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Disability Rights Activism

Disability rights activism in Canada refers to the social and political movements aimed at advocating for the rights of people with disabilities. Disability rights activists and allies have, since the mid-twentieth century, been fighting for the rights of more than 6.2 million Canadians with one or more disabilities to be treated as full and equal citizens.

People with disabilities in Canada have faced discrimination and marginalization, both in the public sphere and in private life, historically and today. They have long been excluded from education, employment, housing, and other areas of social and economic life. It is through the mobilization and activism of people with disabilities, though, that things have changed over time.

History of Rights Mobilization:

Following World War I, when soldiers returned from combat, many of them with new disabilities—ranging from visual, to mobility, to psychological challenges—a number of organizations formed to advocate for and deliver relevant services to veterans. This included the formation of The War Amps in 1918. Many of the first policies and organizations during this time were grounded in the medical and charity models of disability. The medical approach pronounced disability as a harmful state needing fixing that deviated from the norm. The charity model sees people as victims of their disability, dependent on the non-disabled. Essentially, non-profit organizations and community groups provided services that were lacking to assist disabled veterans in reintegrating into society.

In the 1920s and 1930s, Alberta and British Columbia passed eugenic legislation that actively discouraged people with disabilities from procreation through forced and coerced sterilization. During this period, those with intellectual disabilities were understood to as undesirable or defective, and proposals to limit the reproductive agency of those with “inferior genes” were widely supported. In Alberta, the Sexual Sterilization Act of 1928 authorized medical authorities to sterilize institutionalized individuals to allow them to be discharged without the “risk of multiplication of the evil,” as stated in the act. Following a 1937 amendment surgeons no longer required informed consent from the individual or their family to perform these procedures. Estimates suggest that 2834 cases of legalized involuntary sterilization occurred in Alberta and from 200 to 400 cases in British Columbia before the Sexual Sterilization Acts were repealed in the 1970s as disability movements in Canada mobilized, inspired by the American Civil Rights movement.

A Eugenics Society poster (1930s) from the Wellcome Library Eugenics Society Archive. Credit: Posters. Wellcome Collection. (CC-BY-NC)

By the 1970s, many people with disabilities were organizing and holding protests as a way to advocate for their rights. Advocacy organizations in various provinces started to be established including, “the British Columbia Coalition of the Disabled, Committee of Action Groups of the Disabled (Alberta), Voice of the Handicapped (Saskatchewan), League of the Physically Handicapped (Manitoba), United Handicapped Groups of Ontario, Carrefour Adaptation (Québec), Council of the Disabled (Prince Edward Island), The HUB (Newfoundland), and League for Equal Opportunities (Nova Scotia).” These groups would collectively organize into a national organization. Later, in 1985 women from across Canada would come together to form a national organization of women with disabilities—the DisAbled Women’s Network (DAWN-RAFH Canada).


The Charter and Beyond

In 1980, the Trudeau government formed the Special Committee on the Disabled and the Handicapped, which identified and proposed solutions to issues faced by people with disabilities, such as access to employment and housing, and reviewed relevant federal legislation. This effort was kicked into high gear when the United Nations celebrated its International Year for Disabled Persons, in 1981 which increased awareness and activism surrounding disability rights in Canada. The most significant development of this era was the enactment of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982, which explicitly recognized “disability” as a protected equality right. Although there was concern that the term “disability” was too vague for inclusion in the Charter, as well as that both physical and mental disability should be separately named, efforts by activists such as Jim Derksen, ultimately ensured the inclusion of “disability” as grounds for equality rights in s.15 of the Charter.

The passage of the Charter into law opened the door for new pieces of Canadian legislation related to disability to be introduced. The introduction of the federal Employment Equity Act included provisions to prevent discrimination against people with disabilities in employment, and to address employment gaps in this population. Further, new programs including the Canada Pension benefits, Child Disability benefits, and tax credits and deductions for people with disabilities were also introduced. These programs enable Canadians with disabilities to access new levels of services that were not previously available, although significant, and important concerns remain, and quality has not been realized.

In 2019,  Parliament passed The Accessible Canada Act (ACA) which aims to achieve a barrier-free Canada by 2040. The ACA applies to the federal government and to organizations that are regulated by the federal government, including “banks, airlines, and phone companies.” The Act also establishes a new organization—Accessibility Standards Canada—which is mandated to develop and revise accessibility standards by conducting research, recommending accessibility standards to the Minister of Employment, Workforce Development, and Disability Inclusion, and identifying and removing barriers to accessibility. The Act also guaranteed that the majority of the board members of Accessibility Standards Canada be people with disabilities. The ACA also outlines some guiding principles for the implementation of this plan to follow. Everyone must be treated with dignity, have the same opportunity for self-determination, have barrier-free access to full and equal participation in society, and be free to make their own choices. Additionally, the design and implementation of the strategy must involve people with disabilities. The ACA also hopes that laws, policies, programs, services, and structures take into account people’s disabilities, how people with disabilities interact with their environments, and the intersecting types of discrimination faced by people with disabilities.

Image of Alberta handicap placards with stickers by Jerry “Woody” via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The majority of provinces in Canada now have an accessibility act that outlines the definition of a disability, the resources available within those provinces and the provincial government’s responsibility for improving access to accessibility:

In addition to legal and policy changes, disability rights activists in Canada have also used direct action tactics to draw attention to their cause. One example is the Disability Pride March, which takes place annually in Toronto and other cities across the country. This march celebrates the achievements and contributions of people with disabilities and raises awareness of the ongoing struggle for disability rights.

Ongoing challenges

Today, disability rights activism in Canada continues to be an important and ongoing struggle. Despite significant progress in recent decades, people with disabilities still face significant barriers to full participation in society. People with disabilities in Canada currently have lower rates of education than those without disabilities (Finlay et al., 2020). And as of 2018, 16.6% of persons lived in poverty, compared to 11.0% of the general population. Activists continue to demand greater recognition of their rights, as well as the implementation of policies and programs that address the needs of people with disabilities.

Additional resources:

Contributors: Mary Harper, Aiden Dunphy, Clare Cesnik, Nillani Kodeeswaran, Eliza Stanley, Fatima Khalid, Mallory Ball, Feroza Nazeri, Hayden Chen, Thien Dang, Isabella Gunderson, Kat Harwin, and Jasim Musa