Accessible Canada Act represents ‘culture shift’: Spokesperson
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The federal government unveiled new legislation on June 20 meant to improve accessibility measures for Canadians with disabilities.
Hailed as “historic” by Minister of Sport and Persons with Disabilities Kirsty Duncan, the Accessible Canada Act marks the government’s first foray into disability-related law.
The act’s purpose is to eradicate accessibility barriers that fall under federal jurisdiction, including anything “architectural, physical, technological or attitudinal” that hinders a person with disabilities’ full participation in society.
Via the act, three new bodies will be created: a chief accessibility officer to oversee implementation of the legislation; an accessibility commissioner responsible for enforcement and compliance; and a Canadian Accessibility Standards Development Organization to develop and revise standards.
If the act is enacted, the government has earmarked $290 million over six years for its implementation.
“Bill C-81 aims to benefit all Canadians — especially Canadians with disabilities — through the progressive realization of a barrier-free Canada,” said Annabelle Archambault, press secretary for the Minister of Sport and Persons with Disabilities.
“If passed by Parliament, the legislation will give the government of Canada the authority to work with partners and Canadians with disabilities to create model accessibility standards that could be adopted by jurisdictions across Canada.”
In 2015, the federal government began an engagement process with stakeholders across the country to table a Canadians with Disabilities Act.
However, recognizing that the act would also benefit those who do not self-identify as persons with disabilities, the legislation is now referred to as the Accessible Canada Act, said Archambault.
“During consultations, it was clear that Canadians with disabilities continue to face barriers throughout the employment process, and generally have low levels of employment.”
The federal government is also committing to hire 5,000 persons with disabilities by building on efforts already in place, developing new recruitment strategies and building skills, she said.
People with disabilities face employment-impacting barriers everywhere from public transit to education, said David Lepofsky, a lawyer and disability advocate at the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) Alliance in Toronto.
“All of this affects employment,” he said. “People with disabilities face outrageously high unemployment rates… and, so far, the solutions governments have come up with have been really inadequate.”
The act represents a “culture shift” in how people should think about accessibility, according to Archambault.
“The implementation of the legislation would serve as a catalyst to improve accessibility nationally — to create sustained change in how organizations and Canadians think about disability and accessibility in their workplaces and communities,” she said.
“We hope to lead by example, and that the federal government will serve as a model for other jurisdictions to increase the participation of workers with disabilities throughout the country.”
Currently limited to federally regulated organizations, the ultimate reach of the legislation is important, said Lepofsky.
“We’d like to see it go further because we want accessibility strings attached to any federal money that’s provided,” he said. “Public money should never be used to create or perpetuate barriers.”
“If the federal government gives money to a university to build a new building, that building should meet federal accessibility requirements, because provincial accessibility requirements so far are grossly inadequate. And that, in turn, affects employment, because if you make sure that that new university building is accessible, that makes it easier for people with disabilities to work there, as well as students with disabilities to study there.”
At present, Manitoba, Nova Scotia and Ontario have provincial disability legislation in place.
“By becoming fully accessible, you can access a broader pool of prospective employees,” said Lepofsky. “All of this fits together.”
The new act will require debate and additional readings in the House of Commons before becoming law, but the government’s intentions are clear, said Lepofsky.
“Groundbreaking legislation is coming,” he said. “Now, do they have the kind of detail and timelines… that we wanted in the legislation? Not yet, but we’ll be pushing for that.”
In the meantime, HR practitioners in the public and private sectors should begin evaluating their organizations for inclusive employment practices, rather than simply accommodation, said Lepofsky.
“The employer of the future needs to design and operate the workplace on the understanding that people with disabilities are going to be there. The workplace five years from now is not going to look very much like the workplace of today,” he said.
“Frankly, any smart businesses and employers should be doing it anyway.”