Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance Update
United for a Barrier-Free Society for All People with Disabilities
On the Eve of the Federal Election, Tories Will Try to Answer the AODA Alliance Request for Federal Election Commitments – Liberals Say They’ll Enact At Least Some Accessibility Standard Within Four Years of the Accessible Canada Act’s Passage
September 17, 2021
The federal election is just three days away. We have more breaking news on our efforts to get the federal parties to all make strong commitments on making Canada accessible to over 6 million people with disabilities in Canada.
As of now, only the New Democratic Party has answered the AODA Alliance’s August 3, 2021 written request for 12 election commitments on the topic of accessibility for people with disabilities. The NDP made many if not most of the 12 election pledges we requested.
We thank and congratulate the NDP for doing so. We urge all other parties to do the same, in our spirit of non-partisanship.
1. Federal Conservatives Say They Will Try to Answer the AODA Alliance’s August 3, 2021 Letter
On September 16, 2021, the AODA Alliance received an email from the Conservative Party. It asks for a copy of the AODA Alliance’s request for election commitments, and says they will try to respond before voting day. The email indicates that they had not received our request for commitments before this.
We again quickly provided the Tories our August 3, 2021 letter to the federal parties in response to that email. We originally emailed it to Erin O’Toole on August 3, 2021. We posted it on the AODA Alliance website the next day. Over the past days, we have tweeted at Mr. O’Toole and many Conservative Candidates, trying to get them to answer this letter. Moreover, the September 6, 2021 report in the Hill Times, set out below, states that that newspaper reached out by email to the Tories about this issue but got no answer.
From the email we received from the Conservatives, it appears that they reached out to us because they had received a media inquiry on why they had not answered our request for commitments. This further shows how people with disabilities lose out when the media either do not cover this story at all, or delay coverage till late in the campaign.
2. Liberal Cabinet Minister Carla Qualtrough Says the Liberals Would Enact Accessibility Standards within Four Years of the Accessible Canada Act’s Enactment
The Liberal Party has also not answered the AODA Alliance’s August 3, 2021 letter, requesting 12 pledges on disability accessibility. However, in an interview published in the influential Hill Times newspaper dated September 6, 2021, set out below, federal Disabilities Minister Carla Qualtrough commits that the Federal Government would enact accessibility standards within four years of the Accessible Canada Act’s enactment. However, she did not say which accessibility standards would be enacted within that time frame. She also said that “hundreds” of accessibility standards would be needed.
Finally, she recognized that the Accessible Canada Act has room for improvement. However, she did not commit to making any specific improvements.
The September 6, 2021 Hill Times article, set out below, states that none of the federal parties had answered the AODA Alliance’s August 3, 2021 letter, that seeks election commitments. Since that article was written, the NDP answered our request, as noted above.
3. More Media Coverage of the Federal Election’s Disabilities Issues Days Before the Election
In an earlier AODA Alliance Update, we noted that CBC was one of the media organizations that had not been covering the election’s disability issues. The CBC has now started to do so, but only in the past two days. Two articles are set out below. One could say “better late than never.” However, we qualify this by noting that for the millions of voters who already have voted, late is the same as never!
We have also benefitted from coverage on Sauga Radio with Karlene Nation, CHML Radio Hamilton with Bill Kelly, and Sirius XM Radio with Dahlia Kurtz. We thank them all for shining the spotlight on this election issue.
The Hill Times September 6, 2021
Disability groups still waiting for parties to address accessibility
Advocates say they are the largest minority in Canada. Some groups say that in the long run they are ‘the minority of everybody,’ as the policies they are fighting for will impact everyone at some point in their life.
By Ian Campbell
Disability advocacy group says that it has yet to receive a reply from any of the federal parties after it sent them an open letter at the beginning of the campaign seeking specific commitments about making Canada more accessible.
The Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance (AODA Alliance), which is chaired by Osgoode Hall law professor David Lepofsky, said they released their open letter on Aug. 3 because they knew an election was imminent and wanted their concerns to be on the radar of parties and voters throughout the campaign.
The letter listed twelve commitments the group is seeking from the parties related to the implementation and amendment of the Accessible Canada Act (ACA), a law that was passed by the Liberal government in June 2019.
