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Developing a Canadians with Disabilities Act: Consult the Proven Voices of Inclusion


On March 22, Kelsey McDaniel and I were honoured to represent LiveWorkPlay and to be included in celebrating World Down Syndrome Day on Parliament Hill. Co-hosted by Senator Munson and Senator Enverga, this was the inaugural occasion of what is destined to become an annual event (all going well, they’ll be able to host it on March 21 in 2017).

It was truly a coincidence of timing that the event aligned with the delivery of Federal Budget 2016, which made mention of the development of a Canadians with Disabilities Act. Those of us who are advocates, activists, or allies with respect to disability issues have taken many a wistful glance south over the years, aware that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has real power to support and drive change. One of the most exciting recent examples was an action brought under the ADA in the State of Oregon. Advocates successfully challenged sheltered workshops as a negative force that segregates individuals with intellectual disabilities and denies them of fundamental rights available to all other citizens. The ADA does not always result in a court judgement. Often, as with the Oregon challenge, settlements are reached through a cooperative approach that results in admirable outcomes.

This is the type of potential that had many of us buzzing about the development of a Canadians with Disabilities Act, e as we came together to celebrate what has already been achieved. In particular we wanted to show our support for what individuals with Down syndrome have contributed to Canadian society, despite the frequent experience of stigma, diminished expectations, and outright discrimination that they must face as part of their daily experience.

Speaker after speaker repeated the same important theme from their own perspective, whether as an individual advocate, a family member, an advocacy organization, or an agency providing direct supports to person with Down syndrome: it’s about ensuring people with intellectual disabilities have access to the same opportunities and challenges as other citizens with the right supports for success.

To eliminate systemic barriers and deliver equality of opportunity to all Canadians living with disabilities, the Government will consult with provinces, territories, municipalities and stakeholders to introduce a Canadians with Disabilities Act. This budget allocates $2 million over two years, starting in 2016–17, to support the full participation of Canadians with disabilities in this process.

This brief paragraph (page 172 of the budget) will not make headlines for its relatively modest expenditure, and at this time, few Canadians will understand the significance of a Canadians with Disabilities Act. But since the mention of people with disabilities in the Canadian Charter of Rights (1982) there have not been many significant rights-based developments of note. A future with the potential for updated and enforceable federal rights to protect and support Canadians with disabilities is definitely a huge deal for anyone who is aware of the many persistent barriers to economic and social equality.

It’s important that a Canadians with Disabilities Act be fully reflective of modern evidence-based principles for building inclusive communities. It can’t be about setting a low bar with a discourse of tolerating and accommodating, this has to be about welcoming and valuing people with disabilities as full citizens and contributors to our communities. It has to not only eliminate segregation (a systemic condition primarily afflicting people with intellectual disabilities in provincial and municipal jurisdictions across the country) but also work to eliminate the thinking behind it: that people with intellectual disabilities are lesser human beings who need to be kept away from the rest of society, and the rest of society kept away from them.

The realization on a very personal level that this is the dominant paradigm of Canadian society is the main reason that I co-founded LiveWorkPlay back in 1995. Like so many of us, my experience with segregation began with my first day of school, and this is still the common experience of students in 2016.

Although the Act will be new, it’s also important to note that a lot of important work has already been done. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (ratified by Canada in 2010) was the result of unprecedented international cooperation with many Canadians playing significant roles. However, if we are honest about it, the UNCRPD has had a negligible impact on the lives of people with disabilities in Canada, and it’s no mystery why it is largely insignificant: it is not enforceable.

Of course one need not limit consultation to the United Nations. Right here at home many organizations and groups have developed exceptional guiding principles and proven practices for supporting the inclusion of people with disabilities and the building of welcoming communities. While we can appreciate the necessity to consult with provinces, territories, and municipalities, we hope that other “stakeholders” will not be seen as an afterthought to this process.

The fact is, with a few notable exceptions, the federal, provincial, and municipal governments across Canada have a lot of work of their own to do in setting an appropriate example. Ask around: how many employees with intellectual disabilities are working for your city, province, or federal government offices? After many years of effort in promoting inclusive employment with our municipal government in Ottawa, it is clear that barely a handful of individuals with intellectual disabilities are among the more than 17,000 members of City of Ottawa staff. We could easily help correct this, but currently inclusive employment is merely a suggestion, not a requirement.

Bring LiveWorkPlay and other like-minded organizations to the Canadians with Disabilities Act table and we’ll provide the straight facts about what is working and what is not working for people with disabilities in Canadian communities, and also make sure that the resulting Act does not reinvent the wheel in proposing solutions.

As exemplified by individuals with Down syndrome, their family members, and supports from disability organizations at yesterday’s Parliament Hill gathering, the solutions are not secrets. All that is we need to scale them up Canada-wide is the legislative and financial support to implement them.

Keenan Wellar