Building an Inclusive Canada: A National Disability Summit


May 9, 2019 - Ottawa, Ontario

Check against delivery. This speech has been translated in accordance with the Government of Canada’s official languages policy and edited for posting and distribution in accordance with its communications policy.

Thank you, Senator Petitclerc, for the kind introduction.

Welcome, everyone!

I want to start by acknowledging that the land on which we gather is the traditional, unceded territory of the Algonquin people. I pay respect to their elders, past and present.

It is a pleasure to be here with you this afternoon at the National Disability Summit. I have been looking forward to this summit for months. I’m so happy to have each and every one of you here.

I want to begin by also saying thank you to the many of you in this room who have been advocating for the rights of persons with disabilities—insisting that disability rights are human rights, that we all have rights of full citizenship. You fought. You insisted. You did not back down. You banged on the doors and insisted we be let in.

It is because of you that I, as a person with a disability, had the right to a public education. It is because of you that I got to attend law school. And make no mistake, while giving me this opportunity was the choice of a Prime Minister who believes in the same rights as we do, that too was because of you and the trails you blazed. Thank you.

Many of you have heard me talk of my personal journey. How, like many of you, as a person with a disability, I was born into a world that was not built for me and did not take my needs into consideration.

How, out of necessity, I became a problem solver, a creative thinker and an innovator.

How I grew up with the very real understanding that, my whole life, people were going to make assumptions about what I could and could not do.

How I learned from my parents that I had the right to be accommodated.

How I learned from my exposure to Paralympic sport that we could design systems that were inclusive from the beginning.

How I travelled the world and was exposed to incredible demonstrations of ability and incredible incidents of discrimination.

How I became frustrated as a human rights lawyer in having to wait until people were discriminated against before we could help them.

And how a certain Prime Minister came knocking and gave me a chance to do something about it.

Over three years ago, our government embarked on a journey. Not only was there a specific commitment to pass legislation aimed at removing barriers to inclusion, but also there was a commitment to do things differently as a government to ensure that all Canadians had an equal chance at success. For Canadians with disabilities, there was—and remains—a lot of work to be done.We would have to address the unfairness and inequities in our programs and services; challenge the biases built into our processes; and involve the very people whose lives were being impacted in the decisions that affected them. Simply put, we would have to do things very differently.

We held what would become the most inclusive consultation any government has ever had in the history of our country. We undertook a national discussion on issues that had never been the topic of national discourse in such a way. We visited cities across the country, held town halls and packed rooms. We held the first-ever national summit for youth with disabilities, attended by the Prime Minister. We held roundtables with industry leaders, businesses and employers. We engaged leaders from all levels of government. We worked with Indigenous partners. We looked at national and international best practices.

There were cynics. Many of you had been promised action before. There had been reports—with oh so many recommendations. What would be different this time?

May I say that this time you had a Prime Minister who gave a very ambitious mandate to a very driven, focused and stubborn Cabinet Minister hell‑bent on not squandering the opportunity to make things better for a significant percentage of the population that had been ill-treated and ignored in the past.

And I am oh-so-grateful that you took the leap of faith that you did.

And of course, the culmination of this effort was the introduction in the House of Commons of Bill C-81, the Accessible Canada Act.

Many of you heard my speech during second reading of Bill C-81. It was important to me to put on the record the history of how we have treated our citizens with disabilities: not always a proud one, as we know. It is one of institutionalization, marginalization and discrimination. One of social isolation and paternalism.

We would have time later to debate the intricacies of the legislation. This was the time to set the record straight. As Canadians, we like to think of ourselves as compassionate, inclusive, fair-minded and generous of spirit. We certainly can be. But we haven’t always been.

I also shared with Canadians our—your—vision for an accessible and inclusive Canada. I shared the elements of a new system that would help address the barriers to inclusion being faced every single day by Canadians with disabilities. This system would place the responsibility for identifying, removing and preventing these barriers squarely within the responsibility of the federal government and the federally regulated private sector.

Building upon existing mechanisms, this system would demand accountability and compliance. It would be based in human rights and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. There would be a new Canadian Accessibility Standards Development Organization, an Accessibility Commissioner within the Canadian Human Rights Commission, and a Chief Accessibility Officer. The Canadian Human Rights Commission would also be given responsibility for monitoring Canada’s implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Accessibility plans would be required. And National AccessAbility Week would be legislated.

This proposed legislation fundamentally changes the way that the Government of Canada addresses disability issues.

It also sends a clear message to Canadians that persons with disabilities will no longer be treated as an afterthought; systems will be designed inclusively from the start. It is our systems, our policies, our practices and our laws that need to be fixed, not our people.

As you have heard me say before, we are moving from “Nothing about us, without us” to “Nothing without us,” because everything is about us.

As I speak, C-81 is in the Senate at report stage.

We are close.

And we are getting ready. The Government of Canada is the largest federal employer. We are also the single largest purchaser of goods and services in this country.

And we provide vital programs and services to Canadians. We need to lead.

Our efforts started with the appointment of the first‑ever Deputy Minister responsible for the accessibility of the public service.

