Carla Qualtrough – Canada’s Federal Minister of Sports and Persons with Disabilities
Do you have a disability? What do you think the federal government should know about your life? How accessible, inclusive do you find your hometown? Let us know. Tweet us @TheCurrentCBC, tweet me @IngWongWard. Post on the story on The Current’s Facebook page, or email us by clicking on contact, at cbc.ca/thecurrent.
Carla Qualtrough is the first-ever federal minister of sport and persons with disabilities. She tells The Current‘s special guest host Ing Wong-Ward that her appointment to Prime MInister Justin Trudeau’s cabinet as a legally blind person is “sending a strong signal to Canadians just how important disability and accessibility issues are to our government.”
“I think we do some things really well here in Canada and I think in other areas we have work to be done,” Qualtrough tells Wong-Ward.
Minister Qualtrough has been travelling across the country for an ongoing national public consultation on creating new Canadian accessibility legislation — the first of its kind in Canadian history. And while she’s honoured by the work she has been asked to do, “I certainly feel the weight of the responsibility.”
She says Canada can do better in terms of creating real meaningful change for those with disabilities.
“We have strong attitudes around inclusion and equity…but sometimes that doesn’t translate into opportunity for Canadians.”
Qualtrough highlights the importance of proactive legislation instead of reactive ones that come after a barrier has already interfered with somebody’s life.
“Systemically there’s a huge onus or burden on individuals to pursue more systematic complaints,” Qualtrough tells Wong-Ward.
“If I see a barrier in a bank for example, you know, it’s a barrier that anyone with my disability would face but it’s up to me to pursue it.”
She says it takes a long time to identify the barrier before the system can make it better.
“I’m hoping that some proactive legislation will allow organizations and government to go into that bank before it gets to the point of exclusion.”
Qualtrough emphasized that disability is not just physical, and that it’s “broader than physical access.”
Wong-Ward asked Minister Qualtrough what she was doing to provide more opportunities for people with disabilities.
“We’re not typical in that we have jobs, good paying jobs,” Wong-Ward tells Qualtrough.
“We are two women with our families of our own. I, like you, am a parent. I wonder how do we shift things so that more people with disabilities can have the same opportunities, so we’re not outliers a generation from now?”
“We are lucky, but we’re in the minority,” responds Qualtrough.
“It’s a question that weighs heavily on me more regularly than I care to admit.”
“I’m convinced we’re going to make history here.”
Listen to the full conversation at the top of this web post.
This segment was produced by The Current’s Julian Uzielli.
Minister Carla Qualtrough says Canada’s new disability act will ‘make history’
Guests: Carla Qualtrough
ING WONG-WARD: Hello, I’m Ing Wong-Ward, and you’re listening to a special Friday edition of The Current focusing on disability.
IWW: Still to come, Nujeen Mustafa endured a journey few of us can imagine. Traveling as a refugee from Syria across the Mediterranean and through Europe to Germany, and she did it all in a wheelchair. She’ll join me in half an hour. Before that, we’ll talk about putting disability on TV and having a few laughs with comedian Josh Blue. But first, legislating accessibility, because it’s 2016.
IWW: Early in the show we heard from a panel of young disability activists about what accessibility means to them. Well, that’s exactly the sort of conversation my next guest has been having with people right across this country. Carla Qualtrough is the Federal Minister of Sport and Persons with Disabilities, she is also legally blind. And she has been carrying out a consultation process with the aim of creating new accessibility legislation for Canada. Minister Qualtrough is with us from Vancouver. Hello.
CARLA QUALTROUGH: Good morning, thanks for having me.
IWW: Thanks for being with us. So you are the first ever minister responsible for Canadians with disabilities. What is the federal government acknowledging by creating this cabinet position?
CARLA QUALTROUGH: Well, I think it’s sending a strong signal to Canadians just how important disability and accessibility issues are to our government.
IWW: Now, you yourself are a person with a disability, you’re a former Paralympian and an accomplished individual. How do you intend on advocating for Canadians with disabilities? Do you feel pressure as a person with a disability to really represent here?
CARLA QUALTROUGH: I’m not sure pressure, but I certainly feel the weight of the responsibility. It’s an incredible honour and a huge opportunity and I’m taking a couple of different approaches to my position. So first of all, the number one priority in my mandate letter is to create accessibility legislation, or what we were formerly calling it Canadians with Disabilities Act. And the idea there of course, is to create some kind of proactive legislation that will create some standards or guidelines of we’re not quite sure what legally it will look like, but the idea being is that we’re going to set expectations on businesses, service providers and program deliverers on what an accessible Canada should look like. So that’s the more public side of it and behind the scenes of course, I sit at the cabinet table as a full cabinet minister, and I see my job as making sure that I provide a disability or accessibility lens to all the decisions that cabinet contemplates.
