Disability Community Priorities and Expectations

Presentation by Jim Derksen to P/T Minister Meeting re CRPD

It is a pleasure to be here today and to share with you the excitement and hopes of the disability rights community in regard to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). Before I speak to the priorities of Canadians with disabilities I want to note the progress we have made over the years. I have been involved in the disability rights movement both locally, nationally and internationally for over 30 years. In fact today I am here representing the Council of Canadians with Disabilities of which I was a founding member, and with which I have been involved for more than 35 years. If we take the long view, clearly the situation of persons with disabilities in Canada has improved substantively since the mid 60’s.

When we were young wheelchair users there were no accessible public transit systems and our mothers often had to drag us up the steps of the bus on the seat of our pants. Now we can choose between door-to-door parallel Handi-Transit or take regular low floor public buses on regular routes. I remember when our built environment was so inaccessible that wheelchair users like myself could not expect to get into our local schools, theatres or places of employment. And if we were intellectually disabled we were expected to live in institutions. I remember when there was no expectation that we would ever work or be elected to public office, get married or raise a family. Certainly we have come a long way together and we expect to go much further before we reach our shared goal of equal participation in community life.

The CRPD is a new tool that reflects the guarantees of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, of human rights laws and numerous policies and programs, and presents a consensus understanding of the aspirations of people with disabilities.

There is no doubt that the progressive changes that we have seen over the past forty years have come about because people with disability have spoken out and called for improvements. The disability community has been the catalyst for change. We know things cannot change all at once, but we do expect continued and accelerated efforts to integrate us into the economy and the full life of the community. We view the CRPD as a new opportunity to generate renewed commitment and action that will result in us being able to realize our full and equal citizenship. We cannot accept the status quo and we will be vigilant to resist further barriers and inequities.

In the words of the CRPD we expect progressive realization of our rights. And this must be a broadly shared goal because we are all in this together. According to the International Labor Organization, the annual loss of global GDP due to our exclusion of persons from the labor market is between US$1.37 trillion and US$1.94 trillion.

But let me now speak more directly to the current priorities of Canadians with disabilities. To understand our priorities you must know that:

  • We disproportionately live in poverty.
  • Over two million of us who are adults lack one or more of the educational or workplace aids, home modification or other supports we need to participate fully in our communities.
  • Over 56% of us who are working-age adults are currently unemployed or out of the labor market. For those of us who are women the rate is almost 60%.
  • Many of us with intellectual disabilities remain warehoused in institutions, including group homes and congregate care facilities, across this country.
  • Slightly more than half of us who are children in need of aids and devices, need more than what we have.
  • Rates of violence and abuse against us, in particular those of us who are women, are among the highest for any group in Canadian society.

The CRPD envisions a new world where people with disabilities have the full rights set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Of course there is a gap between this vision and our lived experience, and this is the gap between legal obligations, on the one hand, and programs, services, and practices, on the other. While many of our laws may be in compliance with the CRPD vision our practices and programs are not. The CRPD is a useful tool for measuring our laws, policies and programs so that we can plan to close this gap.

At this time our first priority is to establish the CRPD Article 33 infrastructures and process for coordinating the monitoring and implementation of the Convention Canada has ratified. As you will understand our current and ongoing priorities are more substantive. Rather than provide a long “shopping list”, I will comment on four broad issue areas:

Poverty Alleviation - The Over-Arching Issue

For most of us the best way to deal with poverty is education, training and engagement in the labour force. There are some of us, however, who will not likely be part of the competitive labour market now or in the foreseeable future. Our income security system therefore is also critical as a means to lift us out of poverty. Since we have made huge progress preventing seniors from living in deep poverty, many of us with disabilities long to be sixty-five years old as it is only then that we will be better off. Happily a number of provinces are undertaking poverty-reduction initiatives. These programs, or a federal initiative, must find ways of lifting those of us who are unlikely to join the current competitive labour market out of poverty.

Access to Disability Related Supports

The current patchwork quilt of disability support programs in Canada does not meet our needs or aspirations. By far most of these programs are delivered by provinces. Each province has some excellent programs, but program options and delivery across our country varies considerably. One of the challenges of our federation is the ability to find ways of ensuring some base level of services within every province and territory. New investments in disability related supports such as technical aids, homecare, community living options, affordable accessible housing etc. are essential. Disability support provision is also the mechanism for enabling greater access to education and ultimately labour market participation.

Labour Force Participation

Having a good job is ultimately the best means of ensuring economic independence. For Canadians with disabilities we would urge all governments to:

  • become model employers,
  • establish targets within Labour Market Agreements for the training and support of persons with disabilities,
  • reduce disincentives and remove barriers to labour force participation that exist within income security programs.

The federal government should be encouraged to increase EI sick benefits so that those with episodic disability can retain attachment to employment.


Creating more accessible communities and removing barriers to participation remains one of our fundamental concerns. Progress is being made but we are too often shocked to see new facilities less than fully accessible, and dismayed to see the emergence of substantive new barriers in the area of new information technologies. New technologies can be great liberators but if access is not built into their design new barriers are created. These new barriers include: information systems that rely on touch screen technology, point of purchase devices and blackberries that have not included access features, websites that are not fully accessible, a loss of personal service provision and greater reliance upon inaccessible automated systems. The disability community asks that governments:

  • Develop procurement policies that will ensure purchase only of accessible systems,
  • Ensure websites and information kiosks are fully accessible,
  • Update building codes with a cross disability perspective to reflect current participation of persons with disabilities,
  • Develop and enforce access standards regulations for the housing development, transportation and other industries that have largely ignored our needs.
  • Create centres of knowledge on good accommodation and access practices to assist employers and others find solutions to current barriers.

There may be a need for Accessibility Legislation but we also need the political will to use existing tools to remove barriers and require accessibility.

Creating adaptive technologies or approaches to ensure access is no longer possible. The current speed of change does not allow an adaptation approach but instead requires that access standards be built into the original design.

Progressive Realization: Means Action

The CRPD talks about progressive realization and we are well aware that our rights will not be realized all at once. But equally true is our view that we must move to this realization faster than we have over the past 50 years. We realize that governments will need to prioritize their actions and while the issue areas identified above clearly outline community priorities, we also have reached some consensus on sectors within our community that should receive prioritized attention. Those communities are:

  1. Youth with disabilities facing significant transition challenges from home to independent living or from school to work.
  2. Aboriginal Peoples who experience greater poverty and incidence of disability, and
  3. People with disabilities moving from institutions to community living.

Closing Comment

I want to close by reiterating that, in our view, the CRPD is a very useful instrument, bringing together human rights principles and specific measures to benefit our society by more fairly including those of us with disabilities. The full participation of persons with disabilities has been key in its elaboration and will be key in its implementation and monitoring.

Ratification, above all, means that our political leaders must translate rhetorical support into concrete, results-oriented action. This means going beyond current processes and mechanisms, and, yes, allocating necessary resources for the changes required.

The disability community agrees wholeheartedly that the CRPD should be less about lofty promises and more about real results.