Consulting with Canadians on accessibility legislation
In the past, many Canadians with disabilities could not participate in consultations due to their inaccessible design. In 2016-2017, the Government of Canada held the most accessible consultation ever done in Canada, with engagement of over 6,000 Canadians both in-person and online. Canadians had access to sign language interpretation, accessible facilities, and a host of other accommodations. Canadians with disabilities were able to communicate in the way that worked best for them.
As Canadians, we all benefit from accessibility when we and our family members, friends, neighbours, classmates and co-workers are able to fully participate and contribute in our communities and workplaces without barriers. These barriers, however, continue to exist today and limit the social, political and economic inclusion of persons with disabilities across Canada.
Currently, one in five Canadians over the age of 15 has a disability, and that number will likely grow as the population ages. We cannot continue to ignore barriers to accessibility. This is why, in the summer of 2016, we began asking Canadians all across the country: “What does an accessible Canada mean to you?” We knew that we needed to take an innovative approach to consultations – that is why we focused on the disability community’s guiding principle of “Nothing about us, without us” when planning each activity.
More than 6,000 Canadians participated in-person and online. Throughout the consultation, there were 18 in-person public meetings across the country supported by local leaders from the disability community. These meetings were made fully accessible for a range of disabilities and included English and French real-time captioning, American Sign Language and Langue des signes québécoise, and intervener services for participants who are deaf-blind. In northern Canada, Inuit sign language was also provided.
The online consultation set equally high standards of accessibility. Consultation questions were available in Braille, large print, e-text, audio and sign language. Participants were also invited to share their ideas by email, phone or TTY or by sending audio or video recordings.
We worked hand-in-hand with disability organizations and national Indigenous organizations across Canada to ensure that everyone who wanted to participate had the opportunity to do so. Through the consultations, Canadians from across our country shared their personal stories—their challenges, successes, hopes and aspirations. We heard from youth who wanted equal access to education, we heard from parents with dreams of their children being self-sufficient, and we heard from young adults frustrated with their ability to access public services. Yet there was one common theme: They each faced a barrier that limited their ability to be fully included.
Since the consultation, the Government of Canada has introduced Bill C-81, the proposed Accessible Canada Act, to help identify, remove, and prevent barriers to accessibility. As the Government of Canada moves towards implementing Bill C-81, it will continue its commitment to innovative consultations that are based on the principle of “Nothing about us, without us.”
What Makes Your Project Innovative?
The consultations strove to honour the disability community’s principle of “nothing about us without us.” It was made clear: Canadians with disabilities must be consulted from the outset, regularly, and meaningfully, not only in the development of priorities, services and policies, but also to ensure the new legislation is successful. Canadians with disabilities will never again be excluded from decisions that affect their lives.
One Ottawa participant commented: “Normally, when I go to events, I need to worry about whether I can participate, enter the room, have space for my scooter or sit at the table. I have to call in advance and make back-up plans and my own arrangements. With these consultations, I didn’t have to question or worry. They were accessible and I felt welcome.”
A participant from Whitehorse said: “This consultation was the first time in more than 20 years that I was able to use my language of choice, Langue des signes quebecoise, to communicate with my government."
What is the current status of your innovation?
Just over a year after the Accessible Canada consultation ended, the Government of Canada tabled Bill C-81, the proposed Accessible Canada Act, in the House of Commons. C-81 is now before the Senate of Canada. C-81 is framework legislation that will enable the Government of Canada to implement new accessibility regulations in 7 priority areas identified by the disability community: employment, procurement, delivery of programs and services, the built environment, transportation, information and communication technology, and communication (not ICT).
Since the Accessible Canada consultation, the Government of Canada has continued engagement with the disability community. The Office for Disability Issues at Employment and Social Development Canada developed “Planning Inclusive and Accessible Events: A Handbook for Federal Public Servants.” This guide, and its lessons learned, have been used on several occasions when planning accessible engagement activities with people with disabilities.
Collaborations & Partnerships
From the top, the Minister and her office provided ongoing leadership through their commitment to the disability community. Leaders in the disability community provided ongoing advice to government officials about the accessibility needs of their community. Provincial and territorial partners supported the process of finding accessible venues and vendors in their jurisdictions, and passing along lessons learned from their own consultations.