Some of the items the group is calling for include a commitment that federal government grants will not go to projects that do not meet accessibility standards, and the removal of loopholes in the ACA that allow some organizations to be exempt from its requirements. The AODA Alliance also wants a four-year timeline for enforcement of the accessibility standards required by the Act.
“We are concerned that the law itself is too weak and the government’s actions to implement it fall short,” said Mr. Lepofsky in an interview with The Hill Times. “Not that they’re doing nothing. They’re just not doing enough, and they’re not moving fast enough.”
The Hill Times reached out to each of the four main federal parties that are running candidates across Canada, asking for an interview with one of their candidates who identified as having a disability and who could speak to the party’s policies related to disability and accessibility. The Conservative Party did not reply to multiple emails. The Green Party replied with a policy statement but was not able to make a candidate available for an interview.
The AODA Alliance released a statement on Sept. 2, the day following the release of the Liberal party platform, criticizing the platform document as well as the continued lack of response from the other federal parties to their letter.
“[The Liberals, Conservatives, and NDP] mention needs of people with disabilities several times in their platforms,” said the statement. “This is a step forward from some past elections. However, they fall well short of what people with disabilities need.”
“The only party that says anything about strengthening the weak Accessible Canada Act is the NDP. [The Liberals and the Conservatives] don’t really say very much at all on this. But none of them make the 12 commitments that we seek,” Mr. Lepofsky said.
Mr. Lepofsky said his group always writes to parties in each election campaign, because platforms tend to offer a more general, high-level discussion of issues, and that seeking specific policy commitments is important to his organization.
“We know that a platform may only have a couple of sentences, which is why we write to the parties. So the first thing that’s worrisome is they’re not answering,” said Mr. Lepofsky.
“In so far as the issue of achieving accessibility for people with disabilities is concerned, the Liberal platform mainly repeats what it promised two years ago: namely, promising a disability lens on all government decisions, and pledging the timely and ambitious implementation of the Accessible Canada Act. The government’s record over the past two years on both commitments is unimpressive.”
As an example, Mr. Lepofsky pointed to the ArriveCan application, which can be used to facilitate the process of crossing the border into Canada. Mr. Lepofsky said the application has significant accessibility barriers for people who are visually impaired.
In an interview with The Hill Times, Carla Qualtrough (Delta, B.C.), who has served as Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Disability Inclusion in the Liberal government, said now that the Liberal platform has been released, she is able to make more specific commitments in response to the items raised by Mr. Lepofsky in the AODA Alliance’s Aug. 3 letter.
“I can tell him that there will be enforceable standards within four years,” said Ms. Qualtrough. “The goal in the act is a barrier-free Canada by 2040, and all the work that I think David and other advocates, and perhaps rightfully so, kind of worry will be at the back end of the next nineteen years is being done now.”
Ms. Qualtrough added that while she is committed to having enforceable standards within four years, she cannot yet say which ones. She said that implementing the act involves developing highly detailed standards across every federally regulated sector.
“We’re talking standards in every aspect of federal government jurisdiction. So if you think of banks alone, there will be a standard for ATMs, for entrances, for money, for customer service. There are hundreds of standards that need to be developed over the course of the years. And there’s big ones, like an employment standard, but then there will be super technical ones, like counter height at a bank. So all of this will take time.”
Ms. Qualtrough said she understands the urgency that advocacy groups feel.
“I think that 2040 feels like a long way away, and it is for people who’ve been discriminated against their entire life, of course it is. But that doesn’t mean that work hasn’t already started and won’t be done.”
Ms. Qualtrough said that the vast majority of time since the ACA has been in place was during the pandemic, but that progress was still made in that time.
“I think that what we’ve done under the ACA, in the midst of all that, is phenomenal,” she said. “We’ve set up Accessible Standards Canada. We’ve set up the board, on which half of the members are persons with disabilities. We’ve put in place technical groups that are headed by people with disabilities to work on the first four standards.”
Mr. Lepofsky and other advocates have expressed concern that two key positions related to the enforcement of the ACA, the Accessibility Commissioner and the Chief Accessibility Officer, have not yet been filled.
NDP candidate Sidney Coles, who is running in Toronto-St. Paul’s, said that part of her party’s commitment to improve the ACA relates to looking at issues of jurisdiction.
“[NDP leader Jagmeet Singh] has committed to work to improve the Accessibility Act. Where we’re not quite clear, jurisdictionally, is who is going to enforce standards,” said Ms. Coles, who has limited mobility due to a leg injury.
