There remains a major problem with accessibility in Canada.
It is still largely thought of in terms of situations, rather than people. The result is that many people with disabilities are unable to benefit from the changes supposedly being made on their behalf. Making Canada more accessible benefits everyone, and to achieve this, we must put people first.
Accessibility is trendy in Canada.
It has become a buzzword to drop in political speeches, is one of the leading topics in community design, and no discussion of Canadians values is complete without mentioning it.
It even gets its own nationally proclaimed week.
May 29 to June 4 was National AccessAbility Week, an occasion marked to promote accessibility and celebrate efforts to make communities more inclusive.
And to be sure, there are victories to celebrate.
What people are reading
There is growing awareness that accessibility is not merely about ramps and curb cuts — the longtime symbols of the issue — but a multi-dimensional issue that extends to attitudes, information and the interaction of all the above.
Policymakers are also taking accessibility more seriously.
The Accessible Canada Act came into effect in 2019, while in 2021, B.C. became the latest province to adopt provincial accessibility legislation.
While these are steps in the right direction, there remains a major problem with how accessibility is approached in Canada.
It is still largely thought of in terms of discrete situations — an uncaptioned video here or a branch in the middle of the sidewalk there — not people or the fundamental reasons they face societal barriers.
Organizations have plans to create accessible workplaces, yet do not even have someone with a disability working for them or on their board.
Universities have access and inclusion departments, and equality is a hot topic in classrooms, yet thousands of Canadians with disabilities cannot afford post-secondary education.
Event planners have accessibility protocols for seating, eating and greeting, yet little outreach is done to ensure people with disabilities can get to the event.
We are stuck in a routine of mechanically ticking off boxes, proclaiming a job well done and then sitting back and waiting for disabled persons to show up.
That is not going to cut it.
After years of facing legislated discrimination, ableist attitudes and living in a society that kept them locked in institutions, people with disabilities are not going to become fully included in their communities just because someone ticked off an accessibility checklist or created a nifty gadget.
What is needed more than any innovation, renovation or consultation is reframing our thinking so that people come first and are actually there to benefit from changes that can create greater access in our communities.
This means a larger focus on policies and initiatives that place persons with disabilities in jobs, help them afford post-secondary education, connect them with affordable housing and support them if they are struggling.
Of particular concern is poverty, which impacts Canadians with disabilities at a much greater rate than non-disabled Canadians.
No matter the changes made to built environments, technology, attitudes or information, disabled Canadians — or anyone, for that matter — cannot reach their potential when they must dedicate their time and energy to just getting by.
After all, how can someone build their skills, employment credentials and pursue their dreams when they cannot afford tuition or quality housing and have an empty stomach keeping them up each night?
Freeing people from poverty will free them to tackle their goals, develop their abilities and give more to their communities.
Across Canada, disability assistance rates need to be increased, clawbacks must be reduced and the Canada Disability Benefit — promised by the Liberal government in its 2020 throne speech but so far undelivered — must come into effect.
Persons with disabilities must also have a greater share of leadership positions: as policymakers, board members, executives and educators — not just members of powerless consultative bodies thrown together by others for inclusion points.
Like so much else, the access people with disabilities have to these positions, and the requirements necessary to fill them, are heavily limited primarily by stifling poverty, not by a lack of curb cuts or alternative text — as important as they still are.
Making Canada accessible — financially, physically or in any other sense — is becoming a pressing issue.
We have an aging population, and in the coming years, more Canadians than ever will start experiencing issues with mobility, vision, hearing and cognition.
An accessible Canada is one where we can all actively participate in our communities and fully apply our abilities.
Remember that everyone — including you and your loved ones — can become disabled at any time, no matter how young, healthy or cautious they are.
If that happens, will you want to live in a society where you are fully included or one where you are excluded and constantly encountering barriers?
Making Canada more accessible benefits everyone, and to achieve this, we must put people first.