Editor’s note: This story was updated to change a reference to “low jobless rates” to “high jobless rates.”
TORONTO – The minister tasked with crafting laws to make Canada more accessible to people with disabilities says employment will be a key focus of her efforts.
Carla Qualtrough, Minister of Sport and Persons with Disabilities, says removing accessibility barriers will be crucial to tackling long-standing high jobless rates among the country’s disabled population.
Qualtrough says most aspects of the anticipated Canadians with Disabilities Act will address employment issues in some way, citing examples such as targeted programs or improving building standards that might make future workplaces more accessible.
Data has long shown that Canadians with disabilities are greatly under-employed compared to their non-disabled counterparts, with multiple studies finding that only half of disabled Canadians have found work.
Qualtrough says details of the Canadians with Disabilities Act are still in the works, adding a series of 18 consultations across the country will play a key part in shaping the new laws.
She says she hopes to have the act before parliament by this time next year.
The prospective act, which disability rights advocates have been seeking for years, would govern areas that fall under federal jurisdiction. Major examples include financial services such as banks, telecommunications, and interprovincial transportation.
Only Ontario and Manitoba currently have provincial accessibility legislation on the books, though other provinces including Nova Scotia, British Columbia, Saskatchewan and Newfoundland have all expressed interest in addressing accessibility strategies. Qualtrough said the federal act has to be written to work alongside existing provincial laws without encroaching on their areas of jurisdiction.
The sweeping legislation, which may tackle everything from building codes to customer service standards, all have potential to improve Canada’s stubbornly low unemployment figures for people with disabilities, she said.
“Everything impacts employment,” Qualtrough said in an interview. “If you don’t have a building environment that’s accessible, you can’t work there. If you don’t have the transportation that gets you there, you can’t work there. If you don’t have technology that’s accessible, you can’t work there. All roads lead back to employment in some way. So in that regard, absolutely employment will be impacted quite significantly by this law.”
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Two years ago, Statistics Canada released figures putting the employment rate for disabled Canadians at 49 per cent, compared to 79 per cent for the general population. An online poll commissioned by CIBC last month reached a similar conclusion, saying only half of respondents living with a disability have a full- or part-time job.
Qualtrough said employment barriers were a recurring theme in the 17 consultations already held across Canada in a bid to seek input on the new act. The last such session is slated to take place in Toronto this week.
The issue has long been recognized as a pressing concern for the disabled community, but some advocates are skeptical that it can be handled through legislation.
Joe Dale, executive director of the Ontario Disability Employment Network, said laws can only go so far towards including people with disabilities in the workforce.
The sort of change required is more rooted in attitudes and cultures rather than government rules, he said, adding laws can’t necessarily do much to dispel misconceptions about people with disabilities or argue the business case for exploring a largely untapped talent pool.
“To build legislation that has an employment focus where one of the biggest barriers is attitudinal and bias is a tough thing to do in legislature and it’s a tougher thing to sell,” he said. “Typically all these types of things end up getting people to the point of interview … but it can’t necessarily guarantee they’re going to get through the door.”
Qualtrough said Ottawa is keenly aware of the business advantages of hiring people with disabilities, saying research has shown such candidates are frequently well educated, inclined to remain loyal to an employer and highly innovative after years of navigating societal systems that can leave them at a disadvantage.
She said the consultation sessions have illustrated the need to take a direct approach with the new act and think beyond simply accommodating would-be employees.
“We really need to change the conversation around disability generally from one of need and inabilities and retrofitting and accommodation to one of inclusion,” she said. “It’s time we started looking at people as contributing members of society instead of burdens on society.”
Another key message to emerge from the consultations, she said, is the need for the federal act to have strong enforcement powers.
Canadians have been clear that an act without teeth will fall short of the mark, she said, adding the government has not yet decided how enforcement mechanisms would look.
Qualtrough did not rule out the idea of introducing an accessibility commissioner who would oversee complaints related to the new law.
Nor did she eliminate the idea of maintaining the current system, which sees complaints of discrimination based on disability come before provincial and federal human rights commissions.
She acknowledged that the current system leaves something to be desired.
“The fundamental flaw with our current system is that it’s for the most part reactive,” she said. “You have to wait until someone’s discriminated against, you have to wait until someone’s denied … a service, a house, whatever.
“Then people swoop in and two to three years later we tell you, ‘you’re right, you shouldn’t have been denied.'”
Eliminating that flaw is one of several demands made by Barrier-Free Canada, an advocacy organization that has been crusading for federal legislation.
“(The act) should not simply incorporate the existing procedures for filing discrimination complaints with the Canadian Human Rights Commission or under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, as these are too slow and cumbersome, and can yield inadequate remedies,” the organization writes on its list of principles.
Other demands include strict timelines for the country to comply with the new laws and a call for all provinces to enact accessibility legislation of their own.
Qualtrough said it’s too early to speculate on timelines or other particulars of the act before the law is drafted. She said she hopes that process will be complete by the end of the year.