Carla Qualtrough - International Initiative for Disability Leadership


Carla Qualtrough - International Initiative for Disability Leadership

Hello everyone. It is a pleasure to be here.

I’d like to begin by acknowledging the traditional custodians of the land on which we rest, the Godigal people of the Eora nation.  I pay my respect to their elders past and present, and extend that respect to other Aboriginal people present here today.

I’d also like to thank the IIDL for inviting me to be with you today.

Gatherings like these are so very important. I commend the IIDL for bringing together leaders from the international disability community. I believe it is crucial that we take the time to listen and learn from each other – and to share what we are doing in our own communities to tackle the very important social and economic issues that continue to challenge people with disabilities world-wide.

As you may know, this is not my first IIDL appearance. I was a guest speaker at a session when the conference was in Vancouver.  For me, a lot has changed since then, as you can imagine.  When I spoke in Vancouver, I was a candidate in our Canadian federal electoral race.  As someone with a disability, I knew that electoral success would require me to convince – or at best reassure – voters that I could do the job of MP even though I am legally blind.  Because the reality is that we do not yet live in a world where ability, skill and experience overcome the assumptions, stereotypes and misconceptions that exist around disability and what someone with a disability can and cannot do.

As a life-long advocate for the rights of persons with disabilities, these barriers to inclusion were a big reason why I went into politics in the first place.

I had not imagined then that I would be coming here today as Canada’s first ever Minister responsible for persons with disabilities.

As Minister, I am committed to fundamentally changing the conversation around disability.  As people with disabilities, we are constantly reminded throughout our lives that our needs are expensive and burdensome.  We are told that people would like to help – to make things better – but we have to understand how much that would cost.

We need to change this dialogue.  We need to stop talking about needs and inabilities, and start talking about economic, social and civic participation.  For this is what it means to have the rights of full citizenship.

Fortunately for me – and for Canada - my boss, the Right Honourable Justin Trudeau, feels the same way.

At home in Canada, it’s not unusual to hear our Prime Minister say that Canada’s strength lies in our diversity – that we are strong not in spite of our differences but because of them.  And persons with a disability are an important component of that strength and diversity.

Like you all, I believe that an inclusive society is one where everyone has an equal chance at success from the beginning. This could mean making it easier or possible for people to use transportation, access buildings and institutions, use information and communications technologies, and have services delivered to them in the format of their choice. It’s about having those services and structures accessible to all, including people with disabilities, right from the start.

It means we shouldn’t have to remind ourselves to think about accessibility and inclusion – it should be the norm; naturally incorporated in everything we do.

This is a major shift in how we think. And it is the single most important part of my work to bring our vision of an accessible and inclusive Canada to fruition.

Fortunately, we have a younger generation coming up who already think this way – perhaps more so than even my own generation.

Last fall, as part of the consultations that I’ll speak about in a few minutes, I held a national forum for 110 youth with disabilities from across our country.  Prime Minister Trudeau participated in the discussion, engaging in dialogue and being challenged on what our government is doing and prepared to do.

The message from these youth was pretty clear. They do not accept doing things the same way they’ve always been done - and figuring out how to accommodate disabilities after the fact. They want to be included right from the start. Theirs is not a language of accommodation, it is a language of inclusion.

This conversation reinforced my belief that an inclusive society is not only possible, but might not be as far away as some would think. It’s an incredibly encouraging thought.

I can only imagine how my own world would have been different without the accessibility challenges, discrimination and, let’s face it, the shocking attitudes I faced at times.

It is really exciting to play a role in the next generation’s leadership story.

My own story is not dissimilar to many of yours.   I was born legally blind, with only 10% corrected vision.

The reality was that, like many of you, I was born into a world that wasn’t built for me – one where my needs were not taken into account. One that I would have to learn to constantly adapt to. One where people were going to make assumptions about what I could and couldn’t do my entire life.

I was fortunate to have very supportive parents who taught me to self-advocate.  Parents who challenged the public school system when they were told that I had to go to a segregated school. Parents who insisted I be included in gym class when I was told that I had to sit on the sidelines. Parents who would not accept that I didn’t have to take home economics because cooking and sewing would be too dangerous.  Parents who fundamentally believed that I had a right to be included and to receive the help that I needed.

As I got older, more and more of the responsibility for asserting my rights was passed along to me.  I graduated high school capable of doing so, with the self-confidence to go out into the world and make a real difference.

But as much as I made it through highschool, it was not a social journey that I would ever care to repeat.  I was alienated, harassed, and regularly bullied.  I was different and perceived as receiving special treatment.  I was fundamentally made to feel unwelcome, and I could not wait to get out of there.

The thing that saved me was sport. I was born into a family where we spoke the language of sport. I competed in many sports as a child.  And quite frankly I was pretty good.  As a youngster, my parents and coaches and teammates were able to work around my low vision. But at some point it caught up to me and I was introduced to the world of Paralympic sport. And my life was forever changed.

I enjoyed much international success as a Paralympic swimmer, winning three bronze medals and four world championship medals for Canada. I travelled the world, and was exposed to incredible demonstrations of ability – and incredible discrimination.

The transformational part of this experience for me was in the fundamental premise of Paralympic sport itself.  You see, Paralympic sport is a system where the playing field is levelled before the competition begins – where athletes compete against others with similar functional impairments and disabilities.

I became fascinated with the idea that systems could be designed that included everyone from the start.  What if we designed our legal system this way?  Or our transportation system?  Or our education system? What if we approached employment this way?

