Self-serve electronic touch-screen check-in kiosks are popping up at Canadian airports. These typically don’t accommodate those with disabilities like motor limitations, vision loss or dyslexia.
Canadian cable companies keep updating their set-top cable boxes, needed to enjoy cable TV services. Yet these boxes don’t incorporate universal design principles to make them disability-accessible. The same is true for some banks’ ATMs. This is so even though accessible technology can readily be incorporated in their design.
“The principal object of certain
of the prohibited grounds is the elimination of discrimination by the
attribution of untrue characteristics based on stereotypical attitudes relating
to immutable conditions such as race or sex. In the case of disability, this is
one of the objectives. The other equally important objective seeks to take into
account the true characteristics of this group which act as headwinds to the
enjoyment of society's benefits and to accommodate them. Exclusion from the
mainstream of society results from the construction of a society based solely
on "mainstream" attributes to which disabled persons will never be
able to gain access. Whether it is the impossibility of success at a written
test for a blind person, or the need for ramp access to a library, the
discrimination does not lie in the attribution of untrue characteristics to the
disabled individual. The blind person cannot see and the person in a wheelchair
needs a ramp. Rather, it is the failure to make reasonable accommodation, to
fine-tune society so that its structures and assumptions do not result in the
relegation and banishment of disabled persons from participation, which results
in discrimination against them. The discrimination inquiry which uses "the
attribution of stereotypical characteristics" reasoning as commonly
understood is simply inappropriate here. It may be seen rather as a case of
reverse stereotyping which, by not allowing for the condition of a disabled individual,
ignores his or her disability and forces the individual to sink or swim within
the mainstream environment. It is recognition of the actual characteristics,
and reasonable accommodation of these characteristics which is the central
purpose of s. 15(1) in relation to disability.”
Eldridge holds that equality for people with disabilities is denied where there is “a failure to ensure that they benefit equally from a service offered to everyone. It held that it would be “a thin and impoverished vision of s. 15(1)” to approach equality as if “governments should be entitled to provide benefits to the general population without ensuring that disadvantaged members of society have the resources to take full advantage of those benefits.”
Yet almost two decades later, there has been no comprehensive Canadian initiative to fully implement these Eldridge requirements across the country. This is so despite strong requirements to do so in the United Nation’s Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities (CRPD), of which Canada is a signatory.
People with disabilities must battle one accessibility barrier at a time, one federally-regulated organization at a time. For remedies, they get shuffled from one federal agency to another. Jurisdiction is splintered among isolated silos. Federally regulated organizations including the Federal Government know that they need fear little, if any consequences for abdicating their Eldridge duties. This was made worse when the Charter Challenges Program was cut. Its restoration would be positive, but alone, won’t solve the problem.
A strong, effective Canadians with Disabilities Act is needed to ensure that Canada becomes fully accessible to people with disabilities, insofar as the Federal Government can achieve this. In the 2014 election, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised to enact the Canadians with Disabilities Act, as did the New Democratic and Green Parties.
This Discussion Paper explores core ingredients of a strong, effective Canadians with Disabilities Act. It is offered to help people across Canada discuss and debate what should be included in the Canadians with Disabilities Act. It is being distributed to the public by Barrier-Free Canada, a non-partisan disability coalition that advocates for the enactment and implementation of a strong and effective Canadians with Disabilities Act. Barrier-Free Canada has affiliate organizations in three provinces, Ontario (Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance, which also advocates for the effective implementation and enforcement of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA), Manitoba (Barrier-Free Manitoba, which successfully advocated for enactment of the Accessibility for Manitobans Act 2013) and British Columbia (Barrier-Free BC, which advocates for enactment of the British Columbians with Disabilities Act).
The author’s proposals in this paper are offered for discussion. After receiving input from Canada’s disability community, Barrier-Free Canada will later release a policy paper that will set out its position on what the Canadians with Disabilities Act should include. This Discussion Paper builds on experience with the Charter’s disability equality guarantee, with provincial accessibility legislation, and with experience with human rights laws across Canada. The following are the key ingredients that the Canadians with Disabilities Act should include. This Discussion Paper doesn’t list every accessibility barrier the Canadians with Disabilities Act should address, or every disability it should cover. It identifies core principles needed to ensure that this law is comprehensive. It expands upon the 14 Principles for the Canadians with Disabilities Act that Barrier-Free Canada has enunciated. These in turn draw on the principles that drove the design of the AODA and the Accessibility for Manitobans Act.
This Discussion Paper is summarized as follows:
a) The purpose of the Canadians with Disabilities Act should be to ensure that, as far as Parliament can achieve this, the Federal Government should lead Canada to become fully accessible to people with disabilities by a deadline that the law will set. It should effectively implement the equality rights which the Charter of Rights and the Canada Human Rights Act guarantee to people with disabilities, without their having to battle accessibility barriers one at a time, and one organization at a time, by filing individual human rights complaints or Charter claims.
b) The Canadians with Disabilities Act should ensure that all federally-regulated organizations provide accessible goods, services, facilities and employment.
c) The Canadians with Disabilities Act should put the Government of Canada in charge of leading Canada to full accessibility.
d) The Canadians with Disabilities Act should create an independent Canada Accessibility Commissioner, reporting directly to Parliament, that will lead the Act’s implementation and enforcement.
e) The Canadians with Disabilities Act should establish a clear, broad, inclusive definition of “disability.”
f) The Canadians with Disabilities Act should require the Federal Government to create the mandatory, enforceable accessibility standards that will lead Canada to full accessibility.
