I came to Canada in September 2005. The Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) had just been passed. I was a student; a woman of colour; and in a wheelchair with a fractured knee. Toronto welcomed me and I felt included.
Fourteen years later, the Accessible Canada Act (ACA) was passed on June 21, 2019. Once again, my faith in the Canadian values of accessibility and inclusion stood vindicated. The ACA is the first federal accessibility legislation as much as the AODA is the first provincial accessibility legislation. Time for me to pause and muse on the AODA, the ACA, and all the years that have rolled by in between.
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. I have the good fortune of knowing Donna closely over the years. I recollect sitting in a court room in Toronto with her during one of the hearings. I also recollect her landmark victory in 2012 and how I helped her set up the website and social media for her Barrier-free Canada movement thereafter. With the ACA, the Donna Jodhans of today no longer need to resort to 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 towards 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 barriers.
Both the AODA and the ACA are about removing barriers to accessibility. The ACA emulates the AODA in some ways, not all of which is good. Working on accessibility standards, like AODA, is a good thing. The federal government has even proposed to set up a standards body called the Canadian Accessibility Standards Development Organization. However, not including Education Standards up front, also like AODA, is NOT a good thing.
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, not to speak of them having been put on hold for a year since June 2018 and resumed recently. The ACA should work on Education and Lifelong Learning Standards right off the bat.
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 essential-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 the 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. A vicious cycle sets in, and that’s bad.
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.
With 14 years of continual reskilling in Canada, today I am a member of the AODA Postsecondary Education Standards Development Committee, hoping to help shape standards around making it possible for people with disabilities to acquire education as well as work skills with ease. “To ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all” is the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goal #4. It should be Canada’s goal too.