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OPINION: In anticipation of a BC Accessibility Act

When it comes to reducing barriers, B.C. has made progress, but still has a long way to go

Imagine for a moment you were the keynote speaker at an event, but you arrived and couldn’t get onto the stage.

What if you couldn’t speak and were refused medical services unless you allowed someone to speak for you?

What if you booked a vacation of a lifetime and arrived at your destination only to be told they didn’t have the special room you’d carefully booked, despite promises?

What if you applied for a job, but when they called you to book an interview and learned you had a disability they hung up?

What if you wanted to attend a sporting event or a concert with friends but couldn’t sit with them because you were limited to sitting with only one other person, and if you tried to sit with your friends elsewhere, you’re asked to leave because you’re considered a fire hazard?

What if you took your three-year-old to the park to play but you were barred from getting to the playground equipment with them?

Worse yet, what if you were six years old and you were the only kid who didn’t get to go to your friend’s birthday party because the friend’s house was inaccessible?

Have you ever had to decline an invitation to go to an event or activity with friends because there was no accessible washroom?

What if you are blind or have limited vision and you go to a restaurant for lunch, and they haven’t got large-print and braille menus?

What if you had a cognitive impairment and couldn’t understand the form you needed to fill out to receive a service because the form used technical language, long sentences, and multi-syllable words?

Accessible parking spaces don’t seem like a big deal, but if you do not have adequate space to open your car door all the way to lift your chair out or to lower a lift or the days snowfall is piled up in the only accessible parking spot, it isn’t simply an inconvenience – it may as well be a brick wall.

Would you be frustrated? Sad? Disillusioned? Feel left out? Would you be angry?

Yes, barriers are real. They still exist in 2021; they still exist in British Columbia.

It’s not a sob story. I’m not telling you this to feel sorry for me or for others, quite the opposite. I’m telling you this to emphasize the opportunity and the obligation we have to eliminate these very real and unnecessary barriers.

There are more than 926,000 British Columbians over the age of 15 with some sort of disability, a barrier to full and equitable participation. That’s nearly 25 per cent of the population. That’s 25 per cent who may not, because of these barriers, be able to access their community, employment, or even government services such as healthcare.

We can change that – but we must be honest. We must acknowledge that the biggest barrier of all is ourselves and our own biases. In fact, attitudinal barriers are the most pervasive because they contribute to other barriers.

For example, some people may not be aware of challenges that exist in getting to or into a place can limit a person with a disability from participating in everyday life. Some just don’t take the time to think. Others just think it’s not their problem, so who cares?

We are probably all guilty of this in some capacity, but often people with disabilities are stereotyped, the assumption being that their quality of life is poor or that they are unhealthy or unwell because of their disability.

Thankfully, broader society’s understanding of disability is improving as we shift the definition of “disability” from a personal deficit or shortcoming to more what occurs because a person’s needs are not addressed in the physical and social environment. The earlier previous examples are just a few, and there are many more. So why do the barriers persist? Because they can.

I was recently told by a business, when I suggested some improvements to their accessibility, “I’ve done what I am required to by law.”

I certainly would have hoped people’s thinking would have evolved by now – 30 years after my injury first thrust me into this reality – but it hasn’t, at least not enough. I’ve always been a believer that education and positive reinforcement was the answer – more carrot, less stick. But 30 years later, I have evolved my thinking: more stick is required.

I introduced the New Housing Amendment Act because we, as a society, need to design and build housing that works for everyone. That’s why a few years ago we moved forward with Accessibility 2024. That’s why the government of Canada has passed Bill C-81, that’s why all parties here in B.C. have committed to B.C. Accessibility legislation.

There is much to do and everyone can help. When you see a barrier for someone else, speak up.

My own experience with disability and my work within the disability community – both as a board member of the Disability Alliance of BC and my work with SCI-BC and other disability groups, and as a former Minister responsible for social programs in B.C. – has broadened my views and exposed me to the vast and varied experience of the disability community and taught me the importance and the challenges associated with bringing those diverse experiences to a common goal.

Be it the built environment, employment, communications, service delivery, transportation, or procurement, the reality is that barriers continue to exist, and even to be erected. We now have the express intent to proactively confront those barriers and break them down. Let’s get this right.

But we do need to learn from those who have gone before. We do need to attempt to move to a national standard and away from creating yet another standard. There are examples of good work already done.

Many are on display at YVR because management has decided to ask the right questions, of the right people, and has committed to making the necessary changes.

Last year I had the opportunity to test out a prototype wheelchair lift that could provide wheelchair access to seaplanes. Proving almost anything is possible with commitment and ingenuity.

The advocates and the disability community in its broadest sense, will be looking for the act (both federally, and what we ultimately do provincially) to bring about both systemic and societal attitudinal change – it is a big expectation to fill. But it is the right thing to do. It makes economic and social sense.

Stephanie Cadieux is MLA for Surrey South and BC Liberal Critic for Gender Equity, Accessibility and Inclusion

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