Malhotra and Lieffers: Assisted Dying? Let’s Talk About Accessible Living First

Published on: May 5, 2016 | Last Updated: May 5, 2016 6:53 AM EDT

Assisted dying debate may be overshadowing other important discussions.

Since the Supreme Court of Canada’s “Carter” decisionfinding the prohibition on assisted dying to be unconstitutional, disability rights advocates have
devoted considerable time and energy to debating and publicizing this multifaceted issue. Assisted dying is understandably a difficult and challenging matter for policymakers as it raises complex legal, ethical and religious questions. Finding complete consensus is likely impossible, both in society in general and within the disability community.

As we debate the issue of death, let’s not forget the ongoing matter of life with a disability in Canada. Assisted dying is an important and closely related conversation, but the current focus on this problem should not lead policymakers to forget the many other disability rights issues that create barriers for people on a daily basis.

As disability rights advocates who are neutral on assisted dying, we think it is important that public dialogue on disability should not happen exclusively through the prism of this one issue.

From taxation policy, to modernizing income support programs for the 21st century, to the need for a Canadians with Disabilities Act, there are numerous initiatives that could help remove the pernicious barriers that still limit people with disabilities in employment, transportation and beyond.

About 3.8 million adult Canadians reported having a disability in 2012, and many of us will become disabled over the course of our lives. Ensuring that people with disabilities are able to participate fully in society is a project that deserves our concern.

A federal Canadians with Disabilities Act could be modelled on the successful legislation enacted in 2005 in Ontario, the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act. By requiring the removal of barriers on a set timeline, it would fulfil the promise of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms with specific,
enforceable rights. It would also be consonant with Canada’s ratification of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. As the Council of Canadians with Disabilities and the Canadian Association for Community Living have argued, such a framework ought to include a Commissioner of Disability
and Inclusion whowould report directly to Parliament and recommend detailed standards in tandem with the legislation.

As proposed by advocacy organizations, a second valuable feature of a Canadians with Disabilities Act would be the creation of an Accessibility Design Centre that could serve as a clearinghouse to monitor barrier removal and enforce appropriate accessibility standards.

Finally, such legislation could also create a Full Inclusion Policy Centre that would develop best practices to remove barriers in federal government departments.

Laws do much more than lay out rules to be followed. Legal scholars Frank Munger and David Engel have demonstrated that in the United States the mere passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) empowered individuals with disabilities, even if they themselves never filed litigation. The simple existence
of the law often changed the self-perception of individuals with disabilities, who gained more confidence to succeed in the workplace and in completing post-secondary education.

Some would argue that adding to the regulatory web governing businesses is counterproductive. They would suggest that in a time of economic austerity, we can simply not afford new expenses. However, a quick visit to American airports, train stations and restaurants will quickly reveal how far behind Canada is in providing accessibility for people with disabilities.

Inclusion of people with disabilitiespeople who want to work, go to school, travel, and patronize accessible businessesin the economy means greater productivity.

This is a challenge and a moral imperative that we cannot afford to avoid. While we’re talking about death, let’s also talk about life.

Ravi Malhotra is Associate Professor at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law, Common Law Section, a graduate of Harvard Law School and a member of the Human Rights Committee of the Council of Canadians with Disabilities. Caroline Lieffers is a PhD student in the history of science and medicine at Yale University and a 2015 Trudeau Scholar.

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