IWW: Yeah, and I think it’s very important, I think, what many people don’t necessarily realize how important it is to have the voice at the table. I did want to ask you how accessible and supportive do you think Canada is for people with disabilities today?
CARLA QUALTROUGH: You know what, I think it depends on the exact area you’re talking about. I think we do some things really well here in Canada and I think in other areas we have some work to be done. Like for example, I think we have as an outlet for addressing and funding a matter of redress when people are discriminated against. But ultimately, we have to wait until people are discriminated against before we can help them. So there’s no kind of proactive systemic way legally for people to have issues of accessibility addressed. You know, I think we have strong attitudes around inclusion and equity when we talk about the way we want to be and when we talk about values in Canada, but sometimes that doesn’t translate into opportunities for communities with disabilities.
IWW: So you mentioned, you know, that there’s room for improvement. What do you think could be improved?
CARLA QUALTROUGH: Well I think, you know, systemically there is a huge onus or a burden, I would say, on individuals to pursue more systemic complaints. So if I see a barrier in a bank for example, you know, it’s a barrier that anyone with my disability would face but it’s up to me to pursue it, it takes a long time. You know, we have to wait till the barriers identified before we as a system can go and try and make it better. I’m hoping that some proactive legislation will allow organizations and the government to go into that bank before it gets to the point of exclusion. And then, we have examples right? We have the Americans With Disabilities Act, we have an Ontarians With Disabilities Act, so we have some 25 year old legislation in the States and 10 year old legislation in Ontario that really gives us some guidance in terms of the directions we could take, and of course there’s other international models. But I think it’s an incredible opportunity to learn from what was done well in those cases and what we can improve upon to really get this right and make a difference.
IWW: As you know, in the province of Ontario where I live, where I’m speaking to you from, there are many people who feel that the Ontarians With Disabilities Act has not been as strong as it can be, that enforcement is an issue. So I wonder if you’re looking at a federal act, how do you deal with some of those issues around enforcement, to make sure that you get people on board with the need for this kind of legislation?
CARLA QUALTROUGH: I think what we have to do is figure out, you know, the carrot and stick. How much of a carrot do we want to give and how much of a stick? And I don’t want to get us in the business too far along of compliance, as in hiring people to go out in and challenge businesses and what have you. But at the same time, we need to hold businesses and groups accountable for legal requirements with respect to accessibility. So I think we need to have enough incentives, have enough kind of efforts on the attitudinal change and on incentivizing side that people, you know, people understand the business case for accessibility and inclusion. People understand their obligations but at the same time have sufficient consequences that if that doesn’t happen, we can go and, you know, make it better. You know, and one of the interesting options I’ve heard from groups is some kind of accessibility commissioner who could go out and report on the overall access levels of our country and be that advocate for accessibility to government, hold government accountable for accessibility. And I find that model interesting.
IWW: Mmhmm. Now, lack of accessibility is just one of the most visible barriers that people with disabilities in the country face. But you pointed out that there are systemic issues. And I know some advocates are concerned that, you know, focusing on physical accessibility takes away from issues such as housing, such as employment. We are living in a country where after decades of discussions around the capabilities of people with disabilities, we still have a 70 per cent unemployment rate in this country. So how do you deal with those larger systemic issues that aren’t so visible?
CARLA QUALTROUGH: Thank you for asking that, because I should clarify that when I say accessibility, I mean broader than just physical access. You know, what some people might call inclusion. So as part of our consultations, we’re doing an employment roundtable, a transportation roundtable, a procurement roundtable. So trying to get at the broader systemic issues of, you know, of exclusion. And the reason we have chosen right now to use the word accessibility and of course, you know, as many people as there are, there are different words out there to describe the same thing. But, you know, using the notion of inclusion seems broader and a little more vague. And of course, you know, you must understand that the language is a working title if you will, but we are very deliberately going beyond the physical access both in what we’re consulting on and what we intend to put in the law, to recognize exactly what you’re talking about. I spent many years before this job working as Chair of the Employment Accessibility Committee in BC, and it’s the biggest barrier. What I hear from people the most, what I hear from Canadians the most is that they can’t find work. And Canadians with disabilities, pardon me, is that they can’t find work and they have the skills, and we want to work. And so, for me a lot of what we’re doing always comes back to is, will this create better employment opportunities?
IWW: And we know that that is one of the significant barriers in this country.
CARLA QUALTROUGH: Absolutely.
