NDP’s accessibility bill leaves advocates wanting more

By Shannon Waters May 6, 2021

The NDP government’s promised accessibility legislation hit the clerk’s table last week after years of consultation and development, but some advocates say they’re concerned it won’t deliver on its commitments.

Bill 6, Accessible British Columbia Act, aims to complement federal accessibility legislation passed in 2019 and will set the stage for the development of accessibility standards for workplaces, transportation, provincial services, buildings and more.

Helaine Boyd, co-executive director of programs and policy for Disability Alliance BC (DABC), told BC Today her organization met with Social Development and Poverty Reduction Minister Nicholas Simons monthly since December to discuss the legislation. DABC hoped the province would build on lessons learned in other provinces that have accessibility legislation — Ontario, Nova Scotia and Manitoba, as well as the federal law.

“What we expected was a stronger bill,” she said.

Bill 6 “marks an important step in building an accessible province that works for all of us,” according to Simons.

“To be a truly inclusive province, we must integrate accessibility into all aspects of our lives,” he said

Dan Coulter, parliamentary secretary for accessibility and himself a wheelchair user, hailed the involvement of the disability community in developing the legislation.

“People with disabilities have been leaders in shaping the act from the beginning, and it is with their continued input that we’ll be able to build a barrier-free B.C.,” Coulter said

But for Boyd, the content of the bill doesn’t mesh with the government’s lofty promises.

“This act comes across as not being sincere in trying to eliminate barriers for people with disabilities in the province,” she said. “It doesn’t seem like it’s really bringing a strong hand to what is needed for this to happen — to eliminate barriers and promote accessibility.”

Much more work to be done
The bill is enabling legislation and many specifics will be hashed out through regulations once it passes, a process Coulter said he expects will take years — but Boyd says what she has seen so far is cause for concern.

Boyd said the bill doesn’t have a way for people to make complaints about violations of the proposed law. “Which just seems really strange, because other acts by nature do have an individual complaint mechanism,” she said.

The bill’s compliance and enforcement section, which uses “quite moderate” language, also gives Boyd pause. Phrases like “the minister may” instead of “the minister shall” or “the minister must” don’t inspire confidence that the province is taking the issue of accessibility seriously according to Boyd.

“If you have your foundational bill that doesn’t have strong language within it, that doesn’t set a good standard for any regulations and the standards that come after it,” she told BC Today.

Another red flag: there’s no timeline to implement the bill.

Ottawa’s accessibility law is supposed to be fully fleshed out by 2040, while Ontario’s accessibility legislation, passed in 2005, was supposed to be fully implemented last year.

DABC plans to flag their concerns to B.C.’s MLAs shortly, according to Boyd, in the hopes at least some can be addressed during committee stage. The regulatory stage could also provide an opportunity for improvement.

“We do have positive feelings and hopes that the development of these regulations and standards, through heavy involvement of the disability community, will definitely shed a good light on eliminating barriers,” Boyd said.

Bill needs to approach accessibility with a broader brush: Liberal critic
Liberal Accessibility critic Stephanie Cadieux will be front and centre when Bill 6 goes to committee, and, like Boyd, she has some concerns about what she’s seen so far.

“Enabling legislation is a challenge [because] it’s a lot of ‘trust me, it’ll be great,’ on behalf of government,” Cadieux told BC Today. “My concerns are how quickly it will have impact, and where and with what — and the actual nuts and bolts of how we’re going to achieve change.”

Like Boyd, Cadieux hoped the NDP’s bill would be bolder.

“I understand why they have designed the legislation this way, but as a person with a disability and as an advocate, I want more teeth, and I want more teeth quickly,” she said.

Cadieux’s understanding is that the legislation will take a “government first” approach, setting standards for government services, programs and ministries, before tackling the broader public and private sectors. While she agrees “government should lead” when it comes to improving accessibility, Cadieux believes the approach is wrong-headed and could blunt the legislation’s impact.

She said issues with government aren’t the main problems people with disabilities face.

“While they may interact with those things periodically, the reality is whether or not they can find an accessible home, whether or not their activities and the places they need to go in their community are accessible to them, are much more in their face,” she said. “They’re the barriers they face on a daily basis.”

Cadieux wants to see B.C. come up with a unified set of standards to be rolled out across the province that complements, rather than duplicates, federal law.

“We don’t have clarity within the bill itself,” she said. “Overall, I am very pleased that we are moving forward as a province with legislation like this and hope that the government will be able to move quickly enough that people with disabilities are not disappointed.”