People with disabilities are a vulnerable population that has historically and, to some extent, in modern times, been a target of negative consequences and experiences due to ableism. Ableism can be defined as attitudes that seek to devalue or discriminate against persons with disabilities because of a belief system that suggests that disabilities are an anomaly (OHRC, 2016). Even in an accepting nation like Canada, people with disabilities have experienced discrimination, neglect, exclusion, and marginalization due to the status quo of societal structures and attitudes. As part of its mission of creating a safe and equitable environment, the Ontario government has used various legislation and guidelines, including the Ontario Human Rights Code, as a legal framework to protect the rights and wellbeing of people with disabilities in their daily lives.
Canada has a challenging history when it comes to people with disabilities, particularly in major urban centers such as Ontario. The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw rapid industrialization, which created socioeconomic conditions that contributed to segregation and discrimination against disabled individuals. Due to the growth of political institutions, various other establishments such as psychiatric hospitals, refuge homes, schools for the blind were opened. While that may seem like a positive development and advocates appealed to the Christian ethic to fund these programs and services, within the social and political context, people with disabilities were inherently seen as incapable and dependent – therefore, they were denied the opportunity to exercise civil rights (Galer, 2015).
The situation began to change in the aftermath of both World Wars when veterans with disabilities were prevalent but respected in the population. The latter half of the 20th century saw the rise of various consumer groups and civil rights groups advocating for more rights and protections. When the UN issues the Declaration on the Rights of Disabled persons
in 1975, both the federal and the Ontario governments began creating advisory councils to make policy recommendations. In the economic crises of the 1980s and 90s, there was a greater push to promote the interests of disabled Canadians, and many scholarly studies emerged studying the social effects of disability discrimination seen in the country. The 21st century saw an increased and continuous advocacy for the rights of the disabled, also driven by the objectives of the Ontario government to create a barrier-free society by 2025 with appropriate accessibility standards. Canada ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2010, which commits the country to measures and principles aimed at improving the socioeconomic condition of people with disabilities and increasing their rights (Galer, 2015). This has led to the creation of the Ontario Human Rights Code and other legislation discussed in the following sections.
Human Rights Code
The Ontario Human Rights Code was the first of its kind in Canada, enacted in 1962. It is a provincial law that guarantees equal rights and opportunities to individuals without discrimination, harassment, and reprisal in various protected social areas. According to the code, “Every person has a right to equal treatment with respect to services, goods and facilities, without discrimination because of race, ancestry, place of origin, colour, ethnic origin, citizenship, creed, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, age, marital status, family status or disability” (“Human Rights Code,” 2021). These are all aspects that are protected under the law. The social areas where discrimination is illegal based on these characteristics, including disability, are housing and accommodation, employment, contracts, goods and services, access to facilities, and membership in unions or professional associations (OHRC, n.d.). The law brought together various separate pieces of discrimination legislation into one comprehensive bill with solid protections.
Furthermore, in 2008, the human rights system underwent reform, creating three separate branches. There is the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario which decides on cases if rights were violated and provides the resolution and legal judgment on the situation. The Human Rights Legal Support Centre essentially provides aid for individuals to file complaints and applications with the Tribunal, offering legal guidance. Finally, there is the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) which investigates discrimination, its causes, and methods to bring systemic change. It serves multiple roles including public education, human rights watchdog, research and analysis, and sometimes intervening in cases on behalf of the broad public interest (OHRC, 2013).
In the context of disability, the Ontario Human Rights Code has broad coverage and enforcing power in protecting people from discrimination and harassment based on disability. The Code recognizes that disabilities may be physical, mental, and social, as well as invisible or episodic – because of the diverse nature of disabilities, the law essentially covers any potential interpretation of disabilities, including the past, present, and perceived conditions. The Code prohibits discrimination in any of its forms in the provision of services or employment, direct and indirect harassment by either individuals or groups, creating toxic environments or barriers that affect people with disabilities. Furthermore, under the Code, service providers and employers have the duty to accommodate with three principles in mind of respect for dignity, individualization, and integration/participation (OHRC, n.d.).
Other Disabilities Legislation
Various other legislation exists both federally in Canada and in Ontario as well to protect the rights of people with disabilities. Another prominent law is the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (OADA) of 2005 which enforces public and private sectors to follow established accessibility standards for the general public. These are divided into five categories: employment, transportation, customer service, design of public spaces, and
information/communication. It is astringent law focused on accessibility and technical concepts that may not be covered under the Human Rights Code (Essential Accessibility, 2020).
There is also federal legislation that is worth noting, which works together with Ontario provincial law to offer protection and rights. Following Ontario’s success, the federal legislation passed the Canadian Human Rights Act, which prevents discrimination and harassment based on 11 categories, making it applicable to federal and international employers and organizations as well. There is also the well-known Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which is a section of the national constitution, guarantees everyone equal protection under the law and bans discrimination, including those that identify with a “mental or physical disability” (Essential Accessibility, 2020).
Effectiveness and Future Objectives
There are almost 4 million individuals in Canada with physical, sensory, cognitive, and other impairments, encompassing nearly 14% of the national population (Galer, 2015). Therefore, disability legislation is important and impacts the lives of many citizens that are overcoming challenges daily but want to see equitable treatment and opportunities from and within societal structures. Undoubtedly the Code and other laws have made significant progress from historical discrimination of the past, but there are substantial barriers to overcome. One particular area of focus should be employment. Only 59% of people with disabilities of the working-age are employed, compared to 80% in the non-disabilities population. Meanwhile, people with disabilities that work earn on average less than Canadians without disabilities (ranging from 12 to 51% less, depending on the severity of the disability) (Government of Canada, 2019).
As a result of these statistics, many Canadians with disabilities find themselves in poverty. While authorities recognize the issue, the solution is complex. The biggest lessons learned which guide objectives for the future are to create greater opportunities through accessibility. A recent federal law named the Accessible Canada Act, which came into force in late 2019 greatly improves accessibility and participation in the public sector and multiple industries, including reviewing and eliminating barriers and hiring 1000 employees with disabilities per year (Government of Canada, 2019).
The Ontario Human Rights Code and other legislation explored in this paper provide a comprehensive legislative framework in ensuring protection of people with disabilities from discrimination, harassment, and ensures accessibility is available in various daily of activities or services. As discussed, disability discrimination remains a sensitive element of Canada’s history and can persist through covert means in the modern-day. As part of the government’s commitment to human rights and equality, these laws are critical to promote, support, enforce, and education the public on the challenges faced by people with disabilities. While these are modest steps, and arguably there is more government and private sector support is needed, it is a move in the correct direction. Unlike many other developed countries, through legislation such as the Ontario Human Rights Code, stakeholders and Canada as a country recognize the importance of equality and provides vital opportunities for individuals with disabilities to live a healthy normal life without discrimination.
Essential Accessibility. (2020). An overview of Canada’s accessibility laws: A look at the old and the new. Web.
Galer, D. (2015). Disability rights movement in Canada. The Canadian Encyclopedia. Web.
Government of Canada. (2019). Making an accessible Canada for persons with disabilities. Web.
Human Rights Code, R.S.O. 1990, c. H.19. (2021). Ontario. Web.
OHRC. (2013). Guide to your rights and responsibilities under the Human Rights Code. Web.
OHRC. (2016). Policy on ableism and discrimination based on disability. Web.
OHRC. (n.d.). Discrimination based on disability and the duty to accommodate: Information for service providers. Web.