Life for people living with disabilities isn’t always easy.
Janet*, a 40-year-old wheelchair user from Kingston, Ontario, laments that the accessible bus she must take must be booked weeks in advance. She once asked me, “how long does it take you to plan an outing? Because I can’t be spontaneous. I have to plan everything out, sometimes months before I get to go somewhere.” While Janet is thankful for the service, she wishes she could just decide on a location one day and take herself there.
Unfortunately, as a quadriplegic with very limited use of her hands, she needs to rely on the aid of others to get on and off the bus, which is not always possible on regular public transit. Despite the inconvenience of not being able to simply “pack up and go” as she pleases, Janet is thankful for the accessibility improvements her hometown has seen in the last few years. She can now go for a swim regularly, which wasn’t always possible in the past.
The Kingston Access Bus picks Janet up at her door and drops her off at the YMCA’s door, where she now has ample space to get ready for her pool time: the gym has recently added an accessible change room with several stalls, all of which are large enough for a wheelchair to get through. Several other businesses in Ontario have followed the YMCA’s lead, making modifications as needed to include people with disabilities, in accordance with the Ontario Building Code (2012). But throughout Canada, more could be done to include those who need accessible services. In Janet’s words, “there are a lot of buildings that are still not accessible. There are a lot of places I can’t go.” The law, although necessary, is not enough.
Accessible Canada Act: The law is not enough
Both the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Canadian Human Rights Act guarantee that people with physical or developmental disabilities will receive protection from the law without being discriminated against based on mental or physical disabilities. In addition to these laws, each province has its own accessibility codes.While these laws are necessary, there is still much to be done to ensure all persons with disabilities are included as part of society and that they are not discriminated against based on their disabilities (or the apparent lack thereof, as in the case of ambulatory wheelchair users).
The law is there as a guide for action, and in the opinion of many Canadians with disabilities, enforcement of these laws needs to tightened, especially when it comes to educating businesses—and taking action against those that do not abide by these laws. For Janet, a new, better accessibility act would mean easier access to services and businesses throughout her hometown and elsewhere in Ontario. Engaging with these laws would include repercussions for businesses that, for example, turn away customers with service dogs. This was the case for Craig Read in Montreal, as recently as August of this year.
A New Accessibility Law for Canada
Laws must not be left to interpretation—the inclusion of and service to Canadians with disabilities must be unequivocally mandatory for businesses throughout the country. While Canada has been slowly taking steps towards this ideal, a bill proposed this year has the potential to truly see an accessible Canada. The Proposed Accessible Canada Act includes clear information on how accessibility law would be enforced and how Canadians with disabilities could file complaints and be compensated from businesses that do not follow inclusivity practices. If the bill passes into law, the Canadian Human Rights Act (among others) would be revised to include the changes.
While Canada has certainly been making improvements in accessibility over the years (such as with provincial building codes that include accessibility requirements), the bill proposed this year has the potential to improve the lives of Canadians in all provinces. While at first glance, accessibility changes may be seen as a burden to businesses, the lack of inclusion actually has greater costs, both financially and socially. With the Accessible Canada Act, all of Canada stands to gain from the contributions of those with disabilities, who have a lot to offer. As Canadians with disabilities look forward to 2019, they have reason to hope for a more accessible country.
* Name changed, as requested by interviewee.