We also committed to hiring at least 5,000 persons with disabilities over the next five years into the federal public service. This will be complemented by a new internship program that will provide placements across the federal government for persons with disabilities. The goal is to improve the recruitment, retention and promotion of persons with disabilities in the federal public service.

We are also investing in making government workplaces more accessible. An example is the Budget 2019 proposed additional funding of $13.7 million over five years to Shared Services Canada, to help identify, remove and prevent technological barriers in federal government workplaces.

And we are putting into place measures that will harness the Government of Canada’s purchasing and contracting power to advance accessibility. This involved recognizing how influential and powerful procurement is in our efforts to break down barriers. By applying an accessibility lens to every single government purchase, we can ensure that the goods and services Canadians receive are accessible to all. Think of buildings, computers, mobile devices, and so much more.

We have also created an Accessible Procurement Resource Centre. The first of its kind, it serves as a centre of expertise for accessibility in federal procurement and develops guidelines and training material for procurement officers, while examining industry accessibility standards and best practices that could apply to federal procurement. Our goal is to ensure that the goods and services bought by the federal government are accessible to everyone, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.

We have also changed Treasury Board policy such that departments are required to incorporate accessibility considerations in their project proposals and submissions. This is a critical all-of-government approach to accessibility.

We are also working towards ensuring our buildings and properties meet the highest standards of accessibility. For example, we are very proud of the Toronto-North York Service Canada Centre, the “flagship” for future Service Canada Centres across the country, which will be fully accessible and offer inclusive technologies. I had the privilege of visiting the Centre a few weeks ago, and was very impressed by the use of BlindSquare beacons, tactile flooring, tactile maps and integrated technologies such as screen reader software in the public access workstations.

C-81 is indeed an impressive piece of legislation. Not perfect, for sure. Nevertheless, I believe it is undeniably the most significant piece of legislation on disability rights in this country since the Charter.

And it is by far not the only thing our Government is doing to improve the lives of Canadians with disabilities—to ensure that everyone has an equal chance at success.

We have been working tirelessly to make our federal laws, policies, procedures and programs more equitable and inclusive of Canadians with disabilities—in ways that have profound effects on the greater inclusion of all citizens.

We have also been working with other levels of government and internationally.

I wish I had time to give you the list, because it is very impressive. Let me give you some highlights:

We have, for the first time in our country, a Cabinet Minister responsible for disability issues and Canadians with disabilities.

We have applied a disability lens to our flagship policies and programs, such as the Canada Child Benefit, the National Housing Strategy, and our infrastructure program.

The result? Children with disabilities receive an enhanced award under the Canada Child Benefit. In 2017–18, 1,750,000 children benefitted from this award.

Under the National Housing Strategy, a $40-billion investment over 10 years, there is a commitment to promote universal design and visitability. This includes: a requirement that a minimum of 20% of units must be accessible, a requirement that public and shared spaces must meet accessibility standards, and the creation of at least 2,400 new affordable units for persons with developmental disabilities.

In the area of infrastructure, we have approved nearly 800 accessibility projects, including almost 500 new paratransit buses and improvements to 81 existing transit facilities to make them more accessible to Canadians. This was made possible by allowing accessibility to be an eligible expense when it came to public transit projects. In one year, almost $800 million was invested into our public transit systems to make them more accessible.

We have also increased our investments in existing programs such as the Enabling Accessibility Fund, the Social Development Partnerships Program – Disability component and the Opportunities Fund. All three of these programs were significantly enhanced, allowing so many of you to keep doing the good work that you are doing.

We have improved tax policies through measures such as permitting registered nurse practitioners to complete disability tax credit medical forms. We also created an enhanced caregiver credit.

We are addressing the financial security of Canadians with disabilities through important changes to the Registered Disability Savings Plan (RDSP). In Budget 2019, we announced measures that will allow Canadians who become ineligible for the disability tax credit to keep the government grants and bonds paid into their RDSPs. RDSPs will also be exempt from bankruptcy seizure, as is the case for other savings vehicles like RRSPs.

We have built equity into existing programs such as the Canada Student Loans Program. We are increasing the cap on the Canada Student Grants for services and equipment from $8,000 to $20,000 per year. We are also expanding eligibility for the severe permanent disability benefit and making it easier for students with permanent disabilities to return to school after a long absence.

We have improved our immigration system by amending the outdated provisions on medical inadmissibility. And we have removed the processing fee to hire foreign caregivers, making these services more affordable.

We are modernizing our electoral system, making it easier for citizens with disabilities to vote.

We are increasing access to alternate format material. This includes ratifying the Marrakesh Treaty in 2016 and making consequential amendments to the Copyright Act. It also includes investing over $6 million in organizations like the Centre for Equitable Library Access and the CNIB Foundation for the production of alternative format material. It also includes a Budget 2019 investment of $22.8 million over five years to Canada’s independent book publishing industry to make key changes to the production line so that books can be born accessible, for all people, from the start.

We also created a $22 million accessible technology fund.

We are involving persons with disabilities in decision-making. Three immediate examples are the Disability Advisory Group to Elections Canada, the Canada Post Accessibility Advisory Panel, and the reconstituted Disability Advisory Committee to the CRA.

