Qualtrough: The culture must change

On Saturday June 17th, Carla Qualtrough, the Minister of Sport and People with Disabilities, spoke at the AGM of Disability Alliance BC. It was an excellent talk that left me feeling that our minister “gets it”. The focus of her talk was her work in consulting and developing the federal act for disabled people, the Accessibility and Inclusion Act, or whatever it will end up being called. Canada is playing catch up in this – the Americans with Disability Act is over 25 years old.

Minister Qualtrough opened her remarks with this statistic – half of the human rights claims in Canada are for discrimination due to disability. And of these human rights disability claims, 60% are for discrimination relating to employment. If ever there was an indicator that legislation is overdue in Canada, this is it.

As part of the consultations leading up to this Act, Minister Qualtrough and Prime Minister Trudeau met with a panel of disabled youth. She noticed that these youth approach inclusion and accessibility in a different way to those older than them. There is a fundamental shift in language, where inclusion is an expectation, and they have a sense of entitlement, in a good way. That there is an expectation of full citizenship, of full participation in all aspects of Canadian life.

Throughout her speech, Minister Qualtrough came back to this central theme: Accessibility is bigger than one law, culture change just as important as legal change. She repeatedly commented that “we need to get in front of these issues”, meaning that we need to stop being a culture where disabled people are met with barriers and have to ask for them to be removed, but we should be a culture where barriers are not devised in the first place. That every act the government does is first viewed through the lens of accessibility and inclusion. This is a theme close to my heart. I have an expectation that that should be already happening, particularly in local government, but I have learnt repeatedly that it is not the case – and, in 2017, I find that shocking.

When specific examples arose in her speech, they were examples of exclusion that were familiar to every disabled person. For example, paperwork – and the onerous requirements for disabled people to keep filing paperwork proving a disability that is not going to go away – if you’ve had one leg amputated, it’s not going to grow back. Why do you have to keep filing paperwork every 3 years to prove it?!? The size of the task, to unravel the minutia of every department and their requirements for disabled people is huge, but a task that must happen, and I have no doubt that Minister Qualtrough will be pushing her colleagues to follow through.

We are continually surrounded by examples of exclusion for disabled people, particularly those that limit employment. In a discussion on access to documents for blind people and those with low vision, the Minister mentioned that while there is more awareness of the accessibility standards for websites for the general public to use, the same standards do not apply to internal government websites and software, and they often do not work with screen readers. Hence, while there was a consideration that a disabled person may be a consumer of a government service, there is no thought that this person could equally be an employee. This was recently highlighted in the news, and the story can be read here. This is common, however. The recent BC Liberal platform for the 2017 provincial election talked of making government buildings that offer customer service accessible by 2020, but not considering the needs of employees, in all manner of government buildings and positions, who need the same accessibility standards. 

These behaviours are so ingrained that the culture shift must happen concurrently with legislation, for the act to be understood. When Minister Qualtrough was asked how she thought this switch could happen, it felt like everyone in the room realised the size of the task and the lack of a magic bullet. Indeed, cracking that nut is not only the key to this, but also the most challenging part. While the main thrust must come from all levels of government, backed by grassroots organizations, I have hope that some change is already underway. Recently I went into a new business and asked them if they were wheelchair accessible – “of course we are – doesn’t everywhere have to be?” was the reply. I answered with a kind of wry smile – if only they knew. 

The social model of disability was weaved through all parts of Minister Qualtrough’s speech. She quite rightly identified a switch in language that needs to happen in North America – we need to move away from the language of accommodation to the language of adaptation. You accommodate the individual, but you adapt the environment. This is the bedrock of the social model of disability – that the issue sits with society and not the individual. The Labour Party in the UK put out a separate part of their manifesto for the recent general election that just dealt with issues faced by disabled people, entitled “Nothing About You, With You“. Again, the language is that of the social model of disability. Hearing our government and political parties elsewhere accept and promote this model is a major step forward in moving towards the culture change that we need to see. 

I believe that the role of our government is to set the bar high in their expectations of themselves, of their governing, and expect (hope?) that the rest of the country will follow their lead. We were told that the first draft of new legislation could be ready later this year or early 2018. For me, this draft will show just how serious the government is about facing up to this task and creating a Canada that lives up to the expectations of the youth that Minister Qualtrough met.