“We need to work with the provinces to figure out how we do that from the municipality, to the province, to the federal level, and specifically with jurisdictional overlays, transport being one. When you’re improving a train, that may be a federal issue if it’s a national train. The municipality also has to respond and make sure that once passengers are coming off that train that the stations are set up to also accommodate passengers.”
Ms. Qualtrough said she sees the ACA as a major accomplishment, but there remains room for improvement.
“We will always look at making this law better. In my mind—and I’m saying this as a human rights lawyer—this is probably the most significant advancement in human rights for people with disabilities since the Charter. Like, this is an entirely… new system of accountability and prospective barrier removal that’s going to prevent discrimination. We’re trying to make our disability conversations across the country about human rights. It’s not this medical or charity model. It’s a human rights and poverty reduction lens.”
Ms. Qualtrough, who is legally blind, said she is thrilled to see these issues getting discussed during a federal election campaign.
Poverty relief essential: Adair
Mr. Lepofsky’s organization is not the only one calling for attention to disability issues during this election.
Bill Adair, the executive director of Spinal Cord Injury Canada, said that poverty is one of the key issues his organizations would like to see addressed on the campaign trail.
“The reality is that almost four million people in Canada live in poverty. One third of those people are people with disabilities,” said Mr. Adair.
“So our call is for a basic income to be provided to people living with disabilities to ensure that they no longer live in poverty.”
Mr. Adair said that the Canada Disability Benefit, introduced by the Liberal government in June in the final days of the last Parliament, indicated the “intent to do something specific about this,” but there needs to be much more detail than was included in that announcement.
“It needs to be much more robust,” said Mr. Adair. “We’d like to know, how soon is it going to be created? How much will be provided? How will this be coordinated with provinces and territories to ensure that they do not claw back benefits that people with disabilities are already receiving?”
“We understand this is not a simple equation that can just be solved quickly, but we are looking for something with details. We are looking for something which lifts people out of the poverty that is preventing them from participating in our great democracy.”
Jewelles Smith, communications and government relations coordinator at the Council of Canadians with Disabilities (CCD), said that democratic participation is one of the most important topics of all, and that means making election campaigns accessible so that voters who have a disability can fully participate in the process of shaping the government.
“For people with disabilities to make an informed choice when casting their ballot they need full access to candidates’ campaigns,” said Ms. Smith.
She said that she has not consistently seen sign language interpreters appearing next to the party leaders, such as was seen next to the public health officers during the pandemic, and that many of the parties’ websites are lacking in accessibility features.
“I thought that with the pandemic it’s kind of a lesson learned,” she said. “I thought we would be seeing it from the primary candidates who are trying to get our votes.”
Ms. Smith said that Elections Canada now allows candidates to spend money on accessibility-related costs that will not go towards their campaign spending limits. A portion of these costs also qualify for reimbursement from Elections Canada.
Mr. Lepofsky said that, with his group’s focus on seeking public policy commitments related to accessibility, it is vital that all voters experience an accessible election process.
“We say that we’re the minority of everybody,” said Mr. Lepofsky. “Because everybody either has a disability now or gets one later. If you can see perfectly right now, as you get older, you might not be able to. So the barriers we’re fighting, if it’s not relevant to you now, it could be relevant to you later.”
The Hill Times
CBC News September 17, 2021
Priorities for millions of Canadians with disabilities ‘left out’ of election campaign, say advocates
An accessibility access point for a building through a parking garage in downtown Vancouver. It is behind a locked gate and has a grate that is difficult to cross with a wheelchair. (David Horemans/CBC)
One of Canada’s leading advocates for Canadians with disabilities says they are heading into election day on Monday with little confidence that their needs are a priority — and few firm promises from federal parties.
David Lepofsky, who is blind, is the chair of the Accessibility for Ontarians With Disabilities Act Alliance, or AODA Alliance.
His group, which is non-partisan, sent each party a letter in early August requesting they make 12 specific commitments related to accessibility.
The requests range from making sure voting is fully accessible to promising not to spend public money on projects that perpetuate or create new barriers.
As of Friday, with the election now three days away, only one major party has come on board.
“The NDP made many, if not most, of our commitments. As for the other parties, we got a response from the Trudeau campaign merely acknowledging receipt of our letter,” said Lepofsky.
