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Bill C-81 (Accessibility) - Third Reading

Thank you Senator Martin and others who have spoken. Thank you, Senator Munson, for your very fine sponsorship of this legislation.

I have some brief introductory remarks and then I want to speak specifically about the inclusion of communication in this bill as a category of challenge in the spectrum of disabilities.

I rise to add my voice to Bill C-81, An Act to ensure a barrier-free Canada. We all know now that the stated policy objective of this important and historic piece of legislation is to enhance the full and equal participation of all individuals, with a special emphasis for those living with disabilities. The bill is designed to achieve a barrier-free Canada through the identification, removal and prevention of barriers in areas of federal jurisdiction.

Many groups, including various disability advocacy groups, support Bill C-81 and are urging us to pass this bill before our summer break. Senate leaders met on April 4 to sign an agreement to ensure several pieces of legislation are voted on prior to the break and the next federal election. This bill is one of them.

I want to take this opportunity to congratulate the facilitator of the Independent Senators Group, the Leader of the independent Senate Liberals, the Government Representative in the Senate and the Senate Conservative Leader on this important modernizing step. You will know, I think, that I and others here believe that we could benefit greatly from more organized and effective business planning of this sort. Moreover, that’s what Canadians expect of us, and they expect and deserve timely votes on all bills, but particularly on bills that are inclusive of all members of our society and that aim to protect some of our most vulnerable people, bills like Bill C-81.

An act to ensure a barrier-free Canada is a direct response to a 2016 federal budget announcement that made a commitment to “eliminate systemic barriers and deliver equality of opportunity to all Canadians living with disabilities.”

Among other things, the bill aims to guide future interpretations of the accessible Canada act by setting out important principles and including a provision that states that all persons, regardless of their abilities or disabilities, must be treated with dignity, enjoy equality of opportunity, be able to fully and equally participate in society without barriers and have autonomy.

It also establishes the application of the accessible Canada act bringing greater clarification to which bodies and entities are bound by accessibility legislation and allows the Governor-in-Council to designate a minister to be responsible for this act.

Another important piece of this legislation is the proposed establishment of the Canadian accessible standards development office, CASDO, which Senator Munson has spoken about eloquently.

I emphasize that the CASDO would be overseen by a board of directors whose majority identify as persons with disabilities. The board would be responsible for setting the organization’s strategic direction and managing the activities and affairs in accordance with its mandate.

The inclusion of people with disabilities on the board would ensure fair representation for the many Canadians who don’t currently have a voice in accessibility standards.

Honourable senators, while no single area of accessibility is more important than any other, I would like to now focus some remarks on the issue of communication.

I am delighted that communication is recognized in key definitions in this bill, including in the definitions of barrier and disability. This legislation says that “barrier” means anything including physical, architectural, technological or attitudinal that is based on information or communications or anything that is the result of a policy or practice that hinders the full and equal participation in society of persons with a physical, mental, intellectual, learning, communication, sensory impairment or functional limitation.

It also defines “disability” as a physical, mental, intellectual, learning, communication, sensory impairment or functional limitation, whether permanent, temporary or episodic in nature that an interaction with a barrier hinders a person’s full and equal participation in society.

This recognition of communication is critically important, as communication includes the half million Canadians who have speech and language disabilities that are not caused by significant hearing loss and who do not require or use sign language. They may have lifelong disabilities, such as cerebral palsy, autism, spectrum disorder, Down syndrome, learning or cognitive disabilities. Other people may have acquired disabilities that affect communication, such as traumatic brain injury, stroke, dementia, ALS, multiple sclerosis and much more.

Having a communication disability can affect one or more areas of a person’s ability to speak, to understand what others are saying, read or write. People with theses disabilities may communicate using unclear speech, writing, typing, pictures, symbols, speech-generating devices, sign language interpreting, captioning and communication assistive devices.

