July 28, 2009
Hon. Diane Finley
Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development Canada
140 Promenade du Portage
Gatineau PQ K1A 0J9
Hon. Christopher Bentley
Attorney General of Ontario
11th Flr, 720 Bay St
Toronto ON M5G 2K1
Canada and Ontario are renowned for having a strong human rights legal and social policy framework. But despite unprecedented advances in equality rights over the last several decades, persons with disabilities continue to face discriminatory barriers, both attitudinal and physical, negatively impacting levels of education, employment, housing and poverty. Unequal enjoyment of economic, social, cultural, civil and political rights is an affront to dignity and ultimately restricts the ability of persons with disabilities to contribute fully to the development and well-being of the community, the Province and the country.
For this reason, the Ontario Human Rights Commission is encouraging the Government of Canada to ratify and implement without delay and give effect to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities that it signed more than two years ago.
The Convention provides that it shall extend to all parts of federal States. A number of the provisions of the Convention such as those respecting standard of living, education, and housing would fall under provincial and territorial jurisdiction. For this reason, the Commission is also encouraging the Government of Ontario and other jurisdictions across Canada to support its ratification and implementation without delay.
The Convention is a very important step forward for protecting, promoting and monitoring progressive realization of the rights of persons with disabilities. It represents the culmination of broad global input and general consensus from Canada and many other member States, government and non-government organizations including a submission on the draft Convention made by the Commission in 2004.
The Convention recognizes that disability is an evolving social construct – not simply a medical condition – that “results from the interaction between persons with impairments and attitudinal and environmental barriers that hinders their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others.” This is consistent with the notion of “ableism” – attitudes in society that devalue and limit the potential of persons with disabilities. Persons with mental illness are particularly vulnerable to such attitudes and the Convention recognizes this form of disability as requiring equal protection.
The right to equality, non-discrimination and reasonable accommodation to the point of “disproportional or undue burden” are central to the Convention. So are the rights to freedom of expression, adequate housing and standard of living, education, health, political participation and participation in cultural life as well as consultation, accessibility (both adaptations and inclusive design), living independently in the community, personal mobility, habilitation and rehabilitation.
UN conventions not only set out rights but also specific obligations and measures of accountability for progressive realization of rights. The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities requires States Parties to take appropriate steps, without discrimination, to promote, protect and monitor a range of social, cultural, economic, civil and political rights, and report on progress.
More specifically under the Convention, Canada and its provinces and territories would:
- The right of persons with disabilities to social protection and an adequate standard of living, including adequate food and housing
- The critical need to address the negative impact of poverty on persons with disabilities
- That discrimination is compounded by an individual’s gender, race, religion, sexual orientation and other personal characteristics
Take up measures including:
- Identifying and eliminating obstacles and barriers to accessibility in buildings and services including workplaces, schools, medical facilities transportation, information and communications, as well as in the administration of justice
- Facilitating independent community living and participation through freedom to “choose… place of residence” as well as residential and other community support services that promote inclusion and “prevent isolation or segregation from the community”
- Poverty reduction programs, training and financial assistance, and public housing programs
- Taking all effective legislative, administrative, judicial or other measures to prevent persons with disabilities, on an equal basis with others, from being subjected to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment
The Government of Ontario has already undertaken a number of important initiatives in recent years that support these obligations including:
- The current development of standards under the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act and a forthcoming independent review of this legislation
- The new Poverty Reduction Act that legislates data collection, reporting and development of successive strategies and also recognizes persons with disabilities as particularly vulnerable to and disproportionately impacted by poverty
- Changes to safe schools legislation and policies to address adverse treatment and punishment of students with behaviour related disabilities
- Public consultations now underway to develop a Mental Health and Addictions Strategy and an Affordable Housing Strategy
The Convention can be an effective tool to support these initiatives and guide government, along with the help of civil society, on how best to fulfill Canada’s and Ontario’s domestic and international obligations. Further guidance will come from the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities responsible for monitoring States Parties’ compliance with the Convention through interpretive comments, decisions on cases under the Optional Protocol, as well as resources for monitoring and procedures for reporting.
Both the Convention and the Committee can also inform the work of human rights tribunals, other administrative bodies and the courts as well as human rights commissions. In fact, the Convention specifically recognizes a role for domestic human rights commissions in helping to monitor implementation of the Convention and calls on State Parties to set up and support such independent institutions where none exist.
The Commission is using its mandate to promote and protect the rights of persons with disabilities. Beginning this year, the Commission will be giving particular focus to the rights of persons with mental health illness and is seeking to work cooperatively with government and civil society in doing so. The Commission is also continuing with its initiatives on access to public transit as well as adequate and accessible housing including its forthcoming release of a new policy on discrimination in rental housing.
It is time that everyone takes practical steps to breathe new life into our domestic and international commitments towards equality for persons with disabilities. For the governments of Ontario and Canada that must include ratifying and implementing the new Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
Barbara Hall, B.A, LL.B, Ph.D (hon.)
Office for Disability Issues
Human Resources and Skills Development Canada
Hon. James Moore
Minister of Canadian Heritage and Official Languages
Hon Noël A Kinsella
Speaker of the Senate of Canada
Assistant Deputy Minister
Accessibility Directorate of Ontario
Michael Kirby, Chair
Mental Health Commission of Canada
Mary Pat Short, President
Canadian Association of Statutory Human Rights Agencies
Michael Gottheil, Chair
Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario
Raj Anand, Chair
Human Rights Legal Support Centre of Ontario