The Conservatives, he said, did not respond to the group at all.
“It’s enormously frustrating, unfair and troubling that disability issues in this election have yet again been given short shrift,” said Lepofsky.
“Six million people with disabilities and their families and loved ones get left out.”
Concern about lack of follow-through
The AODA Alliance is far from the only voice expressing disappointment with how little focus has gone to accessibility issues since campaigning began.
A recent Angus Reid study found that 67 per cent of Canadians with disabilities thought that their needs had not received enough attention during the election.
Other groups, such as the Accessible Housing Network, have also tried to put the issue on the agenda, calling on all parties to require that “all new and refurbished housing be 100 per cent accessible” to increase the dignity, freedom, wellbeing and social inclusion of people with disabilities.
Luke Anderson, who serves as executive director of the Stopgap Foundation, told CBC Toronto he’s had to “go digging pretty deep” to find any mention of disability in the party platforms.
Luke Anderson says people with disabilities are once again being left out of the pre-election conversation. His StopGap Foundation builds ramps for single-step storefronts and raises awareness about barriers in our built environment. (Luke Anderson)
Even after reading what the parties have to say, he has little faith that what’s being promised will actually happen.
“I’m scared that their platforms on accessibility and disability aren’t going to be enforced and followed through on.”
One area that both Lepofsky and Anderson say badly needs work is the Accessible Canada Act (ACA), passed back in 2019.
The act’s stated purpose was to “identify, remove and prevent” accessibility barriers in areas that fall under federal jurisdiction — but Lepofsky says that in practice, implementation has been weak, and the rules are unclear.
“For example, this law does not require that when the federal government gives out billions for infrastructure projects that it ensures that those projects will be accessible to people with disabilities,” he said.
His group would like to see the act significantly strengthened, with loopholes closed, clear timelines for organizations to fall in line, and consequences for failing to do so.
David Lepofsky says: if the Liberal and Conservative leaders are ‘not prepared to respond to our inquiries now, in the middle of election, it doesn’t give you any confidence that they’re going to be any more responsive once the election is over.’
The AODA Alliance would also like to see improvements to the National Building Code, which it says “falls short of the accessibility requirements in the Charter of Rights, applicable human rights codes and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.”
Of the three major parties, only the Conservatives responded to a request from CBC News for details on their platform and an explanation for why they did not respond to the AODA Alliance.
The party says it plans to “boost the Enabling Accessibility Fund by $80 million per year, double the Disability Supplement in the Canada Workers Benefit from $713 to $1,500, [and] overhaul the complex array of disability supports and benefits,” among other steps.
The Conservatives did not address their lack of response to Lepofsky’s group.
CBC News September 15, 2021
How accessible is voting for people with disabilities?
A lawn sign from a Disability Matters Vote (DMVote) campaign is seen in Manitoba in 2019. DMVote is a non-partisan public awareness campaign that supports Manitobans with disabilities so they can participate fully in election activities. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)
This story idea came from an audience member, like you, who got in touch with us. Send us your questions and story tips. We are listening: firstname.lastname@example.org.
For some people, voting isn’t as simple as showing up to the polls on election day and casting a ballot.
From getting voter information to upholding the privacy of a ballot, there are barriers that exist in the voting process for people with disabilities.
CBC News readers have been asking us about them and the accessibility of the federal election in general.
From getting voter information to upholding the privacy of a ballot, advocates say there are barriers that exist in the voting process for people with disabilities. Listen to a text-to-speech version of this full story. 6:30
Getting the resources you need
Before someone with a disability even gets to the polls there are hurdles to clear. One, for example, is getting the voter information you need in a format that works for you.
Elections Canada offers voter information — like its guide to the federal election and list of accepted forms of ID to register and vote — as an American Sign Language (ASL) and Langue des signes québécoise (LSQ) video with open captioning.
You can also order physical resources in braille, large print or as an audio CD.
Have an election question for CBC News? Email email@example.com. Your input helps inform our coverage.
For people who are deaf or partly deaf, Elections Canada also has an ASL version of a video explaining how it is making federal elections accessible and an ASL version of its video that covers voting assistance tools and services.
If a family member or friend has asked you for help voting, Elections Canada has a section on its website clarifying what is and is not allowed when offering support.
