Senate committee votes to strengthen federal accessibility law

A Senate committee proposed changes to Canada’s first federal accessibility law Thursday that members of the disability community said addressed some of the most pressing concerns about the legislation, though some worried the bill may still be too weak to be effective.

Nearly a hundred disability organizations and advocacy groups had been calling on the committee to introduce major changes to Bill C-81, also known as the Accessible Canada Act, arguing it lacked teeth.

Following a detailed hearing, the Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology voted to propose the government include a timeline in the bill that would require it to be fully implemented by 2040 rather than leaving the date open-ended.

“We are dealing with a bill that is very important for Canada and is going to make our country a better country,” said Sen. Donna Dasko. “The issue of a timeline has come up many times … this is an important thing, this gives accountability to the bill, this gives a goal to the actions being undertaken.”

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The committee also voted to recognize various forms of sign language as an official language of deaf Canadians and see it included among government services. That amendment also included Indigenous sign languages among those that should be acknowledged.

The committee’s proposed amendments will now go to the full Senate for a vote.

David Lepofsky, a long-time disability rights advocate, said the full impact of the committee’s proposed amendments won’t be known until they’ve been formally incorporated into the act. He noted that the House of Commons could vote to reject any steps the Senate may suggest to strengthen the law.

But he said the committee’s moves signal hope the existing bill, which he had previously described as “inadequate,” could be improved.

“We do know that the amendments do, to some extent, strengthen this bill,” Lepofsky said. “Any improvement is welcomed.”

Lepofsky said adopting a timeline would mark a significant step forward, adding that doing so would bring the federal government in line with the three Canadian provinces that have put accessibility legislation on their books.

Senators on the committee said during Thursday’s meeting that the absence of a timeline was the unifying issue that emerged from hours of testimony from disability rights groups.

It was also one of the core issues activists raised in an open letter to the committee last year that detailed concerns about the power and scope of the proposed law. The October 2018 letter also said the bill should enshrine American and Quebec sign language as the official language of the deaf community.

While the committee tackled those concerns, it did not address others raised in the letter signed by 95 organizations including the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, National Network for Mental Health  and March of Dimes Canada,

The letter had criticized the bill for granting the government broad powers to exempt people from the new rules, spreading enforcement over numerous agencies, and opting not to withhold federal funding from organizations that don’t comply with accessibility measures.

Advocates also raised concerns about the way the bill was written. The bill repeatedly uses “may” rather than “shall” or “must” when describing initiatives, meaning the government is empowered to take actions but never required to follow through on them, they argued. An amendment brought before the committee addressed that concern but was defeated.

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The Council of Canadians with Disabilities, who helped spearhead the letter, focused on what it viewed as positive developments from the committee vote.

“These proposed reforms did not get much traction at the time (the bill was passed through the House of Commons), So today, we are very pleased to learn that the Senate’s Social Affairs Committee has been more responsive to our calls for reform,” it said in a statement.

But Gabrielle Peters, a Vancouver-based wheelchair user, expressed disappointment at the committee’s unwillingness to change the bill’s language from “may” to “must.”

Not addressing the issue of federal funding, she added, risks allowing governments and those supported by them to continue treating disability rights and accessibility as a perk rather than a basic human right.

“They keep using the word ‘historic,'” Peters said of the government. “Historic means you create legislation that will fundamentally shift the direction we continue to be on … (The Accessible Canada Act) is not … a historic document.”

The office of Accessibility Minister Carla Qualtrough did not respond to request for comment.

Michelle McQuigge, The Canadian Press

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