Canada has made significant strides to break down barriers for people with disabilities, but too many obstacles remain. This International Day of Persons with Disabilities is a good time to reflect on Canadaâ€™s successes in accessibility, particularly related to this yearâ€™s theme, â€˜Sustainable Development: The Promise of Technology.â€™
In terms of assistive technologies, Canadian innovations are world-renowned. Research centres and companies such as Toronto Rehab, Bloorview Research Institute, Neil Squire, and Kinova are developing technologies that were the stuff of science fiction just a few decades ago. When I meet with colleagues in countries like Mexico and Australia, they are quick to mention Bloorview. Itâ€™s not a surprise considering the advancements this Toronto-based institute has made, such as communications devices that give voice to people who cannot speak or adaptations to power wheelchairs so that almost everyone can get out into the community.
At some point in the near future, people with visual or mobility disabilities will visit bank machines that recognize their needs and accommodate them accordingly thanks to groundbreaking protocols currently developed at the Ontario College of Arts and Designâ€™s Inclusive Design Research Centre.
And now services and buildings in Ontario and Manitoba are becoming much more accessible due to their respective Accessibility Acts. Nova Scotia has established a panel to consider doing something similar.
One way of measuring a countryâ€™s advancements in disability is reviewing opportunities for active living. Canada is a leader here too. Adaptive sports equipment such as hockey sledges and specialized wheelchairs for basketball, rugby players or racing, and a myriad of specialized equipment have helped Canada be a leader in para-sports.
As technology helps people become more active, other barriers sometimes become apparent. Most people enjoy getting out to the movies and other attractions, but people with disabilities who require an attendant found that even getting out to these events required two admissions: one for themselves and one for their support person. Easter Seals Canadaâ€™s Access 2 Entertainmentâ„¢ card, which Cineplex Entertainment helped found, ensures people with disabilities no longer pay twice. Today, after 10Â years in operation, the Access 2 Program will issue the 60,000th card.
On an even broader scale, the CRTC recently approved Bell Canada Enterpriseâ€™s proposal to establish a Broadcasting Accessibility Fund. This $6 million fund will support research and development aimed at ensuring the needs of people with disabilities are taken into consideration at the design stage of new media development. The Fund is optimistic that new innovations will give more people with a wide range of disabilities access to TV programs and Internet content. Again, Canada is a leader here â€“ no other country has a similar fund dedicated to improving access to media.
One barrier, however, stubbornly remains. Despite many major corporations taking the lead in promoting and creating inclusive employment, too often job applications of people with disabilities are relegated to the â€œnot interestedâ€� pile.
We know that people with disabilities tend to be highly motivated and reliable employees. Governments can play a helpful role in recognizing employers with progressive hiring practices through awards. Employers can also look to Canadian Business SenseAbility, chaired by David Onley, Ontarioâ€™s former Lieutenant Governor, and the Canadian Association for Community Livingâ€™s Ready Willing and Able initiative, which offer programs that help raise awareness and develop employment opportunities for people with special needs.
With so many walls tumbling down as a result of Canadian adaptive technologies, employers can lead the charge in dismantling one of the last remaining barriers for Canadians with disabilities â€“ decent employment opportunities. Itâ€™s time we all see the â€œabilityâ€� in disability.
Max Beck is the president and CEO of Easter Seals Canada and board member and treasurer of the Broadcasting Accessibility Fund.