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The Americans with Disabilities Act marked its 25 anniversary this week. So, is there finally a place for a Canadians with Disabilities Act? And if so, what should that even look like?

disability advocates march on the capitol

Nothing captures the powerful history of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)—and the advocates’ role in its development—like a series of famous black and white photographs. The images shows people with disabilities abandoning their wheelchairs and mobility devices, crawling up the stairs of the U.S. Capitol in protest of the delayed passage of the ADA. Although the act had been passed by the Senate a year earlier, in 1990 it had hit a wall in House of Representatives and had yet to be voted through. So activists took to the Capitol—in any way they could—determinately chanting “ADA now!” and “Vote! Now!”

This past Sunday, July 26, marked the 25th anniversary of that Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), one of the most prominent anti-discrimination legislative acts in the U.S. history. Finally passed in 1990, the ADA prohibited discrimination for persons with disabilities in employment, state and local government services, public accommodations, commercial facilities, and transportation.

The history of the ADA is one of disability advocacy that has grown and strengthened as the fight to have the ADA passed intensified. The law is the expression of the voices of people who were invisible and disregarded by U.S. politicians.

George Bush signs the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

George Bush signs the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

Today, the ADA is commended for advancing the rights of and providing access to individuals with disabilities. But it has also been criticized for, among other things, its failure to address high poverty and unemployment rates among people with disabilities. In fact, disability advocates emphasize that as much as we need to celebrate the success of the ADA, we should also remember how much work still lies ahead.

Although the discussion around the need for Canada to adopt a similar federal legislation for Canadians with disabilities has been raised before, the debate is far from over. While in America the ADA adopted an anti-discrimination approach, north of the border we did things a little differently. Instead of making disability the basis for policy-making, Canada incorporated it into universal legislative acts such as the Charter of Rights and Freedoms as well as other policy instruments that focus on specific topics (taxes, income assistance, employment, etc.). The Canadian Disability Policy Alliance developed a list of the legislative acts in Canada pertaining to disability and referred to them as “a patchwork of multiple tools employed in multiple policy areas.”

Canadian political scientist Michael J. Prince[1] found the Canadian disability movement to have three different attitudes towards an omnibus law (or all-encompassing Disability Act).

One group of people does not support it on the grounds that such legislation may ghettoize disability as a social policy area. They fear that it will undermine the division of responsibilities between federal and provincial governments and that such law risks sidestepping the Charter of Rights and human rights guarantees.

A second group tends to be ambivalent about this law. They express concern that the government will treat such law as a major response to the needs of people with disabilities and use it as an excuse for future inaction. Yet this group also agrees that in close consultation with disability groups across the country, a Disability Act could improve access and inclusion, if modestly.

Finally, a third group supports the law and believes that it can energize the movement, raise public awareness, and help forge alliances.

ADAmarchRegardless of these disparate attitudes, a law that arose as a result of daring acts of civil resistance, like the ones captured in the black and white photographs, deserves our attention and respect—in spite of the law’s many imperfections.

However, no federal legislation can or could guarantee that such a law is truly comprehensive. To start with, the category of “disability” proved hard to define, leaving us with an array of definitions that range from purely diagnostic to more socially oriented. Definitions matter because they determine how the law will be interpreted. In the case of the U.S., courts kept contesting the definitions of disability, ultimately blurring the original intent of the ADA.

Even within the disability community there are groups that benefit from a certain disability legislation more than others.

Even within the disability community there are groups that benefit from a certain disability legislation more than others. The nature of anti-discrimination laws, employment services, and income support is such that they vary in their coverage of people by types of disabilities. Thus, people with mobility impairments rated the effectiveness of the ADA higher than the individuals with visual or hearing impairments.

a photo of a person with a hook for a hand. The text on the photo says If you overlook this job applicant it could be a real crime.
An Easter Seals poster reminds employers to set aside their prejudices following the option of the ADA.

Based on the history of the USA and Canada, a Canadian version of the federal law would look different, and disability advocates and politicians would have to answer some tough questions before any sort of federal legislation could be considered: What is the definition of disability? How do we make sure the law is inclusive?

  • Do we want a law based on the principles of anti-discrimination or a law that focuses on broader principles such as public awareness, promotion of universal design, and accessibility?
  • How will the federal and the provincial/territorial authorities be divided?
  • How do we ensure enforcement and sustainability?
  • How do we incorporate existing laws that pertain to disability?

Ultimately, the technical provisions of such a law are not enough to fulfill the promise of an entirely inclusive country. Embedded in the law should be a bigger message that people with disabilities are entitled to personal choice and control of their lives. What shape that message has is a secondary issue.

Embedded in the law should be a bigger message that people with disabilities are entitled to personal choice and control of their lives.

A unified federal law could certainly be an attempt at consolidating today’s fragmented policies and at addressing a key question: what does it mean to have “disability” move beyond purely medical or welfare-based definitions? It is important to align concepts with solutions. In other words, if “disability” is defined purely in medical terms, such a model doesn’t raise the question of justice, nor does it emphasize the rights of people with disabilities[2]. A truly successful disability policy needs to provide an interpretation of the general goals of respect and participation whether in the U.S. or maybe, someday soon, in Canada.


[1] Prince, M. J. (2010). What about a disability rights act for Canada? Practices and lessons from America, Australia, and the United Kingdom. Canadian Public Policy / Analyse De Politiques, 36(2), 199-214. doi:10.3138/cpp.36.2.199

[2] Jongbloed, L. (2003). Disability policy in Canada. Journal of Disability Policy Studies, 13(4), 203.

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