Carla Qualthrough, Ottawa’s minister responsible for Canadians with disabilities, announced a series of national discussions on the first national accessibility legislation. By Laurie MonsebraatenSocial justice reporter
Sat., Aug. 27, 2016
Carla Qualtrough, who is legally blind, grew up learning alternative ways of doing almost everything.
“When I was growing up, it was called accommodation. But today it’s called innovation,” said Qualtrough, 44, Canada’s federal minister of sport and first-ever minister responsible for people with disabilities.
The human rights lawyer, former Paralympian and world championship swimming medalist is helping Canadians think about disability in a new way as she crafts the country’s first national accessibility legislation.
Under the current legal framework, people with disabilities can only defend their rights once they have been ignored, a process the minister called “exhausting, expensive and unfairly burdensome.”
“When systems and spaces are accessible, every Canadian wins. Barriers are bad for business,” Qualtrough told a gathering last week at Whitby’s Abilities Centre, where she announced a series of national round-tables and town hall meetings this fall.
The government has received more than 700 submissions since online consultations on the new law began in July. Canadians have until February 2017 to give their views.
Qualtrough will report on the consultations next spring and said she hopes to have legislation ready to introduce in the Commons by the end of 2017 or early 2018.
The MP from Delta, B.C., said she was thrilled when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gave her the double-barreled portfolio encompassing her two life passions and told her to “go out and change the world.”
“No pressure,” she quipped. “The creation of this cabinet position makes it very clear that people with disabilities are important to our government and that we deserve to be considered in every decision around the cabinet table.”
Just as Ginger Rogers once noted how she had to perform the same artistic feats as her dance partner, Fred Astaire but backwards and in high heels people with disabilities are masters of innovation, Qualtrough said.
“Imagine the creativity that persons with disabilities must employ every day to navigate buildings, products and services that were not designed with their needs in mind,” she said.
“Development of creative products, ways of doing things and ultimately a different way of looking at the world” are key to Canada’s quest for accessibility, she added.
Qualtrough, who has worked in human rights at both the federal and provincial levels and served as staff for several Liberal cabinet ministers on Parliament Hill between 1999 and 2005, knows her way around Ottawa. But the busy mother of four, including two teenaged stepchildren and her own 6- and 3-year-old kids, admits she hesitated when asked to run for office a year and a half ago.
She’s glad she took the plunge.
“It’s a very interesting time in the evolution of disability rights,” she said. For the government to create a cabinet position and to give it to someone with a disability “it’s a big deal,” she added.
Toronto lawyer David Lepofsky, co-chair of Barrier-Free Canada, which called for a national law during last year’s election, is also excited about Qualtrough’s appointment and her mandate.
“It’s great that the federal government is going to do a national consultation on this to hear from people,” said Lepofsky, who is also blind.
Canada is late to the table when it comes to accessibility legislation. The United States has had the Americans with Disabilities Act since 1990. The landmark Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act was introduced in 2005, with a goal of making the province fully accessible by 2025.
Ontario’s experience will help guide the federal law, Qualtrough said. But she will also be looking at how other provinces and countries legislate accessibility and learn from their successes and shortcomings.
One of Qualtrough’s main goals is to develop a common definition for disability that would apply to all federal laws and regulations and eventually be adopted by the provinces.
“Let’s try and harmonize our approach to disability across the federal government. That would be huge for Canadians.”
Carla Qualthrough, Ottawa’s minister responsible for Canadians with disabilities, speaks with youth during a round-table panel at the Abilities Centre in Whitby, Ont. on August 23, 2016.
Qualtrough expects public consultations, the country’s first national conversation about accessibility, will provide valuable input for Ottawa’s legislation and other federal programs such as the Canada Pension Plan Disability Benefit, the Disability Tax Credit and the Registered Disability Savings Plan.
It may even show provincial and municipal governments where they are coming up short.
“We know we are going to hear way more than what is going to be covered by the law. And that is intentional,” she said.
The consultation may also bolster calls for a basic or guaranteed income for people with disabilities, said Qualtrough, who is personally in favour of the idea.
“It’s something that could certainly come out of this not as an actual program but a direction that Canadians want the government to look into,” she added.
But can we afford to make Canada more accessible and boost support for people with disabilities?
“I don’t think we can afford not to,” Qualtrough said. “With our labour shortages and our aging population . . . and all the challenges in society. If we don’t get this right, we are missing a huge opportunity.”