Introduction: Accessibility strategy for the Public Service of Canada

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Persons with disabilities in Canada are valuable members of our communities and engaged, contributing citizens. This simple fact is too often lost in discussions about disability that focus instead on “special needs” and the adjustments that an individual may require in their everyday life in order to thrive. Persons with disabilities offer an important and valuable perspective, and their participation in all aspects of life is a robust component of community living and community-building that is integral to a highly functioning society.

Persons with disabilities are experts in their chosen fields and in their lived experiences. Too often we neglect this expertise, at our loss. In Canada, we pride ourselves on embracing diversity by celebrating the many ethnicities, cultures, languages and religions that make up our past and present. We also welcome the various gender expressions and sexual orientations within our communities.

But what about disability? Disability is another way that people live differently, view the world differently, experience the world differently, and express themselves differently. It’s a perspective that has significant value that we can learn from.

Canadians with disabilities are no small minority. More than 6 million Canadians over age 15 have one or more disabilities. They are family members, friends, neighbours and colleagues. Making sure they can participate and contribute, without barriers, means that we can make Canada better for all. As one participant in our consultations put it, “When you make something accessible, it helps everyone.”

It’s time that Canada considered disability as another facet of Canada’s diverse society.

The Prime Minister signalled his intention to make an accessible Canada a priority by mandating the Minister of Sport and Persons with Disabilities to develop federal accessibility legislation.

It was in the spirit of envisioning a truly accessible Canada that the focus also turned inward. The public service of Canada is the country’s largest employer, provides programs and services to 37 million Canadians, and procures more goods and services than any other entity in the country. These factors prompted us to ask the following:

Our findings in response to these questions indicated that the Government of Canada can do better. To that end, the Prime Minister:

The goal from the outset has been simple but monumental: to make Canada’s public service the most inclusive public service in the world.

We knew that consultation would be critical. We met with thousands of public servants across the country to hear their thoughts on how we could better include the expertise of persons with disabilities in our work as public servants.

Public servants with disabilities told us that:

We heard high levels of frustration regarding:

We also heard that public servants with disabilities:

From what we heard, it became clear that the public service can do a better job in all these areas.

We also received numerous thoughtful and comprehensive ideas on how to improve the public service for all. We heard how:

We developed the strategy around these ideas.

The public service should mirror the people it serves. Canadians with disabilities should see themselves reflected in the public service as policy-makers, researchers, analysts, providers of services, spokespeople and leaders.

We need to make sure that all the conditions are in place in the public service so that persons with disabilities can bring their talents to the forefront and not be prevented from providing their expertise in their service to Canada.

We heard that the public service needs to shift its culture from being an environment in which employees with disabilities feel they are a “problem” to one in which persons with disabilities are seen as integral members of the public service team. We also heard that awareness must be heightened at the leadership level in order for a transformative culture shift to take place at all levels of the public service.

Of course, such a culture shift does not happen overnight. It takes deliberate and persistent action. And it takes a strategy. If we want a truly accessible Canada, we need to start in our own backyard as an employer and a service provider. With this strategy, we hope to make a truly accessible Canada a reality for this generation of Canadians.


The Accessible Canada Act

Beginning in July 2016, the Government of Canada consulted with more than 6,000 Canadians to find out what an accessible Canada meant to them.

These consultations informed the development of Bill C-81: An Act to Ensure a Barrier-Free Canada, which was tabled in June 2018. This bill seeks to:

  • enforce the identification, removal and prevention of accessibility barriers for organizations under federal jurisdiction, including employment, communications, procurement of goods, services and facilities, information and communications technology, the built environment, program and service design and delivery, and transportation
  • ensure the full participation in society of persons with physical, mental, intellectual, learning, communication or sensory impairments

Rights of persons with disabilities

Although the proposed Accessible Canada Act will lead to greater removal of barriers for persons with disabilities, Canada is already recognized globally for its support of diversity. It has developed a broad and evolving legislative and policy framework that supports various elements of diversity and inclusion, including:

  • the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms
  • the Canadian Human Rights Act
  • the Employment Equity Act
  • the Pay Equity Act
  • the Canadian Multiculturalism Act
  • the Official Languages Act

