Laws changing too slowly: disability rights advocate

David Lepofsky calls out ‘lack of leadership’ from provincial government

Disability rights advocate David Lepofsky spoke at a talk hosted by Barrier-Free Manitoba at the Millennium Library Oct. 4 where he criticized the provincial government for lagging behind when bringing accessibility standards into law.

Lepofsky, who also spoke to law students at Robson Hall earlier in the day, is a lawyer who has worked to ensure the inclusion of equal rights for persons with disabilities through the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

He campaigned for the passing of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) in 2005 and is currently advocating for the Accessible Canada Act, or Bill C-81, which is making its way through parliament.

In his talk, Lepofsky covered the lack of enforcement of the Accessibility for Manitobans Act (AMA) as well as provided his recommendations for the country-wide Bill C-81.

The AMA was passed in 2013, but the province has yet to make significant progress with the law. Of the five accessibility standards, only one has been passed into law, and two are currently under development.

The customer service accessibility standard, which has been passed into law, requires all Manitoba businesses and non-profit organizations to meet the customer service standard by Nov. 1, 2018.

The requirements state businesses must provide certain standards to customers, including training staff on accessible customer service and allowing assistive devices.

The two accessibility standards under development address barriers involved in employee recruitment and hiring, and barriers surrounding the giving and receiving of information.

Lepofsky said the Manitoban law, along with the work done by other provinces, served as a model for the federal Bill C-81.

“Like we’ve said to the federal government, you know, what we’re recommending be in this bill comes from learning what the provinces have done well and what they haven’t done well,” he said.

Lepofsky called out Manitoba specifically for its lacklustre response to accessibility legislation.

“A lot of what we’re recommending to the feds is because of weaknesses we’ve seen in Ontario and in Manitoba,” he said.

“So the Manitoba legislation lets them make standards, but doesn’t set timelines, so we’re running into the same problems.

“Certainly, enforcement is independent of the government, and that’s a problem.”

Lepofsky added that the slow implementation and lack of enforcement of the AMA are major problems of the act.

He also questioned if premier Brian Pallister had set the implementation of the AMA as a priority for the province.

“We think it’s systemically been a lack of leadership from the top — in other words, in a big government, the premier gives priorities to their ministers,” he said.

“They issue mandate letters. And if they say, do more of ‘X’, they’ll do more of ‘X.’ And if they know that that will make a difference, that their premiers set a priority for them, that will help. One of the questions in Manitoba is ‘Has the premier set this as a priority for the minister responsible for this?’ And that’s one of the problems.”

Bill C-81 just passed its second reading Sept. 26, but Lepofsky said he believes the law is still weak in its current state.

Some of the weaknesses Leopofsky identified are the lack of deadlines, enforcement remaining independent of the government and too many loopholes, issues also present in the Manitoban law.

Lepofsky, along with the AODA Alliance, published a brief with recommendations for amendments to Bill C-81 last month.

The listed recommendations include putting forth measures to ensure federal elections are accessible to voters with disabilities and for the federal government to address “special responsibilities” with regard to Indigenous people with disabilities.

Social media has been an important tool for Lepofsky in raising awareness and campaigning for disability rights.

“It’s also been really effective for people to spread the word and it’s also been really effective to reach the media,” Lepofsky said.

“What we’ve found is increasingly that stories about barriers percolate up from social media to conventional media.”

The AODA Alliance began using the #aodafail hashtag to bring public attention to the barriers faced by persons with disabilities in Ontario. Lepofsky suggested starting an #amafail thread in Manitoba to bring attention to the barriers many Manitobans with disabilities still face.

“Somebody will be using the Toronto Transit Commission in Toronto, and they’ll find the subway station they use has an elevator that’s out of service, and it’s going to be four months until the darn elevator is fixed,” he said.

“So they start broadcasting it as an AODA fail tweet on Twitter, and then we retweet it, and the next thing you know a reporter follows us or checks the stuff out [and] covers the story.”