The cautious optimism that prevailed in Canada’s disabled community when the federal government tabled historic accessibility legislation earlier this year has given way to widespread concern that the law won’t lead to meaningful change.
Major disability organizations, grassroots advocacy groups and disabled individuals said they’ve raised numerous concerns about the power and scope of the Accessible Canada Act, which the Liberal government first introduced in June.
They said the government has largely ignored those concerns as the bill worked its way through debate in the House of Commons and are now calling on the Senate to introduce amendments that they say would make the bill more effective.
One the main concerns they raise is the fact that Bill C 81 does not contain timelines to ensure accessibility, contrary to similar provincial legislation on the books in three provinces.
They also criticize the bill for allowing the government to create accessibility measures without requiring it to actually enact them, spreading enforcement over numerous government agencies and failing to recognize sign language as an official language of deaf people.
Gabrielle Peters, a wheelchair user in Vancouver, said the surge of hope she felt when the bill first came before Parliament has morphed into disappointment and worry based largely on the document’s vague language.
“They want to be able to say that they have an accessible act, but they don’t really want to play an active role in creating an accessible country,” Peters said.
The Accessible Canada Act states that its goal is to “identify, remove and prevent” accessibility barriers in areas that fall under federal jurisdiction. These include built environments, federally run programs and services, banking, telecommunications and transportation that crosses provincial lines.
The government pledged $290 million over six years towards implementing the act, which will see Ottawa appoint an accessibility commissioner and create an organization tasked with developing accessibility standards for relevant areas.
When the bill was tabled, Peters said she hoped the government could change the conversation around disability issues by signalling that they form a national priority. The government’s choice of language throughout the legislation, however, has played a major role in sowing doubts.
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The bill repeatedly uses “may” rather than “shall” when describing government actions, meaning the government is empowered to take actions but never required to follow through on them. The bill also gives the government broad powers to exempt organizations, including itself, from accessibility measures that are put in place.
Peters’ concerns are echoed in an open letter penned by the Council of Canadians with Disabilities and signed by an additional 92 advocates from coast to coast. Signatories range from local service providers and self-advocacy groups to national organizations such as the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, National Network for Mental Health and March of Dimes Canada.
The letter highlights a total of nine issues that it called on the government to address.
Chief among them was the absence of overarching timelines in the act. Comparable provincial legislation in Ontario indicates the province must achieve full accessibility by 2025. Legislators in Nova Scotia initially left timelines out of the provincial accessibility bill but eventually included them after lobbying from the province’s disabled community.
Timelines are no guarantee of progress, said Steve Estey of the Council of Canadians with Disabilities, but they provide key accountability measures.
“While there’s ample evidence that these deadlines are challenges, and there are challenges attached to meeting them, those challenges are the embodiment of accessibility legislation,” said Estey, who was deafened later in life. “To simply set aside these timelines really is problematic.”
Estey also critiqued the government’s broad exemption powers, citing an example from parliamentary hearings in which airport operators argued small facilities should not be forced to comply with new accessibility standards.
Such exemptions, Estey said, would undercut the purpose of the bill.
“If one can only fly to and from large airports, how is this creating the culture of access that the bill envisions,” he said.
The letter also urges the government to designate both American and Quebec Sign Language as official languages for the deaf.
Failing to do so actively bars deaf people from basic civic and social interactions, said Frank Folino, president of the Canadian Association of the Deaf.
Lack of sign language prevents him from fully taking in political debates, reading government communications in emergency situations, or having equal access to airport staff when travelling within Canada or abroad, he said.
Granting official language status, he said, would address those barriers while also allowing deaf people equal access to the court system.
“Deaf Canadians are entitled to the same rights as any other Canadians,” he said in a written interview.
Carla Qualtrough, the federal accessibility minister, said adding sign language to Canada’s official languages would require complex amendments to the Constitution that are beyond the scope of the Accessible Canada Act.
She said timelines were left out because accessibility standards are continually evolving, adding the focus was on starting immediate conversations around accessibility rather than mandating when they may come to an end.
Qualtrough described the bill as “enabling legislation” which requires “permissive language” in order to be most flexible. She said 74 amendments proposed during parliamentary hearings were eventually adopted.
Advocates, however, said primary concerns they voiced went largely unaddressed despite having support from all three opposition parties.
They said they’re looking to the Senate to strengthen the bill, but Qualtrough said the legislation in its current form already represents significant progress.
“Everybody recognizes that this is a massive step forward,” she said. “People have views on how much further we should have taken it, and they’re entitled to those, but I am holding my head up high around what great law this will be and how fundamentally this is a game-changer for the disability community.”
The very flexibility Qualtrough touts as an asset strikes Peters as its greatest weakness.
“We exclude people in this country,” she said. ”We exclude people by design, we exclude people by our policies, and this legislation is failing to prevent that.”
Michelle McQuigge , The Canadian Press