Building an Inclusive Canada: National Disability Summit, May 9 to 10, 2019. What We Learned Report

From: Employment and Social Development Canada

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Message from the Minister

As Canada’s first Minister dedicated to persons with disabilities, I am pleased to present the What We Learned Report from the Building an Inclusive Canada: National Disability Summit. The Summit took place in the Nation’s Capital over a 2-day period in May 2019. This report summarizes the work done and the experiences and information shared at the Summit, but most importantly it outlines key areas where continued action is needed to realize a truly accessible Canada.

Accessibility is about ensuring that all people in Canada, including persons with disabilities, have equal opportunities to succeed.  As I have often said, we are moving from accommodation to inclusion. We are moving from “Nothing about us, without us” to “Nothing without us”, because everything is about us.

The Summit was a great forum that allowed key partners, leaders and persons with disabilities from across sectors to combine their collective expertise to create a strong collaborative network that can make the most of opportunities to advance accessibility, because an inclusive Canada is a stronger Canada.

The Government of Canada’s Accessible Canada Act, which came into force on July 11, 2019, is only the starting point of a new era that will see the inclusion of all people in Canada, including persons with disabilities, and will enable us to realize a Canada that is accessible and inclusive to all. We have made significant progress, but there is much more work to do, and we all have a role to play to ensure the realization of a Canada where barriers for persons with disabilities are eliminated.

I want to thank all the participants, presenters, and panelists who have been advocating for the rights of persons with disabilities for decades and were so generous in sharing their perspectives at the Summit. Learning from each other and working together to strategize on new ways to improve accessibility and inclusion for persons with disabilities was key to making the Summit a success.

Together, we will build a fully accessible and inclusive Canada.

The Honourable Carla Qualtrough,
Minister of Public Services and Procurement and Accessibility


On May 9 and 10, 2019, the Government of Canada hosted the first ever Na­­tional Disability Summit in Ottawa. The name of the summit was “Building an Inclusive Canada.” About 200 people attended, including persons with disabilities, academics and international experts, and representatives from government and the private sector.

The goal of the Summit was to discuss:

There were panel discussions, keynote speeches and small group discussions (breakout sessions). (See Annex A for the agenda). There were 3 panel discussions:

  1. Creating a culture of inclusiveness
  2. Taking stock
  3. Disruptive thinking

The rest of the Summit focused on keynote speeches and small group discussions about:

At the end of the Summit, participants were asked to think about what they could do on their own and as a group to make Canada more inclusive.

The speeches and discussions were documented in a number of ways:

This report is a summary of all these notes.

Ideas and key findings

Panel discussions

Creating a culture of inclusiveness panel

Panellists discussed real-life examples of the barriers that persons with disabilities face daily and how well Canada is doing in getting rid of barriers to inclusion. Panellists agreed that progress has been made, but there are still challenges.

Taking stock panel

Panellists discussed the latest data, milestones and trends on disability and inclusion in Canada.

Disruptive thinking panel

Panellists talked about future opportunities for inclusion and their related risks. The discussion focused on the roles of artificial intelligence, technology, the arts and sports in advancing accessibility and inclusion.

“Companies need to design products and solutions with persons with disabilities in mind, and they can easily do this by simply hiring more persons with disabilities.”

by Ricardo Wagner, Accessibility Leader, Microsoft Canada

Keynote speeches

Minister Carla Qualtrough

The Minister talked about her own experiences of living with a disability and how accommodations enabled her to be included as a child. Through sport, she learned that systems could be made inclusive so that persons with disabilities did not need to ask for accommodations. This is the intent of the Accessible Canada Act, to focus on eliminating barriers. There will always be a need for some individual adjustments, but the future must be inclusive by design.

At the end of her speech, she challenged participants to change the adage “nothing about us without us” to “nothing without us, because everything is about us.”

Charlotte McClain-Nhlapo

Charlotte McClain-Nhlapo, Global Disability Advisor for the World Bank, congratulated Canada in being a world thought leader in the area of intersectionality. She said that intersectionality is not well explored and other countries are looking to Canada for leadership.

She spoke about the importance of having a strong legal framework to reinforce that disability is a human rights issue. For example, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities is a global foundational block for laying out the rights of persons with disabilities. It has been translated into graphics and into several languages, including sign languages and local languages, and has influenced the global Sustainable Development Goals.

She stressed the power of partnerships and of building the evidence base. The disability community itself needs to make sure that no one is left behind, including persons with intellectual, episodic and invisible disabilities.

“The time is now—we are at the tipping point in history where we can really make a difference.”

by Charlotte McClain-Nhlapo, Global Disability Advisor for the World Bank

Breakout sessions

1. Inclusive economy and job market

“Every time we fail to match an educated and skilled worker with a job opening, our economy loses—Canada loses. We lose great ideas, dedicated employees, and we lose opportunity.”

by Deputy Minister Chantal Maheu, Employment and Social Development Canada

Maureen Haan, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Canadian Council on Rehabilitation and Work, talked about ways to speed up cultural change and increase employment opportunities for persons with disabilities. She said that business leaders need help in looking to the future and knowing what kinds of talent they need to reach their goals. Employers also need tools to analyze skill gaps and to reach out to non-traditional pools of talent. Employment success requires: internships and mentorships for persons with disabilities; recognition of talent and support for career advancement; and training for human resource professionals on disability issues in the areas of accommodation and accessibility. This requires employers to think differently.