In addition, the Public Service Employment Act recognizes that Canada will “gain from a public service…that is representative of Canada’s diversity.” Employment equity is the foundation of a public service workforce that is as diverse as the people it serves. The purpose of the Employment Equity Act is to achieve equity in Canadian workplaces by correcting conditions of disadvantage in employment through identifying and removing barriers experienced by members of the four employment equity designated groups:

  • women
  • Indigenous peoples
  • persons with disabilities
  • members of visible minorities

Improved accessibility in the public service is also in line with Canada’s international obligations. As a party to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, Canada has committed to “ensure the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms by all persons with disabilities.” It has also recognized the central role that public service employment can play in fulfilling that commitment.

A diverse and inclusive public service

Current and past Clerks of the Privy Council, as heads of the public service, have recognized the importance of the public service reflecting and tapping into the richness of Canada’s diversity. Inclusion and diversity have been central to the ongoing process of public service renewal. The Beyond2020 framework focuses on making the public service agile, inclusive and equipped.

There has been much work in recent years to make the public service of Canada more diverse and inclusive:

This strategy builds on these initiatives.

Although this strategy focuses on persons with disabilities, it recognizes that:

  • individuals have multiple identity factors
  • persons with disabilities who belong to other equity-seeking groups, such as women and Indigenous people, may encounter additional barriers because of these intersecting identities

As this strategy is implemented, data will be collected on the impact of the strategy’s initiatives on persons with disabilities who also belong to other equity-seeking groups.

Persons with Disabilities Champions and Chairs Committee

OPSA’s work builds on work started by the Persons with Disabilities Champions and Chairs Committee. This committee:

  • comprises more than 110 Champions for Persons with Disabilities and Employee Network Chairs from departments and agencies across the public service
  • has a mandate to serve as a forum for networking and sharing best practices for employment equity among departments and agencies
  • is chaired by a Deputy Minister Champion for Federal Employees with Disabilities

The committee worked to identify barriers faced by persons with disabilities based on data from:

  • the Public Service Employee Survey
  • promotion rates published in the government’s annual reports on employment equity in the public service of Canada

The committee held a two-day design thinkingFootnote 1 workshop in November 2016. Over 70 attendees from 27 departments and agencies gathered to develop an accessibility strategy for the federal public service. One of the committee’s chief recommendations was that there be a central unit to prepare the public service for the new legislation.

The Persons with Disabilities Champions and Chairs Committee was actively involved in developing this strategy and will continue to be involved in its implementation.

Establishing the strategy

Setting up the Office of Public Service Accessibility

OPSA was established to prepare the public service to meet or exceed the requirements of the proposed Accessible Canada Act. OPSA has been given a mandate until March 2021 to:

  • develop and launch an accessibility strategy for the public service of Canada
  • provide expert advice, leadership and coordination to departments and agencies to implement the proposed act’s requirements
  • develop targeted initiatives to help improve workplace accessibility

Environmental analysis

OPSA conducted an analysis to determine where actions were most required to remove barriers in the areas identified in the legislation.

It then organized several events to hear from public servants how to make the public service more accessible and inclusive. These events included:

  • regional town halls in Vancouver, Montréal, Toronto, Edmonton and Halifax
  • two surveys on draft versions of the strategy, which received more than 3,500 responses (see Appendix G and Appendix H)
  • workshops with the Persons with Disabilities Chairs and Champions Committee
  • meetings with heads of functional communities (communications, human resources, young professionals, managers, real property and others), deputy ministers and their senior management committees
  • meetings with other governments at provincial and international levels
  • meetings with bargaining agents
  • meetings with disability and accessibility experts who work outside government across Canada and internationally

OPSA also:

  • conducted an environmental scan to identify best practices from other jurisdictions and organizations that are recognized leaders in the private and not-for-profit sectors (see Appendix F)
  • integrated findings from consultations that were held to develop the proposed Accessible Canada Act

These activities, with data from the Public Service Employee Survey and annual reports on employment equity in the public service, helped determine what principal challenges remain for:

  • employees with disabilities
  • clients of the government who have disabilities

Findings from OPSA’s environmental analysis were used to determine priority areas for action in the strategy.


