in our communities. Persons without disabilities can no longer avoid seeing us.

However, our mere presence seems to cause discomfort among many people. Perhaps that’s because it forces many non-disabled individuals to confront the truth that “you are just an accident or illness away from becoming disabled.” The reality is that many currently able-bodied individuals will experience disability at some point in their lifetime, either temporarily or permanently as they age.

Although many organizations have spent countless hours and dollars trying to improve public attitudes—some with innovative ideas, others with counter-productive initiatives—reports confirm that attitudes toward persons with disabilities have improved only slowly, and many still question the value of a disabled person's life.

New approaches are desperately needed, and governments at all levels must take the lead.

Better government policy
Canada has enacted a great deal of equal access legislation, but it fails to provide adequate resources to the bodies, like human rights commissions, assigned to enforce these laws. Some legislation, like the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (which is weak to begin with), is largely unenforced. This government neglect of equality laws has created expectations within the disability community that are not being realized in practice.

Government cutbacks worsen the situation, as does the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board’s common practice of “deeming” permanently injured workers “as being employable” so their benefits can be decreased or cut. Social assistance programs are replete with disincentives; many participants feel that they are better off remaining on social assistance than seeking employment.

New programs are needed to reduce the disincentives in social assistance, build new housing that is fully accessible, and address the disproportionately negative impact of the precarious nature of work on the disability community. The community is hopeful that the recently enacted Accessible Canada Act will be accompanied by new programs to bring about tangible improvements in the quality of life for all Canadians with a disability.

Leadership roles for persons with disabilities
Statistics Canada recently reported that the incidence of disability now exceeds 20%. Yet governments, businesses and social service organizations remain stubbornly unwilling to involve persons with disabilities in their decision-making processes.

Persons with disabilities are not well represented in the corporate boardrooms where decisions about what new technology will be built are discussed and determined. Our absence often results in new technology being introduced with needed accessibility features only added later.

We are not present in newsrooms where decisions are made about what stories will receive coverage and what hook will be applied. We rarely encounter anyone teaching in our education system who shares our life experiences. We are rarely involved in determining academic research agendas, and too often only get asked for our input once a project has been funded and begun work. 

We are not adequately represented in ministers’ offices, premiers’ offices or, for that matter, the Prime Minister’s Office. These are the places where most major public policy decisions—affecting the futures of all of us, including persons with disabilities—are really made.

Bringing a significant number of persons with disabilities into places where critical decisions are made would not only help reduce our chronic level of unemployment. It would also provide organizations with a source of badly needed in-house expertise on disability, and this should help reduce the development of new barriers.

Final thoughts
For nearly half a century, persons with disabilities and our organizations have focused on the compelling business case for inclusion. We have learned our rights and argued for action on the legal duty to accommodate. And we have articulated the moral imperative of including more persons with disabilities in the mainstream of society. There is no more excuse for inaction in the government and corporate boardrooms of this country.

The action that is and must be taken now has to directly involve more persons with disabilities—in the design, development and implementation of new policies and programs, for example. After all, those of us who live with disability every day are the real experts. Failure to act on the five priorities described here will amount to callously consigning the next generation of persons with disabilities to the scrap heap of history. This would be a tragedy.

John Rae is a member of the Council of Canadians With Disabilities’ national council, chair of its social policy committee, and a member of CCD’s human rights and national accessibility and Inclusion Act committees. During the past 43 years, John has been a board member of many human and disability rights organizations, including Co-chair of the Coalition on Human Rights for the Handicapped, which secured the first human rights coverage for persons with disabilities in Ontario.