According to the 2017 Canadian Survey on Disability, among persons with disabilities aged 25 to 64 years not employed and not in school, 645,000 had potential for paid employment in an inclusive labour market.

Participants highlighted the following key points in their small group discussions:

Changing attitudes

Employer discrimination is still one of the main barriers to employment. Media campaigns or organizational champions are ideas that should be explored to help Canadian employers develop a more open attitude towards persons with disabilities.

Participants cited AMI and TVO’s award-winning documentary series, Employable Me, as a promising practice. Compelling stories about talented individuals with a disability in the workplace can raise awareness of potential employers.

Changing systems

Participants discussed how policies in the government and private sectors can result in more persons with disabilities getting and keeping jobs. Suggestions included:

Investing to increase employment

Participants discussed ways for new investments to create employment opportunities, including:

Developing a national employment strategy

Federal/provincial/territorial governments should take an active leadership role and work together to develop a strategy to improve employment opportunities for persons with disabilities. A strategy could include:

“We have to find a way to integrate personal accommodation into broader organizational policies.”

by a participant

2. Financial security

Al Etmanski of the Planned Lifetime Advocacy Network talked about the Registered Disability Savings Plan and the importance of financial security in inclusion of persons with a disability. Many Canadians with disabilities are working poor and often they live alone, putting them at risk of dropping out of the labour market. Income security benefits can be very complex and difficult to access, with differing eligibility, generosity and limits for asset testing across provinces and territories. He suggested that it would be possible to design a successful national program to end poverty for persons with disabilities, similar to the Guaranteed Income Supplement for Canadian seniors. He identified a number of areas for consideration, including:

“People with disabilities should feel financially secure and encouraged when they seek opportunities to fully participate in society.”

by a participant

Participants said there is an urgent need to increase financial security for persons with disabilities in Canada. They came up with ideas to help lift the most vulnerable groups out of poverty and reduce employment discrimination.

Attitude shift

Persons with disabilities need to be viewed as important contributors to Canada’s social, economic and cultural fabric. Attitudes need to be changed to move disability issues away from the deficit/burden/charity model. Attitude change could be achieved through initiatives emphasizing ability, including:

Removing barriers within existing programs

When governments review benefit and income support programs for persons with disabilities, they should:

Encouraging federal, provincial and territorial discussions on poverty among persons with disabilities in Canada

Participants stressed the importance of governments working together to reduce poverty among persons with disabilities, for example, through a national action plan to improve the coordination of benefits and income supports. They also discussed the need to consider overlooked groups, such as Indigenous persons with disabilities.

Involving the disability community

Participants discussed the role of advisory groups in consulting the disability community about gaps and policy responses. For example, the Disability Advisory Committee, which advises the Canada Revenue Agency, provided the disability community’s perspectives on improvements to the Disability Tax Credit.

3. Human rights and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities

Steven Estey is with the Council of Canadians with Disabilities and is a Senior Fellow at Syracuse University. He talked about his early involvement in the international movement to advance disability rights, the development of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) and its ratification. Mr. Estey welcomed the Accessible Canada Act as a strong first step, but stressed that there remain many barriers to full inclusion in existing and emerging legal frameworks, and throughout Canadian society.

He also stressed that legal frameworks are important, but will not change society on their own. The disability community must be involved in developing policies and legislation.

“This is our moment to identify and explore collaborative strategies that could build on potential opportunities started by the Accessible Canada Act and the CRPD.”

by a participant

The discussion covered challenges in the areas of transportation, language, communication, employment and legal capacity. Participants focused on key strategies to advance the inclusion and rights of persons with disabilities, including:

Communicating about the Accessible Canada Act

Participants agreed on the need to build on momentum created by the Act to create a broader culture change so that no Canadian is left behind. A communication plan was recommended to raise awareness of the Act and give persons with disabilities a say in its implementation.

Responding to the CRPD

Participants recommended responding to the international call to look beyond social assistance to improve independence and inclusion for persons with disabilities by:

Participants stressed that all legal frameworks should consider the additional barriers a person with a disability may experience, such as poverty, racism, sexism, or cultural and historical barriers.

4. Social inclusion and intersectionality

Bonnie Brayton, DisAbled Women’s Network (DAWN) Canada, and Neil Belanger, BC Aboriginal Network on Disability Society, co-presented on incorporating intersectionality into disability issues. The unique identity of every person with a disability must be considered, which means considering, among other things, their gender, race, culture and religion.

