The180·The 180

Why some disability advocates are worried about a national disability act

The idea of a national disability act has been floating around for nearly three decades, but some disability advocates are cautioning that the creation of such a law is a massive and risky undertaking. The CBC's Ash Kelly explains.
MP Carla Qualtrough is in charge of the sport, and persons with disabilities portfolio. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Stephen Harper's Conservative government promised a national disability act in 2006, but never followed through. 

Now, the new Liberal government has made a national disability act a priority. They say the new bill will fill gaps in the patchwork of legislation concerning people with disabilities in Canada. 

"Usually the law doesn't come into play until people are discriminated against. You are denied a job, and then the law kicks in. You're denied a place to live, or a service, and then we help you — but you've already been discriminated against. It feels like there's a gap in legislation," said Minister of Sport and Persons with Disabilities Carla Qualtrough.

The first priority listed in her mandate letter from the prime minister is to "lead an engagement process with provinces, territories, municipalities, and stakeholders that will lead to the passage of a Canadians with Disabilities Act."

Proponents say this kind of legislation is long overdue. But critics — among them, some disability rights advocates — say it could do more harm than good. 

CBC story producer Ash Kelly has been exploring the pros and cons of a national disability act, and she spoke with Jim Brown about the politics behind the proposed legislation. 

Pat Danforth, a disability rights advocate in Saanich, B.C. who has been in a wheelchair since 1970, told Kelly she wants to make sure any new legislation has real teeth.

"The legislation could not be just window dressing... It has to be there to make sure that our built environment, our infrastructure, our existing legislation, is regulated and is enforceable," she said. 

Others worry the lengthy and cumbersome process of crafting a new federal law will eclipse more immediate concerns for Canadians with disabilities.

"A shorthand sometimes used by people in the disability movement is, 'To say the word disability is almost to say the word poverty.' As the government of Canada launches a poverty reduction strategy — which I think will be as important if not more important than a national disabilities act, quite frankly — it's in areas like housing that we'll make a real significant difference for Canadians struggling on low-income who also have disabilities," said Michael Prince, a professor of social policy at the University of Victoria. 

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