Recognizing the broad scope of communication is also consistent with the optional protocol to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities, of which Canada is a signatory. This is obviously important for many reasons, but I’d like to highlight a tangible example for honourable senators to consider.

Similar to the need for sign language services for people who are deaf or translation services for people who don’t speak English or French, victims, witnesses and accused persons with speech and language disabilities may require appropriate communication supports in police, legal and justice services. Despite the fact that people with speech and language disabilities are at high risk for all types of abuses and crimes — and remember, for violators, the best victims are often the ones who are perceived not to be able to tell. Communication support services in police, legal and justice services are not routinely provided as an accessibility accommodation.

Communications intermediaries are qualified speech-language pathologists who have extra training from Communication Disabilities Access Canada, CDAC, to work in justice settings. CDAC maintains a database of trained intermediaries with limited funding from a small private foundation. These services are provided to people who require assistance, understanding questions posed to them or supporting them communicating what they want to say to police, legal and justice professionals.

In a case in Canada I recently learned about, an elderly woman indicated to her son, a police officer, that she had been sexually assaulted by a personal support worker in a retirement or long-term care facility. The woman had a stroke two years before the incident, which left her with aphasia, a communication disorder that results from damage to the language centres of the brain. She had difficulty understanding spoken language and expressing her thoughts in words, as well as difficulties in reading and writing. She communicated what happened using gestures, some speech and pointing to pictures.

The Crown attorney recognized that she would require assistance to communicate in court and engaged a communication intermediary who conducted an assessment. The intermediary concluded that the woman could effectively communicate in court if provided with appropriate communication intermediary support to ensure that she rephrase questions posed to her in ways she could understand and to facilitate her responses using pictures. The judge denied the woman access to the communication supports that she required to testify.

This case illustrates the lack of understanding about accessibility accommodations required by a victim, witnesses or an accused person who has speech and language disability.

Having strong accessibility legislation in place makes it mandatory for all justice services to provide people with the communication accommodations and supports they need, including communication boards, speech-generating devices, sign language interpretation, captioning and communications assistance devices, and is an important move in ensuring that the policy objectives of this bill are realized. Access to appropriate supports for people living with disabilities that affect communications would go beyond our justice system and would also include access to health services, education and more.

Honourable senators, I want to share with you one other brief story, the story of a friend of mine of 30 years who in the past several months came to know all too well the challenges associated with difficulty in communications. Kim Clarke Champniss, as some of you will recall from his work in the heyday of MuchMusic as a veejay, TV producer and a challenging interviewer of the world’s top rock and roll artists, lost his voice permanently in the past months due to radical throat surgery that was used to address throat cancer.

I’ve watched Kim over the last weeks and months heroically take on this challenge, including the challenge of access to supports and technologies that would assist in his ability to continue engaging in the world with his upbeat energy and curiosity about the human condition. Kim will get through this. He would say, “I’m all right, Tone. I’m all right.” But Kim would also wish for better services for those who were alongside him and those who will undoubtedly follow him with communications challenges.

I would urge the government to ensure someone with a disability that affects their speech, language and communication be considered as a member of the board of the proposed Canadian Accessibility Standards Development Organization, CASDO, which was mentioned earlier. Their contributions would greatly benefit the 500,000 people living with speech and language difficulties and ensure that no one is left behind.

I would also like to recognize that standards and regulations under Bill C-81 will need to be updated every five years, which allows for changes in innovation. They will also require public review before they are adopted.

I close by saying, senators, that Bill C-81 needs to pass now. We have an obligation as parliamentarians and senators to protect the needs of all Canadians, especially those who are among the most vulnerable in our society. I strongly believe that acknowledging this community is an essential part of meeting the objectives of this bill, which will ultimately aim to remove and prevent barriers for all people in this country.

I end by thanking Barbara Collier, who has been a tireless advocate for a communications amendment passed in the House of Commons. With these final words, I would ask my honourable colleagues to join me in voting in favour of Bill C-81, An Act to ensure a barrier-free Canada. Thank you, all.