It won’t surprise you knowing this that after I retired from swimming I went to law school and became a human rights lawyer.  I spent my professional and volunteer career helping to build inclusive systems.

And I think that you’ll agree that my Cabinet portfolio is pretty well suited for me.  When the Prime Minister gave me the dual responsibilities of sport and persons with disabilities, he told me to go out and change the world. And I intend to do just that.

There are two of us in our Canadian Cabinet with disabilities.  My colleague the Minister of Veterans Affairs is a quadriplegic.  I am convinced that having us at the Cabinet table as decisions are made is good for public policy, good for inclusion, and good for Canada.

Putting a disability or accessibility lens on how we govern is critical to achieving the fundamental culture change that I believe is necessary to change the conversation and achieve the rights of full citizenship that I referred to earlier.

So, what specifically are we doing? My broad mandate is to improve the lives of Canadians with disabilities.  One specific component of that is national accessibility legislation.

Based on my experience in law, I can tell you that we have a very robust human rights system in Canada.

The challenge is that it is reactive. People have to wait until they are discriminated against before they can seek help.

For people with a disability, that means they have to be denied a job, denied housing, or denied a service before we can tell them – sometimes years later – that this was wrong.

In addition, the onus is on the individual to pursue systemic complaints.

This process is time-consuming, costly – and I think you would agree – unfairly burdensome.

It’s incredible to think that 50% of the complaints to the Canadian Human Rights Commission are on the basis of disability. This is quite extraordinary when you think of the myriad of other grounds – race, gender, sexual orientation to name a few.

For the most part, the complaints are in the area of employment. Like elsewhere around the world, barriers to employment are significant in Canada for persons with disabilities.  Unemployment and underemployment rates are high. This is unacceptable.

And this is just one reason why Canada is developing accessibility legislation.   

This proactive law will address in a systemic way the barriers that exist in areas of federal jurisdiction.  This would include banking, transportation, telecommunications, and of course the federal government itself. We want to remove the onus from the individual to pursue systemic complaints to address inequity. We will remove barriers by creating a series of expectations or standards for employers, service providers, program deliverers and businesses.  There will be compliance and enforcement mechanisms.  And there will be complimentary programs.

In other words, we are looking to create legislation that helps us avoid discrimination and exclusion from the very start.

This discussion on accessibility, barriers and functional impairment is so important.  And it is critical that Canadians with disabilities are at the centre.

In June of last year, we launched an ambitious public consultation process in Canada, that has taken us across the country, meeting with Canadians and stakeholders to talk about what an accessible Canada means to them – and we’ve done it in the most accessible way we can, to ensure that everyone is able to participate and have their say in what this legislation could like.

We held 18 public consultations and 8 thematic roundtables.  We had a significant online component.  We held a national youth forum.  We are working with indigenous groups.

It truly is a new era of leadership and collaboration on disability issues.

We’ve heard from thousands of citizens from across Canada. I’ve gained valuable insight into some of the everyday barriers other people with impairments and disabilities face.

I’ve heard about

  • physical and architectural barriers that impede people’s ability to move freely in built environments, use public transportation, access information or use common technology.
  • attitudes, beliefs and misconceptions that some people have about people with disabilities and what we can and cannot do.
  • outdated policies and practices that simply don’t take into account the barriers that are being faced on a daily basis.

Time and time again, people with disabilities have told me the same thing: We are not an afterthought. We are citizens deserving of the same rights, and having the same responsibilities, as any other citizen.

We are capable and valuable members of society.

We don’t want to be looked at as people who need “accommodation”, and we don’t want to be treated like some sort of burden.

Apart from breaking down barriers, be they physical or social, this legislation will also send a strong message—that Canada is saying no to discrimination and saying yes to inclusion.

We have an amazing opportunity to change the course of Canadian history with this legislation.

This isn’t just about enacting a new law. It’s about creating a catalyst for social change that will shift the conversation and protect the human rights of people with disabilities across Canada.

We hope to set a standard others in our country can aspire to both with this process and with a number of other actions we’ve taken to support people with disabilities.

For example, last year Canada ratified the Marrakesh Treaty to help ensure people with disabilities have access to information in accessible formats. It promotes the exchange of accessible formats between member countries, which helps facilitate increased access to information for their respective citizens with print disabilities.

We also partnered with the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission on a Video Relay Service to help those using American Sign Language or Langue des signes québécoise to use Canada’s communication system.

And we began important consultations to accede to the Optional Protocol to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

We continue to work on a range of initiatives that support all Canadians, including those with disabilities. Our ongoing work on a Canadian Poverty Reduction Strategy will help support Canadians with disabilities. Our National Housing Strategy and our infrastructure investments will include accessibility as a core pillar.

And we are getting our federal house in order.  We are working on formalizing a disability or accessibility lens on government decision and policy-making. We are working to make the federal government a model of inclusive employment.  We are exploring how we can use the other policy and fiscal levers at our disposal – such as IT and procurement - to not only create a truly accessible government, but to foster inclusion and break down barriers in the private sector.

Collectively, we have the opportunity and the means to build truly inclusive societies. I believe that Canada is a place where everyone has a shot at success because we have the confidence and leadership to invest in Canadians, including those with disabilities.

If we are truly going to celebrate our diversity, we must embrace the abilities of all of our citizens. We will have to stay focused on shifting the conversation to inclusion. And we must continue to demonstrate leadership by working together to forge a path toward inclusivity for all.

If we do this right, the next generation may very well know a world without limits.

Thank you.

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