The Canadian government has an impressive online presence in terms of Disability Inclusion. I have no doubt it is sincere, but does it walk as good as it talks?
Some months ago, a Blue Mountains Disability Forum meeting featured guests from two Canadian disability service providers who spoke about how they responded to the challenges posed by COVID 19. One of those guests was Stuart McReynolds, President and CEO of the Abilities Centre, based in Whitby, Ontario.
This is from their website: The dream of Abilities Centre began in the early 2000s, with a group of community champions who saw the urgent need for increased programming and services for people with disabilities in the Durham Region and across Canada. Their vision was to create a place where people of all ages and abilities could come together and realize their full potential, and in the process, change the social fabric of our communities and country.
On Saturday morning (12 March), at 06:00 I had a Zoom chat with Stuart McReynolds. I wanted to know how what I read of the Canadian government’s public commitment translated into action.
A Genuine Commitment – and a Shared Challenge.
As we talked it was obvious that there was a great deal of similarity, in terms of expressed commitment to Disability Inclusion, in each country, though it was articulated in very different ways.
Canada has a Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Disability Inclusion, and a national Disability Inclusion Action Plan. The Minister, Carla Qualtrough, is legally blind and has a background in human rights law. She is highly regarded.
But, as Stuart observes, while it is a good thing to have a Minister for Disability Inclusion, there is a risk that this role can be seen as a success in itself, rather than an integrated function that permeates the wider government culture.
The Canadian government has established the Disability Inclusion Action Plan, which “will focus on: reducing poverty among Canadians with disabilities. getting more persons with disabilities into good quality jobs. helping meet the Accessible Canada Act goal of a barrier-free Canada by 2040.” The language will be familiar to Australians, especially those living in New South Wales.
As we talked, Stuart observed that requiring compliance with disability inclusion legislation and policies was delivering some good, but also much response was limited to minimal compliant actions. Good changes were happening, but resistance to the Disability Inclusion message was just as apparent.
Compliance as a tool of accountability is like a hammer head without a handle. The refinement and effectiveness of the tool is expressed only when it is complete. The other part of accountability is engagement and commitment. This is a common challenge for both countries.
How Do We Energise Engagement and Commitment?
Later that Saturday, I listened to an a very interesting interview with Miranda Briana Epler, founder of Change Catalyst, on the podcast With, Not For. This podcast is from the Centre for Inclusive Design, located in Sydney’s University of Technology.
Miranda said something I will come back to in more detail when I write about her book, How to be an Ally, which I am listening to at the moment. She said, “We are getting better, but not very fast.”
Here, she echoed Stuart’s and my sentiment. What is the mystery of such resistance in a sea of goodwill? Must the process of creating universal Disability Inclusion be so slow? In some respects, it must. Canada’s 2040 goal may seem like a very long time before the whole nation is fully accessible – that’s 18 years away. In fact, that’s an ambitious target, given the cost of the necessary changes to be made to the nation’s infrastructure to provide universal accessibility to people with mobility and vision disabilities. However, whether it would happen without a clear and costed plan is another matter.
But accessibility is not just about the physical environment. It includes the social, cultural and psychological – and here, too, a clear and costed plan is necessary.
Before such a plan can be developed, we must ensure that what is proposed is based on knowledge, not guesswork. There is a question we must answer – how do we overcome the resistance to positive change?
Where To From Here?
It was obvious, talking with Stuart, that we share opportunities and challenges. Canadians are doing things that we in Australia can learn from, and vice versa. I gave Stuart details of the Australian Network on Disability (AND). He was contemplating something like AND’s Access and Inclusion Index.
We have an idea to set up a regular conversation between Disability Inclusion advocates in both countries. It would be good to include the UK as well, but this will take some delicate discussion over time zone differences to find the least painful times – especially for Australian participants.
The Disability Inclusion Challenge is global. Great work is being done in organizations dedicated to the cause. Our governments are genuinely supportive in legislation, policy, and sentiment – which is a good start. Our organizations and businesses are open to change to various degrees. Our communities are generally responsive and open to being more inclusive.
Progress is being made. How do we accelerate it?