Webcast archive: The Accessible Canada Act

This week, we discuss the problems and accomplishments of Canada’s new accessibility legislation.

In this episode of Euthanasia & Disability, Amy Hasbrouck, Christian Debray, and Taylor Hyatt discuss:

  • The Accessible Canada Act

Please note that this text is only a script and that our webcast contains additional commentary.


  • As we’ve already mentioned, Bill C-81, the Accessible Canada Act (ACA) was tabled on June 20, 2018, just before Parliament broke for the summer. Taylor and Amy wrote a blog outlining the bill and some of its flaws.  Also, the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act alliance has written a detailed brief about the ACA, and we recommend that you check out these sources.
  • The ACA is not a civil rights bill.  In the preamble, the ACA refers to 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.  But these are the only references to “discrimination” in the whole bill; the word never appears in the text of the bill itself.  While the law provides for “equal participation,” it is silent on “equality.”
  • The bill calls for “the progressive realization … of a Canada without barriers.”  Those three dots mean, “only as far as federal law allows.”  The ACA would only apply to organizations and services under federal control, such as:
    • Broadcasting and telecommunications;
    • Banks and financial services;
    • Transportation (international and between provinces);
    • Parliament;
    • The military and RCMP; and
    • Public lands, postal service and the census.
  • Contrast this with activities under provincial jurisdiction, such as:
    • Hospitals & Health care;
    • Social services;
    • Cities and towns;
    • Property, civil registration (births and deaths) and family matters;
    • Transportation (within the province);
    • Education; and
    • Housing.
  • The ACA cannot overcome the limited reach of federal laws laid out in the constitution.  The bill suggests cooperation and communication between the different levels of government to ensure civil rights protection.  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.”
  • The ACA is not even an architectural access bill; it lacks specific requirements and deadlines to achieve its goals.  It does not require that existing facilities be modified to become accessible, nor that renovated buildings be accessible.  It doesn’t even reiterate the requirement that new construction meet access standards.
  • Organizations governed by the act 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.
    • People with disabilities must be consulted both on the development of the accessibility plans and on periodic reports which show the agency’s progress toward implementing the plan.
  • So basically, the ACA is a bill about making plans to remove architectural barriers at an unstated time in the future … if the covered entity wants to.  The federal agencies covered by the ACA are allowed to exempt themselves from the mandate to make, publish and (presumably) comply with accessibility plans.
  • The ACA defines “barrier” as “anything … that hinders … full and equal participation…” of people with disabilities.  This definition is so loose that a court may well strike it down as overly broad and vague.
  • The idea that “barrier removal” can end discrimination is an over-simplification, and doesn’t signal the positive steps needed to ensure equality of disabled people, such as requiring businesses to make reasonable accommodations, or mandating a minimum level of accessible transportation service.
  • “Barrier removal” also doesn’t deal with many forms of discrimination, such as:
    • segregation (separating disabled- from non-disabled people),
    • having eligibility criteria that tend to exclude disabled people (like requiring a driver’s license as identification),
    • charging extra for accessibility accommodations (like descriptive video or an accessible hotel room).
  • Nor does “barrier removal” address the public policy that favours institutionalization or agency-run personal care over giving people funds to hire their own attendants.  Such policies drive the demand for assisted suicide and euthanasia.
  • Another item related to AS/E; the bill is silent on the connection between “barrier removal” in broadcast, radio and television and avoiding stereotypical portrayals of disability, especially the belief that life with a disability is a fate worse than death.
  • The bill defines disability broadly, as 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.”
  • This definition of disability has two major problems:
    • First, It does not cover people who are discriminated against because they:
      • are believed to have a disability,
      • have a record or history of having a disability, or
      • are associated with a person with a disability.
    • Second, it includes “temporary or sporadic” conditions (like, maybe, a broken leg).  This risks making the definition so broad as to be unworkable and politically unacceptable.  While it’s essential to include disabilities that are episodic (like multiple sclerosis or lupus), the terms used in the bill may well reduce its chances of being taken seriously.
  • The Accessible Canada Act calls for the creation of three new authorities.
    • The Accessibility Commissioner is a member of the Human Rights Commission, which has primary responsibility for enforcing the statute.  This person would:
      • provide technical assistance to the Minister on accessibility issues;
      • produce an annual report;
      • be in charge of receiving and investigating complaints; and
      • issue compliance orders under the Act.
    • The Chief Accessibility Officer would advise the Minister on accessibility issues.
    • The Canadian Accessibility Standards Development Organization would allow the development of new accessibility standards, conduct research, and provide information about how to identify, remove, and prevent barriers. These standards are not mandatory, won’t have the force of law, and there’s no deadline for producing them.  The Organization will have 11 directors, (the majority of whom will be people with disabilities) and a Chief Executive Officer appointed for a (renewable) term of five years.
  • The ACA imposes no deadlines for issuing regulations.
  • Finally, section 133 of the ACA designates “National AccessAbility Week” starting the last Sunday of May of each year.  Like the bill itself, It’s a nice gesture but it won’t create the practical changes we need to achieve true equality. “Accessibility Week” is the equivalent of putting icing on a cake that, like the bill, is only half-baked.