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British Columbia Activists urge Ottawa to pass Canadian accessibility law before summer

Rick Hansen speaks at the Invictus Games Opening Ceremony in Toronto on Saturday, September 23, 2017. New research suggests that failing to make accessibility for people with disabilities a higher priority for Canadian businesses would cost the country billions of dollars in lost economic growth.

Chris Donovan/The Canadian Press

Disabled Canadians and their supporters are pushing Ottawa to pass a bill enshrining their right to more accessible and inclusive federal workplaces before the next election, legislation they say could help improve the lives of those with physical and mental disabilities.

Bill Adair, a spokesperson for a group of 96 organizations, said more than a thousand people and non-profit groups have recently sent letters to every MP in a blitz aimed at getting Bill C-81, known as the Accessible Canada Act, passed by Parliament and written into law before the summer break begins next month.

“We worked hard at bringing this into effect over the past three years and it is time for our country to take this step forward and throw the doors wide open for participation,” said Mr. Adair, who is also executive director of Spinal Cord Injury Canada.

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Mr. Adair said his umbrella group believes the bill, which would “identify, remove and prevent” accessibility barriers in agencies and programs that fall under federal jurisdiction, could help level the considerable unemployment gap for disabled people, roughly 60 per cent of whom are employed, compared with 80 per cent for the general population.

If the amendments recently added by the Senate are accepted, the bill would ensure federal agencies proactively fix their buildings to allow disabled people to move freely as well as design their programs in ways that can be delivered to all Canadians. As well, the bill would recognize various forms of sign language – including Indigenous sign languages – and include them among government services.

Carla Qualtrough, Minister of Public Services and Procurement and Accessibility, said passing the amended bill remains a priority for her government.

“I expect the debate in the House of Commons to take place next week coinciding with National AccessAbility Week – a timely opportunity to highlight the work our government is doing to create a more accessible and inclusive Canada for all," her statement Tuesday said.

Bill C-81 would force more accessible workplaces on agencies such as the RCMP, as well as federally run services that cross provincial lines such as banking and long-range bus transportation. The government has pledged $290-million over six years toward implementing the act, which will see Ottawa appoint an accessibility commissioner and create an organization to develop accessibility standards for the industries covered by the law.

Rick Hansen, a former Paralympian whose eponymous foundation is part of the push to pass the bill, said it would be a huge disappointment if the act didn’t pass before the federal election. “Canada can’t afford to let down the one in five Canadians with disabilities,” Mr. Hansen said.

In the absence of national accessibility standards, his organization is launching an awareness campaign called Everyone Everywhere to identify common barriers disabled people face. These include: a lack of visual fire alarms; no push button doors at a building’s main entrance; steep curbs, narrow parking spaces, circular doorknobs; signage without Braille or raised lettering; ramps that are too steep or not wide enough and a lack of grab bars in bathrooms.

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Mr. Hansen said a pilot project completed over two years rated about 1,100 buildings across B.C. for their accessibility and found just over a third didn’t meet the minimum standard.

Mr. Hansen’s organization also commissioned a Conference Board of Canada report last year that suggested the estimated 2.9 million Canadians with physical disabilities would be able to contribute $16.8-billion more to the gross domestic product by 2030 if they faced fewer barriers to participating in the workforce.

Earlier this year, an independent review found deficiencies to nearly all aspects of Ontario’s 14-year-old accessibility law, including that too many buildings are still designed in ways that make it impossible for some disabled people to enter.

Gabrielle Peters, a Vancouver-based writer who led a campaign that created a matted trail for wheelchair users to access one of the city’s most popular beaches last summer, said Bill C-81 needs to give Ottawa the teeth to limit the funding of any agencies not making the effort to improve life for disabled Canadians. Ms. Peters, who uses a wheelchair, said she is genuinely uncertain how the legislation would affect her own life and the lives of other disabled people if it passes.

With a report from The Canadian Press

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