TORONTO — Canadians with disabilities have their sights firmly set on 2018 when the federal government is expected to usher in long-sought legislation designed to increase accessibility nationwide. The governing Liberals have promised to create a bill that would remove barriers in federally regulated sectors such as banking, interprovincial transportation, telecommunications and government-run services such as Canada Post.
But what will the expected legislation look like and what will it accomplish? People close to the process weighed in:
— What is Canada's current accessibility picture?
The pending federal legislation would mark the first time Canada has moved to tackle accessibility at the national level. Other countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia have all had federal legislation in place for years or decades. Even most provincial governments have yet to take on the issue. To date, only Ontario, Manitoba and Nova Scotia have laws in place to address the needs of disabled residents.
— How do accessibility laws work?
They vary widely and have to strike a balance between being specific enough to attain results without being too restrictive for the people and places that have to abide by them. One approach, such as the one used in Ontario, involves developing standards focusing on broad areas such as customer service, built environments or employment. Some experts say Ottawa may go in a similar direction.
Michael Prince, Lansdowne professor of social policy at the University of Victoria, says individuals and businesses need to have enough flexibility to find accessibility solutions that make sense for their environments or clientele.
"We say, 'here's the standard, here's the expected result we want. How you get there is up to you,'" he said of some government approaches.
Prince said some jurisdictions have gone so far as to set up government resources to help organizations comply with accessibility standards. He cited Ireland's Centre for Excellence in Universal Design, an agency established a decade ago to conduct research and help shape accessibility practices in the country and abroad. Prince, who has taken part in numerous government consultations on the Canadian law, said having a comparable resource in place here would go a long way to making sure the new act is effective for years to come.
— What has the government promised?
Kent Hehr, the minister for persons with disabilities and the man charged with crafting the new legislation, says he's on track to table the bill in the spring of 2018 as previously promised. Details, however, are still in the works, and Hehr declined to offer any specifics on what the bill might contain.
Hehr, who is quadriplegic and uses a wheelchair, said Canada is looking to other jurisdictions for lessons on how to implement a sound piece of legislation that would limit the hard work many disabled Canadians do on a regular basis during even some of society's most basic interactions.
"As people with disabilities, we run into situations three, four, five, six times a day," he said in a telephone interview. "And sometimes we become immune to them and we simply find other creative ways to move forward. I'm hoping we don't have to be as creative in the future."
— What kind of barriers do people with disabilities face?
Advocates say every sector that will fall under the scope of a federal act is rife with examples of barriers that vary depending on the disability in question. While many organizations and industries have developed inclusion strategies, they say myriad anecdotes demonstrate the fact that more formal intervention is necessary. Some examples include:
Banking: When Jim Derksen goes to his local bank to conduct routine transactions, he's never sure that he'll be able to cross those tasks off his to-do list. Derksen, who uses a wheelchair, says many branch counters or bank machine keypads are located too high for someone using a mobility aid to reach. This is exacerbated for those with conditions that limit their ability to extend their arms. Some branches feature a wheelchair-accessible counter, but Derksen said high demand typically results in long lineups.
Even when he makes it to a counter, Derksen said another barrier frequently arises when he tries to use the pin pad. Such machines are regularly secured to the countertop, he said, making it impossible for many customers to reach them.
Derksen recognizes that businesses all over the country often take such precautions as a security measure, but he said the new law must force people to get more proactive in recognizing accessibility barriers and be creative in trying to overcome them.
"We require a law which is enforced, which will push the innovation and the ingenuity," he said. "Because unless there's a push, these compromises will be far less than acceptable."
Transport: In his work for the Council of Canadians with Disabilities, John Rae hears many examples of travel plans thwarted by accessibility barriers. As a blind person, Rae said he cannot use self-checkin kiosks at airports and must rely on harried counter staff for basic travel support.
Up until this year, Via Rail could only accommodate one wheelchair user at a time on its trains. The situation only began to change in the spring after the Canadian Transportation Agency ordered the company to double that capacity across its entire fleet, an edict Via Rail recently announced it would heed after months of resistance.
Rae said an accessibility law is essential to prevent such protracted battles from playing out in future. It would also have the added advantage of ensuring transportation companies keep accessibility in mind when doing everything from purchasing new vehicles to designing customer service protocols.
"(Current laws) talk about 'undue obstacles' to travel. We want the word 'undue' removed," Rae said.
— Would broad "standards" actually help?
Yes, but experts and advocates alike say they won't get the job done on their own. Michael Bach, managing director of the Institute for Research and Development on Inclusion and Society, said a standard in an area such as customer service would push companies to make disability issues a higher priority.
But standards can only go so far, he said, adding a potential benefit of an accessibility law would be its capacity to force the federal government to bring other laws in line. As an example, Bach cited statutes under the banking and tax acts that bar people with intellectual disabilities from either opening their own bank accounts or accessing their own funds.
"It's great to be setting standards and coming up with a process to set them. It's part of the picture, but there's other pieces that need to be addressed for an inclusive and accessible Canada," he said.
Bach and Rae both said the new law should make it mandatory for the government to put its own policies, legislation and program decisions through a disability analysis, just as it currently does for gender-related issues. Rae said such an approach would help identify instances of discriminatory laws on the books and signal that the feds are willing to get their own house in order before compelling others to do the same.
"It would be a signal to the disabled community that the government is really serious about its desire to make Canada a more accessible country."