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Celebrating Us!

By John Rae
Notes for an address at the 7th Annual Simply People celebration at Nathan Phillips Square, Toronto,Tuesday, July 20, 2010.

Tonight is for us, and about us! Tonight is a time for us to celebrate our accomplishments and to redouble our efforts to bring about true equality for all persons with disabilities in Canada and around the world.

This year, Canadians with disabilities are celebrating Canada’s ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights ofPersons With Disabilities (CRPD). While it may not provide us with a lot of new rights, it sets out in far greater detail than any human rights code or the Charter of Rights and Freedoms ever did what a truly accessible and inclusive Canada can look like, in important areas of life that are critical to our participation in the economic, political and social life of our communities – transportation, employment, education, communications, access to information, etc. The Convention also requires Canada to collect and disseminate data and to submit a comprehensive report to the Secretary-General of the United Nations within two years after ratification and every four years thereafter on measures taken, and civil society is to be directly involved in the development of these reports. This means involveing us!

The development of this Convention traveled a unique path. It took the least amount of time of any UN Convention to be concluded, and it involved far more participation from civil society than ever before. That means involvement by us, and many groups representing persons with disabilities participated actively in the negotiations at the UN that resulted in this Convention. There are important lessons to be learned from having this kind of direct participation in developing any new initiative that directly affects our lives.

Last year, the President of the Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians, Robin East, developed a new way of addressing our needs and aspirations. He coined the new phrase, “rights holders.” We are Rights Holders! What does he mean?

Too often, governments like to lump all of us, consumers, parents, service providers, etc. under the same umbrella of “stakeholders,” and while all of these groups may very well have a “stake” in the outcome of a new piece of legislation, policy or program, we are the ones most affected. We are different, and must see ourselves as “rights holders,” and not just another group of mere stakeholders. What this means is that we must occupy the primary and preeminent place at any table that is discussing anything that directly impacts our quality of life.

You are all familiar with the favourite phrase of the disability rights movement, “Nothing about us without us!” Now that Canada has ratified the UN Convention, it is critical that we rights holders participate as directly in its implementation as we did in its design, to ensure that it makes a tangible difference in the lives of all Canadians with disabilities, to make it become Canada’s national disabilities Act.

By contrast, the much heralded Accessibility for Ontarians With Disabilities Act (AODA) continues to move at a snail’s pace. After over five years, only one of the initial five accessibility standards has been issued as a regulation, though more are expected later this year. It is hard to imagine that Ontario is even close to being on track to achieve full accessibility by the far off date of 2025, and it is hoped that Canada’s ratification of the UN
Convention will spur some renewed commitment and action to the AODA.

It is too often argued by representatives from governments and the obligated sectors that they “would like to do the things we wand and need, but these changes will simply cost too much.” We have countered that the real barriers are not cost, but a lack of political will and a question of priorities.

The Ontario Human Rights Code has covered persons with various disabilities since 1982. Governments, the public and private sectors have had over 25 years to make their premises, websites, products and programs fully accessible. How much more time do they need? If they have ignored their responsibilities and dragged their feet over all these years, stop blaming us – stop blaming the victims. It’s simply not our fault.

After the preposterous expenditure of an estimated 1.3 billion (that’s billion) on security for the G-8 and G-20 Summits, and countless millions of dollars on our involvement in the war in Afghanistan, persons with disabilities never want to hear the cost excuse ever again … never again! Resources are not unlimited, but whenever a government really wants to do something, it seems to magically find a way to finance its priorities.

So what am I asking you to do?

  • 1. Write letters to the Editor of your local newspaper, raising disability issues;
  • 2. Ask all candidates for Mayor and Council in the upcoming municipal election about their platforms, and what they commit to do to advance our agenda;
  • 3. Get more involved in the disability rights movement. Join a group like the Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians (AEBC), Citizens With Disabilities Ontario (CWdO) and sign up to receive updates from the Accessibility for Ontarians With Disabilities Act alliance, or find the consumer organization in your area that best represents your issues and ideas.

In closing, I want to mention just one more point. Many of us who have been on the front lines, in the leadership of our movement for many, many years are getting old and growing tired. We need you to get more involved. We need your energy, skills and new ideas. We cannot expect the system to hand us our rightful place, our history teaches us that it rarely does! Moving our agenda and achieving our goals is up to us. We must make it happen.

Some of you will be familiar with the phrase “Full Participation and Equality.” It’s an excellent phrase. It’s not a new phrase. It was the theme of the International Year of the Disabled Person (IYDP) way back in 1981.

Since then, we have come a part of the way up this road, but we still have far, too far to travel. Today, we seek legislation and new programs that will lead to that elusive goal, but today we must spend far too much of our time preventing the introduction of new barriers.

It’s time governments, the private and public sectors recognized our value, and commit to work with us to realize the IYDP motto.

We want our rights. When do we want them? Now!