Advocates urge Senate to improve national accessibility law

Posted on December 4, 2018 in Inclusion Policy Context – News/GTA
Dec. 3, 2018.   By

Disability activists say Ottawa has ignored their calls to strengthen Canada’s first national accessibility legislation and are urging the Senate to intervene.

More than 90 groups, including the Council of Canadians with Disabilities and Ontario-based ARCH Disability Law, say the proposed Accessible Canada Act, passed by Parliament Nov. 27, is too weak to achieve its goal of making Canada barrier-free for over five million Canadians with disabilities.

They want the Senate to hold public hearings next year and make amendments to improve the legislation before it becomes law.

“People with disabilities still face too many accessibility barriers in areas that the federal government regulates, like air or train travel, cable and internet TV service, and dealing with the federal government,” said David Lepofsky, head of the AODA Alliance, an Ontario disability coalition working to ensure the province achieves its goal of becoming fully accessible by 2025.

“The federal legislation has good intentions but falls short on implementation and enforcement,” said Lepofsky, whose coalition is leading the disability community’s appeal to the Senate.

Carla Qualtrough, minister for public services and procurement and accessibility, said the government is grateful for the participation and contribution of Canadians with disabilities in developing the law.

“Like other members of the disability community, I am eager to see meaningful progress in a timely manner,” said Qualtrough, who is blind. “For that reason, we are working to achieve significant progress within the first year following the passage of the act. This includes opening the doors of the new Canadian Accessibility Standards Development Organization in the summer of 2019.”

The Accessible Canada Act, introduced in June, covers federally regulated sectors such as banking, interprovincial and international transportation, telecommunications and government-run services such as Canada Post. It aims to “identify, remove and prevent” barriers for Canadians with physical, sensory, mental, intellectual, learning, communication or other disabilities.

Ottawa has earmarked $290 million over six years to implement the legislation, which includes fines of up to $250,000 for violations.

In an open letter Oct. 30 to Qualtrough and the federal standing committee studying the legislation, disability activists urged the government to make nine amendments to beef up the law. Some changes were made, but none substantially addressed concerns the activists raised, said Robert Lattanzio of ARCH Disability Law.

Currently, the legislation sets no timetable for Ottawa to meet its goal of a “barrier-free” Canada and nothing in the legislation compels the government to act, activists say.

Federally regulated entities are required to develop accessibility plans, but the law does not require those plans to be good or even implemented, they add.

And the law wrongly splinters the power to make and enforce accessibility standards across numerous federal agencies, a move activists say will make it less effective and more confusing, complicated and costly.

In particular, the disability community strongly opposes the government’s decision to empower the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission and the Canadian Transport Commission, to implement and enforce accessibility standards within their industries,

Both groups are too close to private industry and don’t have a good track record for responding to complaints from people with disabilities, Lattanzio said in an interview from Ottawa, where he and others were celebrating the International Day for People with Disabilities.

“Now it’s a question of whether the Senate will hear from the community and what, if any room, they feel there is for any amendments,” he said. “We just want to make sure persons with disabilities have an opportunity to be heard.”

Laurie Monsebraaten is a Toronto-based reporter covering social justice.

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