Today is the brightest day of the year in Canada because it is the summer solstice. It is the brightest day also because the Accessible Canada Act (ACA) became a reality today. Canada now has federal accessibility legislation. Three provinces—Ontario included—already have accessibility legislation geared toward removing barriers, but with the ACA, all Canadians with disabilities can look forward to a barrier-free Canada.
Almost two decades ago, an Ontarian named Donna Jodhan faced an accessibility barrier when she could not use the Statistics Canada website to apply for a job. She started a charter challenge with the federal government to ensure that Canadian government websites are accessible to persons with disabilities. After her landmark victory in 2012, she advocated for federal accessibility legislation through her Barrier-Free Canada movement. With the ACA in place, the Donna Jodhans of today no longer need to resort to filing human rights complaints to redress their grievances.
In 2015, the new government came with the promise of a Canadians with Disabilities Act. The Honorable Carla Qualtrough, then Minister of Sport and Persons with Disabilities, engaged in public consultations with the question “What does an accessible Canada mean to you?” The ACA’s process has remained true to the spirit of “Nothing about us without us,” and in doing so, it brings much hope for continued and meaningful participation by Canadians with disabilities toward realizing a barrier-free Canada.
A barrier-free Canada is important because barriers prevent people from access, participation, engagement, and contribution in the full life of a society. Those barriers result from mismatch between the needs of a person and what a product, service, or environment offers. The 2017 Canadian Survey on Disability reported that one in five Canadians aged 15 years and over have one or more disabilities that limit them in their daily activities. That makes over 6.2 million people having needs that are different from what design generally includes. That’s a lot of unmet needs—a lot of barriers.
In many ways, the ACA looks to the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act or AODA, which was passed in 2005. Both Acts focus on removing barriers to accessibility. The ACA is planning to work on a set of accessibility standards like the AODA did. The federal government has even proposed to set up a standards body called the Canadian Accessibility Standards Development Organization. The AODA did not include education standards in the initial set of planned standards. The ACA is also not including them.
It took 12 years for the Ontario government to start developing education standards. Thanks to the tireless efforts of advocates like David Lepofsky, the AODA committees for K-12 and Postsecondary Education Standards development were set up in late 2017. After just two sittings, they were put on hold for a year since June 2018 and resumed recently. The ACA should not emulate the AODA in this matter but should work on education standards right off the bat—in fact, not just education standards but also education and lifelong learning standards.
But why include lifelong learning? Because learning today is not limited to acquiring a degree in school but continues into the workplace. Employers now need workers who can continually reskill through their career span. Quoting D2L’s CEO John Baker, “The impact of artificial intelligence is the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which will necessitate retraining and reskilling of the workforce more frequently. Making sure our workforce is ready for the future is a massive challenge.”
Education and skills training should be accessible to everyone. Work contributes to a person’s dignity and independence. It makes people feel valued and empowered as a contributing member of society. The good feeling makes them more productive. It’s a virtuous cycle, and that’s good. With barriers to getting to school and getting employed, dignity and independence are disproportionately affected. This sets up a vicious cycle, and that’s not good.
When our systems of education and employment are designed to include people with disabilities, society benefits. The Releasing Constraints report (2009), which examined the economic impacts of increased accessibility in Ontario, said that it is the most profitable investment any public administration can make. Stretching our programs and services to include people with disabilities results in more responsive, flexible and innovative systems. This means they are also more future-friendly and able to address change and the unexpected.
Both the AODA and the ACA must shape standards that make it possible for people with disabilities to acquire education and skills with ease. In keeping with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal #4, Canada must strive “to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.” Reaching every learner is the only path to a barrier-free Canada.