Users, Stakeholders & Beneficiaries
Over 4,300 people participated online and over 200 people sent letters, emails, videos or phone. Over 90 reports were provided by disability organizations, unions, businesses and other levels of government. Over 1,400 people participated in 18 meetings across Canada. 115 youth attended a one-day Youth Forum with the Minister. These young leaders with disabilities worked together to share their ideas. Over 110 experts attended thematic roundtables hosted by the Minister on disability issues.
Results, Outcomes & Impacts
Following the consultation, the Government of Canada released the report “Creating new federal accessibility legislation: What we learned from Canadians.” It outlines the public’s expectations of what an Accessible Canada means and identified priorities for the new legislation.
The report was used to draft Bill C-81, the Accessible Canada Act, which was introduced in Parliament in June 2018. This legislation would enable the creation, implementation and enforcement of new accessibility regulations and standards. Since C-81 was tabled, consultation with the disability community continues so as to ensure alignment with their priorities.
The consultation also had a key impact on officials. Accessibility is now considered at a higher degree in all activities planned by the Office for Disability Issues and the Accessibility Secretariat.
The Government of Canada is planning how to evaluate the impact of the proposed Act, taking into consideration lessons learned from the consultation.
Challenges and Failures
Organizing a cross-country consultation is difficult because of the wide geography of Canada. For example, officials encountered barriers finding accessible venues, especially in northern communities. Often, venues would be advertised as accessible, but on further inspection, would have significant barriers. As a result, officials needed to arrive on site several days early to mitigate any risks that could impede the participation.
There were also challenges ensuring that each engagement activity could offer the appropriate level of accommodation. This meant working with new vendors across the country to ensure that there were accommodations such as instant translation, sign language interpretation, and Communication Access Realtime Translation (CART). These services also added significantly to the cost of the consultations.
Thanks to the leadership of the government, officials were granted flexibility to ensure that the consultation met the accessibility needs of participants.
Conditions for Success
From the beginning, it was understood that the consultations would only be successful if people with disabilities were involved in their design and implementation, therefore upholding the principle of “Nothing about us, without us.”
The leadership of then Minister of Sport and People with Disabilities, the Honourable Carla Qualtrough, empowered officials to be creative and flexible when planning the consultations. The Minister worked hard to create relationships between her office and members of the disability community. Because of her investment in this trusting relationship, stakeholders felt that they could voice their concerns and opinions to the Minister.
In addition, this leadership pushed officials to consider accessibility not only in the consultation, but also in all aspects of future work. As a person with a disability herself, Minister Qualtrough is a champion for accessibility that encouraged officials to implement a consultation that was innovative and inclusive.
Within the Office for Disability Issues and the Accessibility Secretariat, lessons learned from the consultation have been used on an ongoing basis. Since the consultation, the department has continued to support the Government of Canada on improving accessibility for Canadians. This includes the introduction of Bill C-81, the proposed Accessible Canada Act. If passed, C-81 would create a framework for regulations and standards development in the seven priority areas that were identified during the consultation.
The department has used lessons learned from the consultation in developing training sessions on the parliamentary and regulatory processes, planning Ministerial engagements with people with disabilities, and consulting stakeholder writ large.
Lessons learned from the consultation will continue to be used as C-81 moves to the implementation phase in the coming months and years, including involving disability stakeholders in the new entities the Act would create.
A Youth Forum participant in Ottawa noted an important lesson for all those that were involved in the consultation: “[…]the burden should not be just on persons with disabilities to take 'leadership roles'; it should be the position of people who are already in power, politicians and government, to start pushing for change.”
Planning accessible events is not easy, but it is easier if you involve the people that are most knowledgeable about barriers – that is, people with disabilities. Hearing first hand from them, from the beginning of planning right until the implementation of a project, provides innovative perspectives that lead to accessible outcomes.
Every participant was clear: It is not acceptable for Canadians with disabilities to be excluded from any aspect of life. Regardless of age, gender or where they live, we learned that participants share many similar ideas about what an accessible Canada means to them and how to achieve it.
The main lesson learned from the consultation was that we all have a role to play in fostering experiences that are inclusive and accessible for all, especially persons with disabilities. We heard what Canadians want in the legislation. We heard the call for the Government of Canada to be a leader. We heard the desire for a principled approach and widespread systemic change. We heard the need for complementary programming and supports.
The Office for Disability Issues at Employment and Social Development Canada developed “Planning Inclusive and Accessible Events: A Handbook for Federal Public Servants.” This guide, and its lessons learned, have been used on several occasions when planning accessible engagement activities with people with disabilities and can be found in the attached supporting files.