October 14, 2011
High Commissioner for Human Rights
Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights
United Nations Office at Geneva,
CH 1211 Geneva 10 Switzerland
Dear High Commissioner,
In recent months, the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) has been examining the issue of accessible elections for both voters and candidates with disabilities. That is why we were pleased to learn the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has initiated a study on participation in political and public life in accordance with Article 29 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). This update on our related activities serves as our submission to your study.
The OHRC relies upon international human rights treaties and Canadian human rights law to inform its research, policy development, outreach, advice, inquiries and interventions. Article 29.a of the CRPD, which sets out “the right and opportunity for persons with disabilities to vote and be elected” is particularly helpful in our current initiative. We have undertaken a number of steps to date, including calling for legislative and other changes, to make all stages of the electoral process accessible.
First, by way of background: Canada ratified the CRPD in 2010 and its initial report to the CRPD Committee is due April 2012. The Federal Government is consulting with civil society on a draft outline of issues that could be addressed in its first report, including “accessibility of the voting procedures, facilities and materials (including reasonable accommodations)” under Article 29.
A number of other laws in Canada have established equality rights for persons with disabilities including the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and human rights codes across federal, provincial and territorial jurisdictions. The Ontario Human Rights Code sets out the duty to accommodate persons with disabilities in services, among other areas, to the point of undue hardship. Human rights codes in other Canadian jurisdictions have similar provisions.
In 2005, all parties of the Ontario Legislature passed the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) that provides for the setting of regulatory standards. The Government has since enacted AODA standards for customer service, and most recently for information and communications, transportation and employment. New standards are anticipated for the built environment in addition to those under the current Building Code. No regulations are anticipated for electoral accessibility, though groups had recommended some.
Ontario’s Election Act and Municipal Elections Act do have a number of provisions for accessible voting. At the same time, the Election Finances Act excludes disability related costs from the definition of campaign expenses, which makes these costs ineligible under the criteria for partial reimbursement of election expenses.
In March 2010, I went before the Standing Committee of the Legislative Assembly of Ontario raising concerns about Bill 231, the Election Statute Law Amendment Act. The Bill was passed and is a positive step, enacting new provisions applying to provincial elections, including requiring all polling stations to be located in accessible facilities, and requiring accessible voting equipment be made available subject to limitations. However, the Bill did not address other disability-related barriers that electors, candidates and individuals seeking nomination report facing before, during and after an election. These include:
- Inaccessible facilities: political party, constituency and riding association offices as well as nomination, fundraising, campaign rally and all candidate debate events located in facilities with entrances, stairs, washrooms and other features that are inaccessible to persons with mobility related disabilities
- Insufficient and inadequate accessible voting equipment that inhibits persons with vision loss to vote independently and on voting day, restricting them to select advance polls; testing of alternate accessible voting procedures and technologies such as telephone and internet voting at the discretion of Elections Ontario
- Communication and other services: meetings, debates and other events offering no or poor quality sign language interpretation, real time captioning, deaf-blind intervention or attendant care, making them inaccessible to persons who are deaf, deafened, deaf-blind or hard-of-hearing or who have other types of disabilities
- Print and information technology: materials produced or used by parties, riding associations, candidates or individuals seeking nomination that is inaccessible to persons with vision or other disabilities. This includes flyers, brochures, position papers, etc. not available in alternative formats such as electronic text, Braille or large print. Websites not designed to meet international accessibility standards are also a barrier
- Disability-related expenses incurred by candidates or other individuals with or without disabilities that are not claimable or reimbursable
The obligation to uphold human rights and related laws during elections is under examination in some jurisdictions across Canadian. In Hughes v. Elections Canada (2010), the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal found in favour of an elector with a disability who filed a complaint after experiencing physical barriers at his polling station. In 2000, the OHRC reached a positive settlement in a case with the City of Ottawa involving two voters with visual disabilities who claimed they were unable to cast a secret ballot independently as required by law because the City could not accommodate their needs during the 1997 municipal elections.
The OHRC is aware of other barriers involving participation in public life in regards to the business of the legislature, government and the judiciary including:
- The Legislature facing technical barriers in providing descriptive audio for live parliamentary proceedings
- Critical content on websites and public consultation events that do not provide sign language, captioning or descriptive audio due to a shortage of these services or insufficient timelines
- Tribunal or court proceedings that in some cases fail to accommodate the needs of parties or their litigants
In a case related to participation in public life, Canadian Association of the Deaf v. Canada (2006), the Federal Court found that government is responsible for the provision and costs of sign language interpreters when consulting on policy and program development where persons with disabilities have identifiable interests.
