Steve Estey, the Human Rights Officer for Disabled Peoples International, an international NGO, based in Canada which focuses on the human rights of people with disabilities, poses for a photo in Halifax on Monday, Dec. 17, 2018. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

Steve Estey, the Human Rights Officer for Disabled Peoples International, an international NGO, based in Canada which focuses on the human rights of people with disabilities, poses for a photo in Halifax on Monday, Dec. 17, 2018. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

Advocates say Accessible Canada Act is too weak to be effective

The government pledged $290 million over six years towards implementing the act

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.

READ MORE: B.C. deaf community wants different sign languages on federal accessibility act

READ MORE: Canada’s first national accessibility law tabled in Ottawa

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

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Just Posted

Tofino’s affordable housing project at District Lot 114 took another step forward last week thanks to a $3.8 million grant. (tofinohousingcorp.ca)
Tofino scores $3.8M for affordable housing project

Tofino Housing Corproation and Catalyst Community Developments secure funding

The Co-op gas station at Whiskey Creek is burning after a camper van burst into flames just before 4 p.m. on Thursday, June 17, 2021. (FACEBOOK PHOTO)
Exploding camper van torches Highway 4 gas station between Qualicum Beach and Port Alberni

Highway traffic blocked after Whiskey Creek gas station erupts into flames

Timmy Masso smiles alongside his niece Huumiis and nephew Cinkwa. (Submitted photo)
Ucluelet Secondary School graduate earns TD Scholarship for Community Leadership

Timmy Masso’s passionate advocacy of the Nuu-chah-nulth language leads to $70K scholarship

Two ambulances and a medevac helicopter are on scene at Taylor River Flats rest area on Highway 4 due to a serious motor vehicle incident. (PHOTO COURTESY MAGGIE BROWN)
Highway 4 reopens after accident at Taylor River Flats

Multi-vehicle crash had closed highway to west coast

Grade 12 graduates Jada Touchie, Timothy Masso and Brendan Brown are all smiles after receiving their Goodies for the Grads gift packs thanks to a small neighbourhood grant from the Clayoquot Biosphere Trust. (Nora O’Malley photo)
Ucluelet Secondary School grads set to parade through town

Family and friends can cheer on the Class of 2021 this Saturday, June 19 at 4:30 p.m.

A small pod of Pacific white-sided dolphins pass by close to shore in Campbell River June 16, 2021. Still capture from video courtesy of Kimberly Hart
VIDEO: Dolphin sunset captured from Vancouver Island shore

Spectacular setting for view of travelling pod of Pacific white-sided dolphins

BC Lions running back John White IV (3) runs with the ball during first quarter CFL football action against the Ottawa Redblacks in Ottawa on Saturday, September 21, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Patrick Doyle
BC Lions file trademark for new logo

Canadian Football League team files for new design on June 1

The remains of the Mid-Island Co-op in Whiskey Creek along the Alberni Highway on Friday, June 18, after a blaze the day before devastated the gas station. (Michael Briones photo)
VIDEO: Camper van explosion burns Vancouver Island gas station to the ground

Nine fire departments responded to the incident, no injuries reported

The Montreal Police logo is seen in Montreal on Wednesday, July 8, 2020. Some Quebec politicians are calling for an investigation after a video was released that appears to show a Montreal police officer with his leg on a young Black man’s neck during an arrest. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson
Probe called for after video appearing to show Montreal officer’s knee on Black youth’s neck

Politicians call for investigation after clip evokes memories of George Floyd incident

A vial of AstraZeneca vaccine is seen at a mass COVID-19 vaccination clinic in Calgary, Alta., Thursday, April 22, 2021. The website for a Broadway theatre showing "Springsteen on Broadway" said it would only allow guests "fully vaccinated with an FDA-approved vaccine" — Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna or Johnson & Johnson. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
No Springsteen for you: AstraZeneca not good enough to qualify for Broadway ticket

Victoria area mayor among those unable to attend New York entertainment due to COVID-19 restriction

The BC Ferries’ website is down for the second time in one week from what they say is likely an overwhelming increase in web traffic. (Black Press Media file photo)
Surging web traffic crashes BC Ferries’ site again

Website down for second time this week

John Furlong told the Vancouver Board of Trade on Feb. 20, 2020 that he thinks the city could and should bid for the 2030 Winter Games. (CP photo)
PODCAST: John Furlong lays out a ‘provincial’ B.C. plan to host the 2030 Winter Olympics

Podcast: Chat includes potential role for Vancouver Island communities

The pilot of this single-engine propeller plane was unhurt after crash-landing in a Como Road orchard Friday, June 18. Photo: Laurie Tritschler
Plane crash lands into Grand Forks orchard, pilot injured

RCMP have secured the crash site, pending investigation by Transport Canada

Lake Country firefighters made good use of pet respirators they keep on board June 17, 2021. (District of Lake Country)
PHOTOS: 11 dogs rescued, home destroyed in large blaze in Okanagan

Home deemed a total loss, cause remains unknown but crews thankful for pet respirators

Most Read