Accessibility at the polls
If you’re voting in person on election day, you’ll want to make sure your assigned polling station has everything you require to vote safely and accurately.
Returning officers use an accessibility checklist, which contains 37 criteria — 15 of which are mandatory.
A polling station, for example, is required to provide a level access instead of stairs to the entrance and the voting room must be on the same level as the entryway.
But Elections Canada does not mandate parking spaces for people with disabilities.
You can check to see exactly how accessible your nearest polling station is by searching your postal code on Elections Canada’s voter information service. If you are deaf or partly deaf you can Teletype (TTY) 1-800-361-8935 for more information.
If your assigned polling place does not meet your needs, the agency says to contact your local Elections Canada office and you may be issued a Transfer Certificate. This would allow you to vote at a more accessible polling place in your riding.
David Lepofsky is the chair of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance and a visiting professor at Osgoode Hall Law School at York University in Toronto. He points out that the COVID-19 pandemic also introduces barriers at the polls for electors with disabilities.
For instance, if a voter who is blind or partly blind shows up on their own, he says they might require another person to guide them, but “you can’t take someone’s arm and be guided if you’re trying to socially distance.”
Lepofsky adds that minimizing the distance between the doors of the polling station and where you go to cast your ballot could be one way to help address that issue, as well as including properly colour-contrasted tape and stanchions to assist people so they can know by touch.
Elections Canada says high-visibility physical distancing markers will be in place at polling places, so that electors who are partly blind can more easily see them and maintain physical distance.
Each polling station will also carry tools to make reading and marking your ballot more accessible. If you ask a poll worker they should be able to provide you with a large-print or braille list of candidates, tactile and braille voting templates, magnifiers, large-grip pencils and voting screens that let in more light.
The right to a private ballot
An issue Lepofsky says is harder to address is maintaining the right to a private ballot for people who are blind or partly blind.
“We have never had that right. We have had to either have somebody else mark our ballot for us, which means you have to tell someone else — a trusted friend or a public official — who you’re voting for,” he said.
“People without disabilities take this right for granted because they don’t even have to think about it.”
David Lepofsky, the Chair of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance, says people who are blind or partly blind have never had the right to mark and independently verify their own ballot in federal elections.
Elections Canada told CBC News in an email that the secrecy of those votes are maintained by the oaths taken by those who assist them.
“In the case of a poll worker, oaths are taken as part of the job when they provide assistance to an elector. It’s always done in the presence of a witness. If the elector requests assistance from someone they know, that person is required to sign an oath before they provide assistance,” said Matthew McKenna, a spokesperson for Elections Canada.
But Lepofsky says he believes the process still amounts to a systemic denial for people with disabilities to mark and verify a ballot on their own.
There are ways to ensure they can vote in private and to verify their choice, he says, but the federal government and Elections Canada have not applied those in this election.
More accessible voting methods
One of Lepofsky’s suggestions is to introduce more accessible ways of voting, like telephone voting. This method would allow electors to call in to vote and has been used in provincial elections across Canada.
In B.C., assisted telephone voting is available to voters who are blind, or who have a disability or underlying health condition that prevents them from voting on their own. It was also made available during the 2020 provincial election for people who had to self-isolate during the last week of the campaign period because of a positive COVID-19 test or exposure.
Introducing new technology and voting methods into federal elections raises security and accuracy concerns.
Aleksander Essex, an associate professor of software engineering at Western University in London, Ont., specializes in voting technology. He doesn’t recommend phone voting, he says, because of what he has seen in Ontario municipal elections that use the method.
He says there were instances where the call would drop, leading to more problems.
“The voter would call back and they would say, ‘Well, sorry, you can’t vote because you’ve already voted.’ So they had to go back and sort of work with the city to literally pull the vote out of the telephone system to have it reset.”
He acknowledges that methods like online voting could also reduce barriers, but he says the security risks outweigh the benefits.
“We can’t make this a zero-sum game between accessibility and cybersecurity. We have to have both.”
Lepofsky also mentioned that accessible voting machines are used in some places, but that they have had problems with reliability in the past.
Elections Canada says the voting methods used by Canadians are prescribed in the Canada Elections Act. Changes to the way votes are cast would require authorization from Parliament, typically in the form of legislative change.
“I don’t believe that we need to just accept the status quo, replete with disability barriers or do nothing,” said Lepofsky.