We are very focused on data. We enhanced the Canadian Survey on Disability, which was released last fall. We also funded a study by the DisAbled Women’s Network on intersectionality as it relates to gender and disability called More Than a Footnote. The data from these initiatives will inform government decision-making for years to come.

We are also focused on improving employment outcomes for persons with disabilities, knowing that this is perhaps the most significant barrier to full economic and social participation faced by persons with disabilities in Canada.

From the Canadian Survey on Disability, we know that approximately 59% of working-age adults with disabilities are employed, compared to 80% of those without disabilities. We also know that of the 1.5 million working-age adults with disabilities in Canada who are not employed, 645,000 could be potential candidates for work in an inclusive, discrimination-free, and accommodating labour market, should other non-disability constraints permit. This tells us is that there are thousands of persons with disabilities—a vast and largely untapped pool of talent—who are available to work and want to join the workforce.

I don’t have to tell this room that improving workplace accessibility and inclusion for persons with disabilities would have an overwhelmingly positive impact, leading to increased productivity and greater profits for businesses, and financial independence and a better quality of life for all Canadians.

We are also working with provinces and territories. One of my primary objectives is to create a seamless accessibility experience for Canadians. We need to work with other levels of government to ensure that this is the case. Over the past three years, for the first time in Canadian history, we have established federal-provincial/territorial mechanisms for engagement on disability issues. At our inaugural meeting of ministers, we discussed alignment of accessibility standards and disability supports. These conversations are necessary and critical as we move forward.

And finally, we recognize that international co-operation and collaboration are essential to advancing the rights of all persons with disabilities.

We want Canada to be a world leader on disability issues, and we are reclaiming our government’s place on the international stage. We confirmed our membership in the Global Action on Disability Network in 2017, and just last week we hosted its 2019 annual meeting here in Ottawa. I also think of our presence at meetings of the International Initiative for Disability Leadership, and at the United Nations for Conference of States Parties over the past three years.

And, of course, I think of our recent accession to the Optional Protocol.

The purpose of this Summit is to keep the conversation going.

The collective expertise and knowledge base within this room today are staggering, and I want to harness that energy to move forward as a government and a society towards a more inclusive Canada. We need more of these opportunities to keep putting accessibility and inclusion at the forefront of public policy.

We also need to use the opportunities afforded by improvements to our laws, our policies and our programs to significantly change the conversation. No longer will we talk about our citizens as objects of charity; rather, we will talk about our citizens as economic, civic and social contributors with rights of citizenship and the responsibilities that go with these rights.

In closing, I would like to share some personal reflections on how accessibility and inclusion have evolved, even just since I was named Canada’s first-ever Minister responsible for persons with a disability and accessibility in 2015.

There are three observations that I would like to make.

The first is the noticeable shift away from a reliance on accommodation to address inequity. How many times have you all heard the phrase, “We know this won’t work for you, but we will figure that out later”? How often have systems, policies and programs been exclusive by design, with a commitment to accommodate at the back end? Individual accommodations—or adjustments as they are known elsewhere around the world—will always be necessary. We will always need to ensure that the needs of all individuals are taken into consideration. But by design, accommodations are reactive.

And let me digress somewhat to say that I am a big fan of the term “adjustment,” because it takes the focus away from the individual’s disability. You accommodate the fact that I can’t see, but you adjust a workspace to address the fact that I can’t see. In other words, it is the environment that is broken, not me.

Like in the conversation we had on barrier removal and the proposed Accessible Canada Act, we need to shift the onus onto the system. We need to be inclusive by default. Our laws, our policies and our programs need to take into consideration the needs of everyone from the beginning. Accommodation needs to be one tool in the toolkit, but no longer an excuse not to include.

The second observation I would make has to do with my use earlier of the phrase “Nothing without us.” While I respect the spirit and intent of the mantra “Nothing about us, without us,” and I recognize its impact as a rallying cry around the world, I believe it is time to go beyond and insist that everything is about us. It is not acceptable to have others determine if we are impacted by a decision. I have sat around the Cabinet table for almost four years, and have witnessed first-hand how every single decision the federal government makes impacts its citizens with disabilities. Everything is about us.

And third—and perhaps full circle to where I began—I note the evolution of the collaboration of the Canadian disability community over the past years. Your strategic and thoughtful work together has been incredibly impactful. You have found common ground, challenged the system, and become a lobbying force to be reckoned with. Thank you for challenging me, and for working with our government.

Our government has taken some major steps towards true accessibility and inclusion—towards giving all people in Canada a real and fair chance to succeed. As Minister for Accessibility, I am very proud of the work we’re doing on this front.

That being said, while it’s clear that we have made significant progress, we all know that much more work needs to be done. In fact, in some ways, the hard work has just begun. And government cannot do it on its own.

That is my call to action to you. What’s next? What now? Where do we go from here? You know that I have ideas of my own—but I want to, once again, hear from you. I want to keep the momentum going.

I want to thank each and every one of you for coming to this summit to help continue our progress towards an inclusive Canada.

I wish you all a very productive and visionary summit.

Thank you.

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