IWW: And now, you’ve been, you know, you and your staff have been holding consultations across the country. As you well know as a federal cabinet minister, this is a diverse country and people with disabilities are a diverse population. How are you going to meet the needs of varying interests? Rural, urban, people who are disabled and belong to minority groups, visible minority groups, people who have issues around poverty. How do you balance all these issues?
CARLA QUALTROUGH: It’s a big challenge and we’re very alive to it. You know, it’s by its very nature, the kind of change we want is individualistic. It will, you know, ideally address the individual needs and respond to the individual circumstances of a singular person. Designing a system that responds to individual needs flexibly is tough. And that’s what we’re trying to do, I mean, we’re alive to it, people have made really interesting suggestions throughout the consultations. Again, I’m not sure where we’ll land in terms of how we draft the law. So, you know, will it be more aspirational and more enabling, coupled with regulations? Will it be more prescriptive and kind of entrench a disability policy? All of that is still in the development phase, it’s actually really exciting to have the opportunity to not be tethered to anything and just build something new and innovative from the start, learning from everything we’ve seen around the world.
IWW: As you proceed with these consultations with yourself and your staff, what has surprised you? Because you’ve worked in the field of disability rights for a long time, what has surprised you as you’ve heard from people?
CARLA QUALTROUGH: It’s a good question. You know, sometimes I sit in a room of advocates and activists and organizations and families, and I think of how far we’ve come in terms of, you know, what we have managed to achieve even in my lifetime. And at other times I sit back and I think, I heard similar submissions 20 years ago when I was first in law school, I heard it ten years ago, I heard it five years ago. So sometimes what surprises me is we are still tackling the same issues we’ve been tackling for decades. What I think is interesting right now with the political will we have with, you know, how far Canadians have come and their attitudes toward equity and inclusion, with the kind of momentum around the world, is we may have an opportunity now that you need to actually address some of these problems.
IWW: So given that we know some of the larger issues, and as you point out, some of these issues have been with us for decades now. Is there such a strong need then to have such a broad based consultation?
CARLA QUALTROUGH: Well, you know, yes, I’d say absolutely. Partially because we’ve never done this before in Canadian history. We’ve never actually gone out and done a national consultation, and so history tells us that most of these decisions have been imposed and nobody’s been consulted. You know, people who have been thinking about this for their entire lives and have been waiting for an opportunity to be heard. I mean, they’ve said it before but now they’re being heard. And I think it’s really important to have built that momentum that comes with just the very fact that we’re holding consultations and that everybody’s perspectives are being sought out.
IWW: Now, we have about a minute and a half now, but I wanted to ask you a more personal question. You and I, I would say we’re not typical in that we have jobs, good paying jobs, we are two women with our families of our own. I, like you, am a parent. And I wonder how do we, you know, how do we shift things so that more people with disabilities have the same kind of opportunities you and I have had, so that we’re no longer outliers a generation from now?
CARLA QUALTROUGH: Well, first of all I completely agree with you, that we are lucky but we are in the minority. And, you know, it’s a question that weighs heavily on me as I more regularly than I care to admit, remind people, you know, respectfully, that I’m the exception to the rule, I’m not the rule. And I think what we need to do is fundamentally shift the conversation around disability issues in this country. So what my not so secret agenda in having these consultations is to raise this profile of how we even talk about disability, not about charity, not about lending a hand, not about welfare, or all the things, you know, the medical kind of model, charitable paternalistic model that we have that we’ve butted our heads against for so many years. And talk about economic participation and full citizenship and just the notion of being Canadian and just shifting the conversation to more contribution focus, not handout focus, I guess is the best way I would say it. So just having a discussion and taking the opportunity to even harmonize our own federal government disability policy to reflect economic participation and full citizenship for all of us.
IWW: On that note, I thank you very much for joining us this morning.
CARLA QUALTROUGH: My pleasure.
IWW: And I look forward to seeing how the consultations and the legislation unfolds.
CARLA QUALTROUGH: Well, I thank you for your time and thank you for doing this. It’s a very exciting time and I’m convinced we’re going to make history here.
IWW: I believe that as well.
CARLA QUALTROUGH: [laughs] Thank you.
IWW: Carla Qualtrough is the Federal Minister of Sport and Persons with Disabilities. She was in Vancouver. Well, now we’d like to hear from you. Do you have a disability? What do you think the federal government should know about your life? How accessible, inclusive do you find your hometown? Let us know. Tweet us @TheCurrentCBC, tweet me @IngWongWard. Post on the story on The Current’s Facebook page, or email us by clicking on contact, at cbc.ca/thecurrent.