Rick Hansen is a three-time Paralympic gold medalist and founder and CEO of the Rick Hansen Foundation, an organization committed to creating a world without barriers for people with disabilities.
Dec. 3 is the United Nations-sanctioned International Day of Persons With Disabilities (IDPD), and this also marks the 30th year since I wheeled around the world creating awareness and encouraging barriers to be removed. A lot has been accomplished in that time, including the UN declaring the launch of the Decade of Disabled Persons from 1983-1992, which ended with a global conference on accessibility hosted by Canada that I had the good fortune of leading. In 1992, the UN annualized this day to remind people that we need to celebrate successes and set goals of accessibility and inclusivity for all. The UN embedded this in the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2007 and nations were asked to sign their commitments to accessibility and inclusion to measure where they were and to report on progress. Canada was an active supporter.
The World Health Organization has declared that over a billion people are living with disabilities, or 15 out of every 100 people, which makes it the world’s largest minority. That statistic is growing dramatically, with factors such as the number of aging baby boomers being taken into account. By 2036, we can expect the incidence of disability to increase to one in five Canadians living with a disability.
It is logical that the UN would transition beyond the human rights established in its Convention to incorporate sustainability goals and open the economic productivity side of the equation to include people with disabilities as the theme this year. By creating standardized metrics that allow us to measure accessibility and have those anchored by global standards, we can measure progress and plan for improvements that will give us a consistent lens grounded in the principles of universal design so that a uniform manner of determining accessibility can be applied.
The approach of this year’s IDPD theme toward a sustainable and resilient society for all would mean taking steps such as reducing stigma, encouraging cultural shifts that normalize disability and making accommodations to ensure people with disabilities could contribute through work, building on productivity despite disabling conditions. In essence, it’s a focus on ability. With these proactive tactics, people could stay in their jobs longer and people with disabilities who are currently disproportionally unemployed could be recruited and employed. In Ontario alone, there are more than 54,000 students with disabilities graduating from colleges and universities, and yet their employment rates are 50 per cent in comparison with able-bodied counterparts. The lack of complete accessibility creates an incredible economic handicap for our country and limits the full potential of people with disabilities.
One of the great needs right now is for standardized, measurable solutions for our built environment, the places and spaces where we live, work, play and learn. By creating an accessibility certification program for the built environment, we will have an objective way for professionals throughout the design chain to adopt and apply a consistent and uniform manner of determining levels of access. By becoming inclusive and accessible in our built environment we create opportunity, liberate potential, maximize our labour pool and drive vibrant economic growth. This can be done with relatively modest investments in relation to the cost of undeveloped talent and high unemployment.
Canada now has a chance to be the first to create a global solution in rating and certifying our built environment for accessibility. This will be a driving force for us to become fully accessible over the next 30 years. Committing to a certification program would be a great way to celebrate the IDPD. Encouraging all federal, provincial, municipal and Indigenous governments to come together on this important issue would unify not only governments but the private sector and communities across the country. Using a standardized methodology to measure the accessibility of our built environment would allow us to work together, measuring the same things and seeing tangible examples of progress that will ultimately become a global legacy.
By driving forward and removing barriers to accessibility and inclusion, we can accelerate our progress in employment, customer service, communications, transportation and other significant barriers that impact people with disabilities.
As the federal government introduces its proposed legislation and does its part to ensure that barriers are removed and that people with disabilities live inclusive, full, productive and meaningful lives, it’s vital that the government of Canada also invest in social innovation. This is necessary to unify our currently very fragmented view of accessibility in our built environment. Together we are stronger and we can get there faster.