Hoping to build on the positive changes made to Ontario’s Elections Act in 2010, the OHRC met with Elections Ontario in January 2011, and in March, we wrote to all political parties registered in the province. Our purpose was to promote awareness about barriers in the electoral process in anticipation of the provincial election held this October. We emphasized that our laws bestow shared obligations to protect, promote and fulfill rights and encouraged collaborative efforts across institutions and organizations, including political party executive who also have a critical role to play.
Some helpful resources are already available. Elections Ontario has published its Site Accessibility Standards for polling stations. Non-partisan organizations such as the Canadian Hearing Society, the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, the Canadian Paraplegic Association Ontario and the Ontario March of Dimes worked together with the Accessibility Directorate of Ontario to publish three guides in 2008: Accessible Campaign Information & Communication; Accessible Constituency Riding Association, Central Party and Campaign Offices; Accessible All Candidates Meetings (also available in PDF format).
Some of these non-government organizations also helped to host accessible all candidate debates in Toronto during past elections. Unfortunately, such collaborative efforts were not possible for the recent provincial election due to restrictions funders now place on their budgets. Other groups, such as the AODA Alliance have also been instrumental in monitoring and advocating for accessible voting.
We continue to communicate with these and other groups and individuals to promote further discussion on ways to address barriers to participation in political and public life. The Council of Canadians with Disabilities in particular has taken significant steps in regards to Article 29, including challenging Federal candidates to run accessible campaigns during the Spring 2011 election. They also co-hosted a roundtable on this issue with the Nova Scotia League for Equal Opportunities in 2010.
In the coming months, we will be following up with Elections Ontario on their obligation to report on barriers identified during the election. We would also like to hear directly from individuals and civil society organizations about barriers that voters, candidates and those seeking nomination may have faced in Ontario and in other recent elections across Canada.
One recent exchange we had involved a candidate who is deaf and who reported experiencing barriers in his run up to the election. On a positive note, he also reported that some of the major political parties agreed to his request to share in the cost of accommodating him with sign language interpreters for his participation in local all-candidate debates.
As the current Chair of the Canadian Association of Statutory Human Rights Agencies (CASHRA), I am leading a discussion with Federal, provincial and territorial human rights commissions across Canada on how we might support national implementation and monitoring of the CRPD in accordance with Article 33. CASHRA attended a forum on this issue in Ottawa earlier this month hosted by the Council of Canadians with Disabilities and the Canadian Association for Community Living.
The OHRC, along with the Canadian Human Rights Commission, also sent representatives to the Fourth Session of the Conference of States Parties to the CRPD held this September in New York. We were pleased to hear from other countries as well as from the OHCHR on initiatives and progress related to Article 29 in particular.
The OHRC looks forward to reviewing the findings of the OHCHR’s study. In the meantime, do not hesitate to contact us if there is any way we can offer further assistance.
ORIGINAL SIGNED BY
Barbara Hall, B.A, LL.B, Ph.D (hon.)
Copy Jennifer Lynch, Chief Commissioner, Canadian Human Rights Commission
Tony Dolan, Chair, Council of Canadians with Disabilities
Hon. Dalton McGuinty, Premier of Ontario
Greg Essensa, Chief Electoral Officer, Elections Ontario
 OHRC Annual Report 2010-11: http://www.ohrc.on.ca/en/resources/annualreports/1011?page=aren-Continui.html#Heading256
 See section 3.8 and other sections re barrier-free design: http://www.e-laws.gov.on.ca/html/regs/english/elaws_regs_060350_e.htm
 See Recommendation 7 of the AODA Accessible Information and Communications Standards Development Committee’s Annotated Recommendations / http://lambton.fileprosite.com/FileStorage/E09FD32245E34281B361E39BA050E...
 See training manual part 2, chapter 3 participation in political and public life: http://www1.umn.edu/humanrts/edumat/hreduseries/TB6/html/CH3.html#head
Contact NSLEO for a copy of their report / http://novascotialeo.org/
 CCD newsletter: http://www.ccdonline.ca/en/publications/voice/2011/03#sec-simser