The report’s two main recommendations, a Canadians with Disabilities Act (CDA) and the formal designation of a Minister or Secretary of State with Responsibility for Disability Issues, seem somehow to have been forgotten. When the report speaks of providing tangible evidence of leadership, and demonstrating a commitment to consistent action, there is perhaps a more subtle reference to the 15 years of previous reports than first meets the eye.
Following the federal government’s re-election in 1997, the decade-old Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights and the Status of Persons with Disabilities was dissolved and responsibility for disability issues was shifted to the Committee on Human Resources Development. The focus is now one of employment, not citizenship. Access and full participation in Canadian society have become secondary to getting a job.
During the 1995 Ontario election campaign, all political parties heartily endorsed an Ontarians with Disabilities Act (ODA). Premier Mike Harris even went so far as to put in writing his commitment to introducing legislation during his term in government. In all fairness, his first term is only in its third year; but his government, despite a renewal of this pledge in 1997, has become even more silent on the issue. A coalition of which Ontario March of Dimes (OMOD) is a member has had to resort to media statements to get its message for public consultation across to the minister responsible.
It is odd, therefore, that the point of reference often used is the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). After all, as Canadians, do we not view ourselves superior, in matters of social justice, to our neighbours to the south? We have medicare and all sorts of social safety nets. Legislators are quick to point out that the ADA is different. It wouldn’t, couldn’t, apply here. We have a different system of government.
Strange, though — it does apply here and is already having an impact for persons with disabilities. Call up a large hotel or conference centre and inquire about accessibility, and the response is often, “Oh yes, we are fully accessible — we are ADA compliant.” Canadian facilities are becoming barrier free, not because of our legislation, but rather because of an industry desire to attract large foreign conventions.
It appears that Canadians are more concerned that American travellers know we have access to our facilities than we are Canadians!
It is frustrating, however, that an ADA has done more for public relations for persons with disabilities in Canada than our own legislative efforts. Our gains have been made through a foreign disability lens. A disability lens and positive public relations is what is needed most. There are many programs and pieces of legislation that enhance the independence of persons with disabilities, but what is missing is the disability lens being laid over everything that government does.
Many municipalities across Ontario have been amalgamated or are engaging in various forms of coordination of services. Seamless public transit is an oft-echoed goal, but alternative transit services have recently been cut. The lens seems not to exist; the need for access can easily be forgotten.
New and much-needed employment and income-support programs have been created, but how do you get to work, or get in the door, or go to lunch in a restaurant, or go to the bathroom? The ADA has put these issues in the forefronts of the minds of Americans. It has given disability issues the public relations it needs. Governments can introduce all kinds of employment and income-support legislation, but until there is a disability lens in place and a federal minister to promote it, the cracks in society will widen rather than close.
Engage in a little PR. Call or write your Members of Parliament, federal and provincial, and encourage them to put on a disability lens and introduce an Ontarians with Disabilities Act (provincial) and a Canadians with Disabilities Act (federal). It is time to eliminate the gap between saying and doing.
(Paul Raina is the Government Relations Coordinator for Ontario March of Dimes and can be reached at 1-800-DIME, or firstname.lastname@example.org.)