g) The Canadians with Disabilities Act should ensure a prompt, effective and open process for developing and reviewing Federal accessibility standards.
h) The Canadians with Disabilities Act should ensure the effective enforcement of the Canadians with Disabilities Act.
i) The Canadians with Disabilities Act should ensure strong centralized action on disability accessibility among Federal Regulatory Agencies.
j) The Canadians with Disabilities Act should ensure that the strongest accessibility law always prevails.
k) The Canadians with Disabilities Act should ensure that public money is never used to create, perpetuate or exacerbate accessibility barriers.
l) The Canadians with Disabilities Act should ensure that no Federal laws authorize or require disability barriers.
m) The Canadians with Disabilities Act should ensure that Federal elections become fully accessible to voters and candidates with disabilities.
n) The Canadians with Disabilities Act should ensure a fully accessible Federal Government.
o) The Canadians with Disabilities Act should ensure full accessibility of all courts within federal authority.
p) The Canadians with Disabilities Act should mandate a national strategy for expanding international trade in Canadian accessible goods, services and facilities.
q) The Canadians with Disabilities Act should establish initial and interim measures to promote accessibility pending development of Federal accessibility standards.
r) The Canadians with Disabilities Act should ensure that efforts at educating the public on accessibility under the Canadians with Disabilities Act don’t stall or delay needed implementation and enforcement action.
s) The Canadians with Disabilities Act should mandate the Federal Government to assist and encourage Provincial and Territorial Governments to enact comprehensive, detailed accessibility legislation.
t) The Canadians with Disabilities Act should mandate the Federal Government to create national model Accessibility Standards which provinces, territories and other organizations across Canada can use.
u) The Canadians with Disabilities Act should set time lines for Federal Government action on implementing the Canadians with Disabilities Act.
v) The Canadians with Disabilities Act should require periodic Independent Reviews of progress under the Act.
w) The Canadians with Disabilities Act should be meaningful, have teeth, and not be mere window-dressing.
Why a Canadians with Disabilities Act is Needed
The Canadians with Disabilities Act is not needed due to some major deficiency in disability equality and accessibility rights now enshrined in Canadian law. Disability equality rights, including accessibility rights, in s. 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Canada Human Rights Act are sweeping. Courts have interpreted them expansively, and exceptions to them, narrowly.
Yet far too often, these rights are not honoured. The Canadians with Disabilities Act is needed to make those rights become a reality for people with disabilities in Canada, without their having to privately wage separate legal battles against each of the many accessibility barriers they daily face, over three decades after Canadian law guaranteed these rights.
The Charter and Canada Human Rights Act don’t give obligated organizations clear directions on all the steps they must take to become fully accessible to people with disabilities, as employers and service-providers. The grand concepts of “discrimination,” “equality before and under the law,” and “accommodation” don’t specify for those who work in the federal government, or federally-regulated organizations, how to design a websites workplace or goods and services, to ensure that people with disabilities can fully benefit from and participate in them. Obligated organizations are far more likely to take required action if the law specifies what they must do, and by when.
The Canada Human Rights Act and the Charter require people with disabilities to separately fight accessibility barriers, one at a time, by individual legal challenges. This arduous process imposes tremendous hardships on any who take it on. Most don’t bother. The well-resourced respondents, like the Federal Government, can often use tax dollars or large private revenues to employ lawyers to mount a vigorous defence. An unsuccessful Charter claimant can be ordered to pay the respondent’s legal costs; few can risk that financial exposure. Canadians with disabilities are disproportionately unemployed and live in poverty.
For example a blind woman, Donna Jodhan, brought a Charter s. 15 claim against the federal government because government websites were too often not designed to be accessible to blind computer users using a talking computer. The Government vigorously opposed this challenge. It lost. It appealed, losing again. Such legal opposition deters most from starting a legal challenge.
Those considering using the Canada Human Rights Act face additional barriers. The human rights enforcement process is slow. Even if the case is in the Canadian Human Rights Commission’s jurisdiction, that agency has been predisposed to force discrimination victims to first take their case to other regulatory agencies, if some or all of the remedies they seek are available elsewhere. That inflicts more delay and expenses on discrimination victims.
For practical purposes, the federal disability accessibility rights guarantees in law are ostensibly voluntary laws. An organization that doesn’t voluntarily comply with them now need not fear a likelihood of practical enforcement. They can carry on inaccessible business as usual, until someone brings an accessibility claim. They can drag their feet for years, wearing down a claimant. After a major disability equality rights ruling like Eldridge, they can drag their feet even longer.
The lack of legislative specificity and the lack of effective enforcement, compound each other. Obligated organizations are less likely to try to figure out their accessibility duties if they don’t fear enforcement. Obligated organizations are less likely to comply with their accessibility obligations if they don’t know what they must do, or must hire lawyers and consultants to find out. Making this worse federally-regulated obligated organizations are often huge, like the Federal Government, banks, airlines telephone and cable companies. It is harder to induce change in larger organizations.
Splintered, piecemeal accessibility strategies in a large organization like the Federal Government or across a country, have been proven ineffective. A comprehensive legislated national accessibility action plan can avoid duplication of effort, and ensure the fastest rate of progress.
The need for this legislation is demonstrated by the spread of such legislation at the provincial level in Canada. Ontario and Manitoba have accessibility laws. Nova Scotia is developing one. British Columbia is actively considering whether to develop one. The international trend in support of such legislation started with the enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, reinforced by the CRPD.