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An Overview of Canada’s Accessibility Laws: A Look at the Old and the New

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Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in March 2018 and has since been updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness pertaining to the latest Canadian accessibility standards and regulations. Specifically, The Accessible Canada Act (Bill C-81) that received unanimous support in the House of Commons in May of 2019.

Canadian flag over keyboard

More than 6 million Canadians over the age of 15 have one or more disabilities of some kind, whether it’s related to hearing, vision, mobility, memory or something else. That’s one in five (22%) of the country’s population, according to Statistics Canada.¹ For these individuals, being able to participate in society on par with their fellow citizens – shop in the same places, learn at the same schools, read the same online information – is a fundamental right. Accessibility laws are written to protect and enforce those rights.

Canada has long had legislation that bans discrimination against people with mental and physical disabilities, however, it was often lumped together with various other grounds of discrimination such as ethnicity and gender. These laws exist on the federal and provincial levels of government and apply to different areas of social inclusion.

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Federal and provincial legislature has continued to pass disability-specific laws to make it clear what website owners need to do to ensure they treat people with disabilities fairly.

First, let’s look at the accessibility laws that have been in place the longest in Canada. They include:

  • The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. This section of the Canadian constitution guarantees everyone equal protection under the law. It bans discrimination and emphasizes a few specific groups, including people with a “mental or physical disability.”
  • The Canadian Human Rights Act. This law prohibits discrimination or harassment that is based on any of 11 different grounds. Disability is on the list. The law protects those employed or served by the federal or First Nations governments. Companies in the private sector that are federally regulated, such as banks and broadcasters, are also covered by this human rights law. These companies, for example, must distribute a mobile app that can be used by all customers.
  • The Employment Equity Act. This law requires federally regulated employers and crown corporations to eliminate barriers that prevent people with disabilities (and other designated groups) from participating equally in the work force. It also calls for these employers to provide accommodations, such as ensuring the technology used to perform a job is accessible.
  • Quebec’s Act Respecting Equal Access to Employment in Public Bodies prevents public-sector employers in this province, including schools, healthcare providers and public transit, from discriminating against employees and potential employees with disabilities.
  • Provincial human rights legislation. Each individual Canadian province or territory has a human rights act. These laws are important, because they make it illegal for discrimination against people with disabilities to occur in a host of areas such as the provision of goods and services, employment and housing. Like other laws we’ve listed, these human rights acts name multiple grounds of potential discrimination, not just disability. In Ontario, for example, the Human Rights Code covers 17 different areas of possible discrimination. Besides disability, it includes sexual orientation, marital status, religious practices, place of origin and being in receipt of public assistance.

Status on New and Upcoming Accessibility Laws

Canada and a few of its provinces have since been developing legislation that focuses specifically on the rights of people with disabilities, instead of lumping these rights together with other minority groups. These laws are expected to do even more to ensure accessibility for Canadians. Here’s a snapshot of what’s been happening across the country:

  • The Accessible Canada Act (Bill C-81): Passed in 2019 in both the House of Commons and the Senate of Canada with unanimous support, the new Accessible Canada Act will transform how the Government of Canada addresses accessibility across the country. It will apply to Parliament, Crown corporations, the federal government and private sector businesses under federal jurisdiction, such as banking, telecommunications and transportation. Accessibility Minister Carla Qualtrough, who spearheaded national consultations on the bill, said “The Accessible Canada Act will fundamentally change the way the Government of Canada addresses disability issues in our country. This legislation will help improve the lives of millions of Canadians with disabilities by proactively identifying, removing and preventing barriers to inclusion. I am beyond thrilled that, thanks to the unwavering support and tireless advocacy of the disability community, we are on our way to realizing a truly barrier-free and accessible Canada.”
  • The Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA): The AODA became law in 2005 in Ontario. As such, it’s the oldest legislation of this kind in Canada. The AODA makes it compulsory for the public and private sectors to follow established sets of accessibility standards when dealing with the public. The standards fall into five categories: information and communications; customer service; transportation; employment; and design of public spaces. Under the Information and Communications Standards, Section 14, “Accessible Websites and Web Content,” outlines requirements to ensure that web content follows the technical requirements of WCAG 2.0, and that people with disabilities do not face barriers online2.
  • The Accessibility for Manitobans Act: Manitoba’s provincial accessibility legislation was passed in 2013. Its structure is similar to Ontario’s law: It currently focuses on five mandatory accessibility standards that apply to both the public and private sectors. And, like the AODA, it includes an Accessible Information and Communications Standard to ensure accessibility of information, including online information.
  • The Nova Scotia Accessibility Act: In 2017, the province of Nova Scotia put its own law into place. This will lead to the development of five accessibility standards, including one for information and communication. In defining “barrier,” the act specifically mentions potential barriers in technology3. Along with the new legislation, the provincial government announced a grant program to help small businesses remove disability barriers.

What Else is Coming?

Other provinces are expected to follow suit with their own accessibility initiatives. In British Columbia, for example, the government is taking steps towards its proclaimed vision of “Accessibility 2024,” with the goal of “making B.C. the most progressive province in Canada for people with disabilities by 2024” – including a fully accessible Internet4. The government itself has already committed to ensuring that its online content and apps adhere to WCAG 2.0’s technical requirements.

In other provinces and territories, including Saskatchewan and Yukon, disability advocates are putting pressure on their own governments to pass accessibility legislation. Canada’s Honourable Carla Qualtrough, who worked on the federal legislation, is quoted as saying: “What many provinces have told us is, once we do our law, they will then do a mirror image in their province.”5 There’s no question we’re headed in the direction of full and fair accessibility for all Canadians, mandated by law. Organizations that are already removing barriers are showing the country that all customers and clients, regardless of disability, are welcome to do business with them.

An Innovative Solution

eSSENTIAL Accessibility has developed a comprehensive accessibility solution to help organizations follow the WCAG 2.1 guidelines and achieve and maintain compliance with Canadian accessibility laws. Our WCAG 2.1 Whitepaper features a checklist-based set of guidelines that help focus accessibility efforts.

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References

  1. A demographic, employment and income profile of Canadians with disabilities aged 15 years and over, Statistics Canada, 2017
  2. Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, 2005 Government of Ontario, 2012 – 2018
  3. Bill No. 59 Nova Scotia Legislature, 2017
  4. Accessibility 2024: Making B.C. the Most Progressive Province in Canada for People with Disabilities by 2024 British Columbia
  5. Federal Minister Launches Consultations on New Accessibility Rules Yukon News, 2016

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