Portrait of public servants with disabilities

According to Employment Equity in the Public Service of Canada for Fiscal Year 2017 to 2018, 5.3% (or 10,181) employees of the core public service identify as persons with disabilities. The representation varies between individual departments and agencies, from some who have no employees who identify as persons with disabilities to the Canadian Human Rights Commission and the International Joint Commission, where more than 20% of employees identify as persons with disabilities.

This report also shows that the separation rate for persons with disabilities (employees who leave the public service) is:

  • significantly higher than their workforce availability
  • higher than their internal representation levels

In addition:

  • the rate of promotions for employees with disabilities has decreased over the last 10 years
  • the percentage of employees with disabilities hired has continued to fall below their workforce availability

This data suggests that the public service has difficulty attracting and retaining persons with disabilities, despite the fact that 644,640 Canadians with disabilities could be potential candidates for work.Footnote 2

According to the 2018 Public Service Employee Survey:

  • rates of harassment are at 32% for employees who self-identify as having a disability, compared with 14% of those who do not self-identify (an 18% difference)
  • employees with disabilities identify their disability as being the main motive of the harassment
  • persons with disabilities report that the motive of the harassment is unfair treatment in 62% of cases, compared with 46% of employees without disabilities (a 16% difference)

The Privy Council Office’s Safe Workspaces report found that rates of harassment are higher for employees with disabilities in part because of problems with the accommodations process, which prevent employees with disabilities from fully participating and contributing in their workplace.

The figures for discrimination are similar, with 25% of employees with disabilities reporting discrimination, compared with 6% of employees without disabilities (a 19% difference).

Employees with disabilities also report barriers to accessibility as a significant source of stress.

Portrait of Canadians with disabilities

The 2017 Canadian Survey on Disability found that approximately one in five Canadians (6.2 million) aged 15 years and over had one or more disabilities that limited them in their daily activities:

  • approximately 13% of Canadians aged 15 to 24 had one or more disabilities
  • as the prevalence of disability increases with age, 38% of Canadians aged 65 and over had one or more disabilities

Disabilities related to mental health and learning disabilities are the most common types of disabilities among youths aged 15 to 24. Disabilities related to pain, mobility and flexibility were the most common disability types among seniors aged 65 and over. More than 4 in 10 Canadians with disabilities have a severe or very severe disability. Those with more severe disabilities:

  • often had lower rates of employment and lower income even when employed
  • were more likely to live in poverty

Canadians with disabilities face a number of barriers in their daily lives. Disability is by far the most common ground of discrimination in complaints to the Canadian Human Rights Commission, constituting 52% of the 1,129 complaints received in 2018.Footnote 3

Overview of the strategy

Vision and principles

Vision: To be the most accessible and inclusive public service in the world

Guiding principles

  • Nothing without us: persons with disabilities are involved in the design and implementation of the strategy
  • Collaboration: departments and agencies work in collaboration with each other, with bargaining agents, and with other public, private and not-for-profit organizations
  • Sustainability: the strategy prioritizes actions that will have an enduring impact
  • Transparency: the strategy is developed and implemented transparently, and departments and agencies will report openly and transparently on their efforts to remove barriers


Five goals were identified as being key to realize the vision:

  1. Improve recruitment, retention and promotion of persons with disabilities
  2. Enhance the accessibility of the built environment
  3. Make information and communications technology usable by all
  4. Equip public servants to design and deliver accessible programs and services
  5. Build an accessibility-confident public service

Each goal is accompanied by:

  • a description of the current situation
  • an articulation of the desired state
  • actions that can be taken government-wide and at the departmental or agency level

Finally, the strategy summarizes where the public service is expected to be regarding accessibility by 2021. The framework to track progress on results is in Appendix C.

Implementation and governance

The strategy is supported by a governance framework that involves senior leaders, subject matter experts from organizations responsible for policies and programs under the legislation, and public servants with disabilities:

  • the Deputy Minister Advisory Group
  • the Assistant Deputy Minister (ADM) Steering Committee
  • working groups that report to the ADM Steering Committee

OPSA has developed this strategy in conjunction with these groups. The roles and responsibilities for implementing the actions in the strategy appear in Appendix B.

OPSA will provide guidance to departments and agencies to support the strategy’s implementation (see Appendix D).

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