Scales of justice with Canadian maple leaf

The Accessible Canada Act: A Good Start at Full Inclusion

Written by: Derek Featherstone

This is the first article in a series where our Chief eXperience Officer, Derek Featherstone, looks at the Accessible Canada Act and what it means for Canadians with disabilities, government and other federally regulated organizations, and people doing business in Canada.

On June 21, 2019, the Accessible Canada Act (ACA) received Royal Assent from Canada’s Governor-General, Her Excellency the Right Honourable Julie Payette. This step officially marks the passing of proposed Bill C-81 “An Act to ensure a barrier-free Canada” into law.

The Accessible Canada Act represents the culmination of a longer consultation process that aimed to be inclusive, and truly representative of the people it is designed to help by protecting their rights.

Start with stakeholders, not solutions

When they were kicking off the process, Government of Canada officials didn’t jump straight to solutions. This is a welcome departure from what we do so very often see with digital projects.

The Government of Canada launched a consultation process that engaged over 6000 stakeholders:

  • individuals with disabilities;
  • representatives from advocacy groups like the MS Society, the CNIB, and many others;
  • industry leaders;
  • and others who knew first-hand what barriers people with disabilities faced.

The Government needed to know more about what problems the Accessible Canada Act should solve, rather than jumping straight to solutions for problems that they assumed need solving. Don’t get me wrong — there’s a very good chance that the problems they assumed need solving do need solving. But they’re not the only ones. And if they didn’t talk with, interview, discuss, and explore the problems with their stakeholders, there’s a very good chance that some of the “problems” would have been missed all together.

How might we include more people?

Here’s what the Honourable Carla Qualtrough, Minister of Sport and Persons with Disabilities, said in her summary of what they learned from the consultation:

“I’m proud to say more than 6,000 Canadians participated in person and online. Throughout the consultation, I held 18 in-person public meetings across the country that were supported by local leaders from the disability community. These meetings were made fully accessible for a range of disabilities and included English and French real-time captioning, American Sign Language and Langue des signes québécoise, and intervenor services for participants who are deaf-blind. In northern Canada, Inuit sign language was also provided.”

That description makes me proud to be Canadian. They made significant effort to meet people where they were — all over the country — and ensured that they could communicate effectively with as many Canadians as possible. I’m not afraid to admit — I hadn’t even considered or heard of Inuit sign language before reading her description. It makes perfect sense now that I think about it, but I just wasn’t aware. When we’re talking inclusion, we need to represent the diversity of Canadians in as many ways as possible.

Priorities moving forward

One of the biggest messages heard in the consultation process was that employment is a significant concern for Canadians with disabilities, and something that we need to get better at. This isn’t just about “disabled Canadians don’t have jobs” — it is much more complex and wide-reaching than that.

  • This is about fair hiring practices and discrimination in the hiring process.
  • It is about online job application services not being accessible, such that people with disabilities can’t efficiently and effectively submit their job applications.
  • This is about the attitude of employers towards hiring people with disabilities.
  • This is about people with disabilities being “pigeon-holed” to entry-level jobs, even when they’re more than capable of managing teams, or taking on other leadership roles.

Overall, here are the top 6 priorities, as ranked by approximately 1500 of the 6400 respondents in the consultation:

  1. employment;
  2. access to buildings and physical spaces in the built environment;
  3. transportation by air, ferry, train, and buses;
  4. program and service delivery;
  5. information and communications; and
  6. procurement of goods and services.

What’s next for Canada’s road to accessibility?

Canadian maple leaf with judge's gavelThere’s a lot of work to do in the coming years for Canada to be fully accessible, but the work that has been done by the Government of Canada here is a really good start and takes an inclusive approach — the Honourable Carla Qualtrough said it best when it comes to the approach that the GoC is taking: “Nothing without us.”  Including people with disabilities doesn’t mean that we simply have disabled Canadians  reacting to what the government does with a token thumbs up or thumbs down. Disabled Canadians need to participate as co-creators in this initiative. They need to be able to contribute in a meaningful way all through the process. They need to be valued as part of this endeavour. Because that’s what inclusion really means.