Accessible Canada Act (ACA) enters first reading

Today was a historic day in Canada. No, not just because marijuana is about to become legal, but because the Trudeau Government also released for first reading the “Accessible Canada Act” (ACA) which seeks to codify and enforce accessibility standards for federal agencies and organizations.

It is perhaps an understatement to say that today is a big day to be a disabled Canadian. When I was younger, I was assured a national disability-focused act (like the Americans with Disabilities Act) would never be possible because of federalism – provinces would never consent to the federal government interfering in their business, even if it is for the greater good. But where many have failed before, Trudeau has now embarked on the long climb toward royal ascent with the ACA being submitted for first reading today.

The following are some of my scattered thoughts upon first read.

Make the AODA Great Again?

For Ontarians, reading through the ACA might feel a bit like reading a book you’ve already read – it is extremely similar to the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act. From the proposed standards development system to the escalating compliance model, the ACA looks like they quite literally took the AODA, crossed out the word “Ontario”, and called it a day. If you’ve read the AODA you already basically understand how the ACA is being proposed.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing because the AODA has had a bit of a head start, working on its methodology for the past 10 years. Not only that, but the AODA has been good enough that governments around the world are actively modeling their accessibility legislation around the AODA. There also appears to be an effort to improve upon the AODA plan with specific mention to centering efforts on increasing access within Indigenous communities, which is critical. So, on the whole, there is a lot to like here, especially on the clear language around how standards will be developed and enforced (something the AODA forgot to do for the first decade of its life…).

But did they learn from the AODA’s mistakes?

One of the biggest mistakes we made when launching the AODA was the WAY we developed accessibility standards and, unfortunately, it would appear the ACA is about to make the same mistake. Under the AODA, Standards Development Committees were composed of disabled people, stakeholders/affiliate organizations, and members of the affected private sector and together they would determine what constitutes ‘accessible’ and set up time lines to complete the work. To put it bluntly, this meant that nondisabled members of the private sector, the people who had the most to ‘lose’ if standards were rigorous, were left negotiating what did and did not constitute ‘accessible’. The result are standards that many in the public/private sector feel are too rigorous and many in the disabled community believe don’t go far enough. The obvious solution to this problem is that the standards development process should be two steps instead of one – first, disabled people and stakeholder/affiliate orgs should have been brought together to determine what constitutes accessibility and, secondly, private sector are then engaged to draft a plan of attack to achieve the ‘fully accessible’ dream proposed by the disabled people’s committee. Instead, the ACA proposes combined committees similar to the AODA and, again, those without disabilities will be given vote on what is and isn’t accessible.

What about compliance?

One proposed evolution of the AODA brought by the ACA is the promise of compliance measures from the get-go, opting for the escalating system now (allegedly) being employed by the AODA that first identifies noncompliance, works with orgs to help them get into compliance and uses fines to force compliance if an org is unwilling. Again, on the whole, this is a good thing but there is one oddity in WHO will be ensuring compliance under the ACA – namely, affected agencies will essentially be responsible for ensuring their own compliance. So, the CRTC will ensure compliance of their umbrella organizations, the CTA will ensure compliance of their umbrella organizations, and so on and so on. While this certainly makes sense, given that organizations like the CRTC and CTA are already ensuring compliance with other regulations, I worry that this means that compliance measures across the federal government may not be universally applied, depending wholly on how committed the individual agencies (or, perhaps more importantly, their leadership) are in moving forward the goals of universal accessibility.

A missed opportunity?

My biggest critique of the currently tabled ACA is that it appears to be a wholly inwardly focused legislation that tackles barriers within the federal government and underlying agencies. The result is that the experience of disability across the country will continue to vary from province to province. Whereas the bill to legalize marijuana requires provinces to (albeit) adapt to the bar set by the federal government, the ACA appears to allow provinces to continue working towards accessibility (or not…) in their own way and at their own pace. I was hopeful that the ACA would include a provision that required all provinces and territories to implement their own accessibility standards (however that may look) to ensure we are moving towards eliminating barriers coast to coast to coast. Unfortunately, the Trudeau government appears reluctant to open that can of worms and the result may be the ACA going down more as a small step along the road rather than the act that made Canada fully accessible to all its citizens and not just the nondisabled.

By Jeffrey Preston

Born with a rare neuromuscular myopathy, Jeff has spent his life dedicated to advocating for himself and others with disabilities. With a PhD in Media Studies from Western University, Jeff's research focuses on the representation of disability in popular and digital culture. Jeff is currently an Assistant Professor of Disability Studies at King's University College @ Western University in London, ON.