Canadian Innovations Take ‘Dis’ Out of Disability

Published December 2, 2014

Scott Jones prepares to rappel down a Halifax office tower in October as part of a fundraiser for Easter Seals. Canadian-made assistive technology is helping the disabled break down barriers like never before. (INGRID BULMER/Staff)

Imagine going about your day and then coming up against an impassable wall. You find another route, but are stopped by another wall. Walls, it seems, spring up everywhere you go.

For many people with disabilities, walls and figuring out how to get around them are very much part of their lives.

Canada has made significant strides to break down barriers for people with disabilities, but too many obstacles remain. This International Day of Persons with Disabilities is a good time to reflect on Canadas successes in accessibility, particularly related to this years theme, Sustainable Development: The Promise of Technology and what this means for Canadians with disabilities.

In terms of assistive technologies, Canadian innovations are world-renowned. Notably, research centres and companies such as Toronto Rehab, Bloorview Research Institute, Neil Squire, and Kinova are developing technologies that were the stuff of science fiction just a few decades ago.

When I meet with colleagues in countries like Mexico and Australia, they are quick to mention Bloorview. Its not a surprise considering the advancements this Toronto-based institute has made, such as communications devices that give voice to people who cannot speak or adaptations to power wheelchairs so that almost everyone can get out into the community.

At some point in the near future, people with visual or mobility disabilities will visit bank machines that recognize their needs and accommodate them accordingly, thanks to groundbreaking protocols currently developed at the Ontario College of Arts and Designs Inclusive Design Research Centre.

And now services and buildings in Ontario and Manitoba are becoming much more accessible due to their respective Accessibility Acts. Nova Scotia has established a panel to consider doing something similar.

One way of measuring a countrys advancements in disability is reviewing opportunities for active living. Canada is a leader here, too. Adaptive sports equipment such as hockey sledges and specialized wheelchairs for basketball, rugby players or racing, and a myriad of specialized equipment have helped Canada be a leader in para-sports.

As technology helps people become more active, other barriers sometimes become apparent. Most people enjoy getting out to the movies and other attractions, but people with disabilities who require an attendant found that even getting out to these events required two admissions one for themselves and one for their support person. Easter Seals Canadas Access 2 Entertainment card, which Cineplex Entertainment helped found, ensures people with disabilities no longer pay twice. Today, after 10 years in operation, the Access 2 Program will issue the 60,000th card.

On an even broader scale, the CRTC recently approved Bell Canada Enterprises proposal to establish a Broadcasting Accessibility Fund. This $6-million fund will support research and development aimed at ensuring the needs of people with disabilities are taken into consideration at the design stage of new media development.

The fund is optimistic that innovations will give more people with a wide range of disabilities access to TV programs and Internet content. Again, Canada is a leader here no other country has a similar fund dedicated to improving access to media.

One barrier, however, stubbornly remains. Despite many major corporations taking the lead in promoting and creating inclusive employment, too often job applications of people with disabilities are relegated to the not interested pile.

We know that people with disabilities tend to be highly motivated and reliable employees. Governments can play a helpful role in recognizing employers with progressive hiring practices through awards. Employers can also look to Canadian Business SenseAbility, chaired by David Onley, Ontarios former lieutenant governor, and the Canadian Association for Community Livings Ready Willing and Able initiative, which offer programs that help raise awareness and develop employment opportunities for people with special needs.

With so many walls tumbling down as a result of Canadian adaptive technologies, employers can lead the charge in dismantling one of the last remaining barriers for Canadians with disabilities decent employment opportunities. Its time we all see the ability in disability.

Max Beck is president and CEO of Easter Seals Canada. Dec. 3 is International Day for Persons with Disabilities (

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