Accessible Canada Act not all we hoped for

A review of the new Accessible Canada Act.

Accessible Canada Act not all we hoped for – June 29, 2018
Taylor Hyatt – Policy Analyst & Outreach Coordinator, Toujours Vivant-Not Dead Yet

 On June 20, 2018, Minister of Sport and Persons with Disabilities Kirsty Duncan, introduced Canada’s federal accessibility legislation after a two-year consultation process. Disability advocates hope that Bill C-81 – the Accessible Canada Act – will create consistent and strict accessibility requirements for businesses and services under federal jurisdiction, but the draft bill contains many potential problems.

The new bill gets off to a promising start, citing existing laws prohibiting disability discrimination, including the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the Human Rights Act and the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.  The definition of “disability” is broad, and includes a “physical, mental, intellectual, learning, communication or sensory impairment … that, in interaction with a barrier, hinders a person’s full and equal participation in society.” These conditions can be “permanent, temporary or episodic.”

The law’s goal is “the progressive realization of a Canada without barriers,” to “benefit all persons, especially persons with disabilities” through barrier removal and development of accessible design standards.  The bill is silent on ending discrimination or conferring equal rights, substituting terms like “equal participation,” and  “opportunity.”

Bill C-81 would be a small complement to the provincial disability rights laws in place right now.  The Act promises to remove barriers in:

  • employment;
  • the built environment;
  • information and communication technologies;
  • the procurement of goods and services;
  • the delivery of programs and services; and
  • transportation;

However it will only apply to organizations, services and businesses under federal control, such as:

  • Federal agencies
  • Broadcasting and telecommunications
  • Banks and financial services
  • Transportation (international and between provinces)
  • Parliament and its activities
  • Military and RCMP
  • Public lands

Contrast this with activities under provincial jurisdiction.

  • Hospitals & health care
  • Social services
  • Cities and towns
  • Property and civil rights
  • Civil and criminal justice
  • Transportation (within the province)
  • Education
  • Housing

Cooperation and communication between the various levels of government to guarantee seamless civil rights protection is hardly assured.  Section 16 states “The Minister may work with provincial or territorial authorities with a view to coordinating efforts in relation to matters relating to accessibility.”

We may often have reason to criticize American policies, but one thing they got right was the coverage of private businesses – restaurants and doctors’ offices, for example – under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Three new authorities will be created under the Accessible Canada Act.

  • The Canadian Accessibility Standards Development Organization will draw up new accessibility standards, conduct research, and provide information about how to identify, remove, and prevent barriers. These standards do not appear to have the force of law. The Organization will have 11 directors, (the majority of whom will be people with disabilities) and a Chief Executive Officer appointed for a term of five years (renewable).
  • The Chief Accessibility Officer is appointed by the Governor in Council to advise the Minister on accessibility issues.
  • The Accessibility Commissioner is a member of the Human Rights Commission, which has primary responsibility for enforcing the statute.

So what do organizations governed by the act actually need to do? They must publish an “accessibility plan” describing “policies, programs, practices and services in relation to the identification and removal of barriers, and the prevention of new barriers.” the agency or corporation is not required to appoint anyone to be responsible for preventing discrimination, implementing the plan or removing barriers.  Nor does the bill mandate that funding be allocated, or deadlines be imposed for barrier removal. The Accessibility Plan must be updated no later than three years after its first publication, and made available to those who request it. People with disabilities must be consulted both on the development of the plans and on periodic reports which show the agency’s progress toward implementing the accessibility plan.

If someone has suffered “physical or psychological harm, property damage, economic loss” or other negative effects when the Accessible Canada Act is violated, they may file a complaint directly with the Accessibility Commissioner. The Commissioner receives and acts on complaints, conducts compliance inspections, issues notices of violation and compliance orders, enters into compliance agreements, orders payment of penalties, and produces reports on the progress of the Accessible Canada law.

The Accessible Canada Act leaves a lot to be desired. Essentially, it amounts to government regulating government, enforced by the government. The efficacy of the Act can be summed up by section 133, which designates “National AccessAbility Week” starting the last Sunday of May of each year.  It’s a nice gesture but won’t create the practical changes we need. Adding “Accessibility Week” is the equivalent of putting icing on a cake that hasn’t finished baking. After waiting so long for a law that would streamline efforts to improve accessibility, disabled Canadians deserve better.