“Through the process of trying to learn and understand the role of other elements, you might be able to engage more effectively and make a real plan.”

by a participant

Participants agreed that we must find ways to support diverse persons with disabilities. Some suggestions from participants:

Sharing real-life stories about persons with disabilities

To help raise awareness, shift attitudes and inspire action, find innovative ways to share stories about persons with disabilities from diverse backgrounds and the barriers that they face.

Building understanding of inclusion and intersectionality

Governments, disability organizations and other institutions should clarify what intersectionality means in practice by working with diverse groups of persons with disabilities and including them in developing strategies and tools. Participants stressed the need for more meaningful participation from diverse groups on boards and committees and in meetings.

Disaggregating data

To develop more responsive policies, governments and organizations should disaggregate (break down) data to create a more representative picture of the challenges faced by groups of persons with disabilities. The Canadian Survey on Disability could be strengthened to focus on the intersection of race, class and gender with disability and be expanded to include Indigenous people living on reserve and people living in collective dwellings.

5. Mobilizing partners

Presenters Kory Earle of People First of Canada and Lenore MacAdam of the National Inclusion Advisory Council, Deloitte Canada talked about how their organizations became leaders in advocating for the rights of persons with disabilities in the public and private sectors. They noted that it is challenging to identify and mobilize partners, but they have found it possible.

“If you want to go fast, go alone, if you want to go far, go together.”

by Charlotte McClain-Nhlapo, Global Disability Advisor for the World Bank

Participants highlighted successes in crossing jurisdictional lines, including breakthroughs in the publishing and transportation sectors, and community involvement in developing the Accessible Canada Act. The following key areas were mentioned byparticipants:

Improving technology

Technology improvements are needed to allow persons with disabilities to communicate and access information. Participants were excited about product features like Microsoft Surface screen and Apple’s voice control. These products will make it easier to interact and create partnerships outside of the disability community. Progress in product development would be faster with more persons with disabilities involved in design and testing of products.

Promoting inclusive participation

Inclusion happens through participation in education, employment, and in decision-making processes, between individuals and groups focused on disability issues. The Federal Accessibility Legislation Alliance is a promising example of a step forward in collaboration. It includes a wide range of national and regional disability organizations in the decision-making process. However, participants stressed it needed to go further.

Recognizing and rewarding collaborative success

Participants talked about finding ways to recognize leaders and organizations that facilitate partnerships and inclusion, for example, by working with chambers of commerce.

In keeping with the Marrakesh Treaty, the Government of Canada has worked with other sectors to make books in accessible formats (such as braille and audiobooks) more available. Participants cited this collaboration as a best practice in mobilizing partners.

What we can do now

The Summit closed by asking participants what could be done to make things better right now. Here are the immediate actions suggested:

Inclusive economy

Financial security

Stakeholders, including all levels of government, need to work together to explore ways to improve financial security for persons with disabilities.

Human rights and CRPD

Provide opportunities for disability organizations and other rights-based advocacy groups to connect virtually or in person to exchange information, best practices and ideas for the full inclusion of persons with disabilities in all sectors, and to coordinate advocacy efforts.

Social inclusion and intersectionality

Create an information hub that is easy to access and navigate to exchange information and deepen understanding of the available programs, emerging models and success stories of social inclusion.

Mobilizing partners

Provide initial funding and supports for academics, the private sector, governments, disability organizations and other organizations to exchange ideas and analysis. Create channels for this, for example, Facebook, GCcollab, Federal Accessibility Legislation Alliance, an information hub and websites.


All Canadians benefit from a more inclusive Canada and everyone has a role in shaping it. Participants expressed a shared determination to build on the current momentum and to make the most of opportunities to eliminate barriers for persons with disabilities; to ensure that the disability community has a seat at the table; and to build a Canada that is inclusive by design.

Annex: National disability summit agenda

Day 1: Thursday, May 9, 2019, 8:00 am to 5:00 pm

8:00am to 9:00am: Registration and continental breakfast
9:00am to 9:45am: Welcome and context-setting

9:45am to 10:30am: Armchair discussion: Creating a culture of inclusiveness

10:30am to 11:00am: Break
11:00am to 12:00am: Panel: Taking stock

12:00am to 1:00pm: Lunch
1:00pm to 1:30pm: Keynote: Moving from accommodation to inclusion

1:30pm to 1:50pm: Introduction to breakout sessions
1:50pm to 3:05pm:

3:05pm to 3:35pm: Break
3:35pm to 5:00pm

5:00pm: Adjournment

Day 2: Friday, May 10, 2019, 8:30 am to 3:00 pm

8:00 am to 8:30 am: Continental breakfast
8:30 am to 9:15 am: Agenda review and breakout session share-backs
9:15 am to 10:15 am: Panel: Disruptive thinking

10:15 am to 10:45 am: Break
10:45 am to 12:00 am: Breakout sessions: Mobilizing partners from across sectors

12:00 am to 1:00 pm: Lunch
1:00 pm to 1:30 pm: Keynote: International perspective and experiences in partnerships on disability and inclusion issues

1:30 pm to 2:00 pm: Discussion: Where to from here?

2:00 pm to 2:30 pm: Closing remarks

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