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The Changing Shape of Disability Rights Work

Editor's Note: This article is based on remarks by John Rae in accepting the Centre for Social Justice's Lifetime Achievement Award in Toronto, Ontario, on June 9, 2007.

Picture: John Rae receiving his lifetime achievement award

Since the emergence of Canada's disability rights movement in the mid 1970s, much of its work has focused on eliminating old barriers and changing attitudes. Today this remains the case, but strange though it may sound, an increasing portion of its work now involves preventing the introduction of new barriers.

This is particularly true in the area of transportation. Smaller airplanes are appearing on a growing number of routes, and many of these cannot carry an electric wheelchair. Onboard airline entertainment systems are introducing flat screens with no buttons that are inaccessible to blind passengers. And the emergence of the environmentally friendlier hybrid automobile, called by some as the "quiet stalker," is so quiet that those of us who rely upon our hearing for safe travel throughout our communities simply cannot hear its approach on city streets or in a shopping mall.

The Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act 2005 was supposed to make Ontario fully accessible by the far off date of 2025. But an examination of the recently released Regulation on Customer Service and the draft Transportation Accessibility Standard, along with the emasculation of Ontario's Human Rights Commission, seriously calls this into question.

For example, at a time when Ontario's Human Rights Tribunal gave the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) only 30 days to begin calling out bus and streetcar stops, the Draft Transportation Accessibility Standard proposes an 18-year timeframe for accomplishing this simple move towards transportation accessibility for Ontarians.

No wonder groups like the Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians (AEBC) and the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance (AODA) are calling for this draft to be sent back to the drawing board to be re-written.

The disability rights movement is always looking for new allies, whether inside Canada's labour movement or at the community level.

Too often, social justice work gets fragmented. Human rights work is often equated with fighting racism, which continues to require our attention. Fighting for low-wage workers who need an increase in the minimum wage can overlook those groups like First Nations Peoples and persons with disabilities who are unemployed and searching for work. And the fight for a cleaner environment is yet to address the dangers of the hybrid automobile.

I look forward to the day when social justice and human rights work takes a more holistic approach to fighting discrimination so that all Canadians will be able to take their rightful place in our affluent country.

Note: A synopsis of these remarks appeared in the Rapaport Report, September 2007.

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