Celebrating Our Progress, Facing Our Future


In December, 1948, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as “a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations.” Proclaiming that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and in rights,” the Declaration set out the rights to which the world’s citizens are entitled, including the right to live free from discrimination.

While the Declaration did not specifically mention disability rights — a sign of the lack of attention paid to this issue in 1948 — it served as the inspiration for Canada’s federal and provincial human rights laws, all of which specifically prohibit discrimination on the ground of disability.

The significance of the Universal Declaration was uppermost in our minds when the Canadian Human Rights Commission released its 1997 Annual Report in March of this year. For us, the Declaration’s 50th anniversary has an added meaning, since it also marks the 20th birthday of the Commission, which opened its doors in 1978. For us, this dual anniversary provided an opportunity to celebrate the progress our society has made toward guaranteeing equality rights for all Canadians, and the challenges that we face as we approach a new millennium.

As in previous years, the 1997 Annual Report included a chapter on disability issues which reflected both progress and future challenges. On the up side, we said we were pleased to see Parliament consider legislation which would amend the Canadian Human Rights Act (CHRA) to make specific reference to the duty of employers and service providers to accommodate special needs. While the duty to accommodate has been a fixture of human rights jurisprudence for a number of years — the Supreme Court’s decision in the Eldridge case was one recent example — it does not appear in our Act. People should know what their rights and obligations are by reading the legislation, not by perusing the dusty shelves of law libraries. So the accommodation amendment is a positive step, which our Commission has called for repeatedly over the years.

But we also made it clear in our report that Canada still has a long way to go before equality for people with disabilities is a reality. The situation is especially dismal in the area of employment, particularly for those with more significant disabilities. In the federally regulated private sector, which includes such major industries as banking, transportation, telecommunications and broadcasting, the share of employment for people with disabilities inched forward from 1.6 per cent to 2.7 per cent between 1986 and 1996, the most recent year for which figures are available. In the federal public service, the rate of progress was even slimmer, with a 10-year increase from 2.6 to 3.3 per cent. What was even more disturbing is that people with disabilities received a mere 1.4 per cent of all new public service hires in the 1996/97 fiscal year, which does not bode well for increased representation.

Our report also pointed out that people with disabilities frequently find themselves receiving second-class treatment in the area of services. For example, not all federal government buildings are accessible, despite a 1990 commitment by Treasury Board to bring its property into compliance with accessibility standards within five years. And automated banking machines that are accessible to people with disabilities, including those with visual disabilities, are still the exception rather than the rule.

The Commission’s report called upon the federal government to place a higher priority on disability issues, beginning with a comprehensive response to the recommendations of the 1996 Scott Report. We also urged the government to reinstate the Health and Activities Limitation Survey (HALS) when it conducts the 2001 Census. As representatives of disability groups have repeatedly told us, having accurate and up-to-date statistical data on Canadians with disabilities is important not only for disability rights advocates, but also for policy makers, employers and service providers.

“People with disabilities are justifiably tired of seeing their concerns placed on the back burner in the face of issues seen as more pressing,” we concluded in our report. “For its part, the Commission will make a concerted effort during the coming year to remind the government of its responsibilities.”

Needless to say, making governments more aware of their responsibilities in this area is something that the Commission cannot do on its own. Advocacy groups representing people with disabilities have a paramount role to play, but other sectors of society — including business, labour, and the media — can also have an impact.

If there has been progress over the past 50 years, it is because of a growing recognition of the principle that people with disabilities have a right to full citizenship. Let us now build on that progress and work together toward translating that principle into practice.

(Michelle Falardeau-Ramsay is Chief Commissioner of the Canadian Human Rights Commission. The CHRC’s Annual Report is available on the Commission’s website: www.chrc.ca.)

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