Posted by Roaf Peter on May 01, 2023
People with disabilities are under employed. 22% of Canadians live with a disability. They are 645,000 people ready, willing and able to work right now today. 50% of them have a post-secondary education, with at least one degree. But they're not working. Why? 27% of them will tell you it's because they can't get to work because there is no accessible transportation. Others will tell you about unconscious bias and artificial intelligence screening them out in the hiring process right from the beginning.
Stephanie Cadieux’s 4-year appointment as the Government of Canada’s first Chief Accessibility Officer began in May 2022. Ms. Cadieux is a change leader with more than 15 years of experience in planning and leadership roles. She has worked as an advocate for diversity, accessibility, and disability inclusion.

Before her appointment, Ms. Cadieux was a member of the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia from 2009 to 2022. She was the Minister of Children and Family Development from 2012 to 2017. Between 2010 and 2012, she held various positions, including Minister of Social Development, Minister of Labour, Citizens’ Services and Open Government, and Minister of Community, Sport and Cultural Development.

Before she became engaged in provincial politics, Ms. Cadieux was the director of marketing and public relations for the BC Paraplegic Association from 2004 until 2009. She was also the provincial peer coordinator for this organization from 2001 until 2004.
Ms. Cadieux is a member of the disability community. She has used a wheelchair since the age of 18. Her lived experience allows her to have a deep understanding of the accessibility issues faced by people with disabilities. She spoke to the Rotary Club of Ladner on April 11th.
It's great to be here and have the opportunity, to talk to you a little bit about my new role, and, and the Accessible Canada Act, and how it affects community, or will affect community over time.
Rotary's engagement overall building a better society in the world right through to what you do on the ground in our communities with your individual clubs
I had an injury at the age of 18, which set my life on a very different path than I had envisioned but that's not unusual. Most people have things that in life that don't go quite as planned. In fact, that's pretty much the human condition. Despite it being different, it's been an interesting path.
Having started my career as an online entrepreneur, which I enjoyed, I sort of fell into a job in the non-profit sector to advocate for people with disabilities. As a person with a disability I had never intended on doing that, but change led me to prevention politics and now to this new position of Canada's first Chief Accessibility Officer started in 2022. I really found my passion over the years around accessibility and inclusion and what we can do differently.
So my new role was created as a legislative role under the Accessible Canada Act which passed in 2019. Delta MP Hon. Carla Qualtrough, Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Disability Inclusion, was the lead on that legislation. I report to her. It's good to see that, across the country, provinces including BC, when I was still in the legislature, pass accessibility legislation.
When the Accessible Canada Act was passed, we talked about it as the most significant legislative milestone for people with disabilities with disability rights, in Canada, since the Charter of Rights And Freedoms. This act recognizes that all Canadians have the right to participate fully in society. That sounds evident but I would argue that is not the reality for most people living with a disability in Canada today.
Our country has a robust human rights framework. The rights of those with a disability have long been protected. The problem with that is that somebody with a disability first has to know their being discriminated against. They have to raise a complaint, they have to fight often through a long, cumbersome and often expensive process to have a problem rectified. So, they're fighting these personal battles over issues that are largely systemic. It happens over and over again.
The new Accessible Canada Act recognizes the need for systemic change. It puts the onus on systems and organizations to proactively prevent or remove barriers.
The first stage of action working with organizations that are regulated under the act, such as the federal government and all its agencies, such as crowns corporations and the federally regulated industries like transportation across provincial or international borders, such as airlines, trains, telecommunications and banks. We will prepare an accessibility plan, which all those agencies need to prepare that plan through consultation with people with disabilities. After the agencies have identified barriers in their organizations the action plans would call for removing those barriers over the next period of time.
The plans are to cover three years with annual progress reports every year. They must be updated every three years all in consultation with people with disabilities with a feedback mechanism all presented to their organizations as a big deal.
The plans will have to be submitted to the Accessibility Commissioner, another legislative role which started just after mine. He's going to monitor and assess penalties. Should they be necessary if organizations aren't doing what they're supposed to? But that's a ways down the road because at this point in time the only regulation under the act is to prepare a plan. But the expectation is that over time, standards will be set in a number of areas deployment. As standards are set and turn from policy or best practice into regulation and into law, then organizations might find themselves on the wrong side of the Commissioner with fines or such if they don't meet those standards.
At this point, the deal is for the various organizations to do some self-reflection, engage people in discussion about what the barriers are, learn about them and think about how can be reduced to improve accessibility.
A year before I left the legislature in BC in 2021 we passed the Accessible BC Act also unanimously. It is very similar to the federal act. The only difference is that they don't have legislated role, watchdog rolls like mine in the commissioners and work is already underway to align, whatever standards are developed. Whether they be provincial or federally aligned to harmonize those efforts.
My role is not to do that work. So Chief Accessibility Officer sounds very important. It is and I certainly like the perceived influence at minimum that it provides. But I am not in charge. I am there to be an independent advisor to the Minister responsible, your MP here in Delta, to advise on the progress towards achieving the goals of the act. The goal of the act is to reduce barriers in Canada by 2040 so I am reporting on how we are doing on that.
I am here, inside the system, to ensure that this accessibility process is continual, and that people are thinking about it every day, in all of the work that they do, so that it isn't thought of as something that can just be checked off a list. There is no doubt that we have a long way to go. I know that personally, and every person with a disability will tell you, that because every day they encounter those barriers. So we know there's a long way to go and we know it won't happen overnight.
But the biggest most challenging thing we have to do is challenge the mindset and change the collective understanding for that to happen. We have to cultivate an understanding of why the legislation is import.
I think this is a profound statement and move by our federal government. It's bold because this is not easy work. If it was easy, it would have been done already. But now we have to embark on the hard part, which is actually getting it done, We have to move now from the intent to the action. And while I have seen and had conversations with people who are very excited about this and very, very engaged, throughout the federal public sector, I'm not seeing the results.
I'm seeing the commitment, but the results have yet to appear. I do believe it's important that the federal government is there and that I'm doing this work, that everybody's doing this work. The reality is that we won't reach a barrier for Canada if all of the other levels of government and the private sector don't come along too.
Because not very many people wake up in the morning and go, “Oh, I'm so glad my federal government is working to be accessible because I am going to interact with them today.” Most people wake up thinking, ‘Where am I gonna have lunch with a friend?”
Those with accessibility challenges wonder how they are going to get their groceries and get to their doctor. If none of those things are accessible and none of those things are regulated by the federal government, we aren't going to get there because that's how people interact.
So with the new Accessible BC Act, municipalities in this province are have to create an accessibility plan. All of the provincial parent agencies have to do this. The private sector is coming along in pieces as well, led largely by the banks and the telecoms who are having to do this work through their relationship with the federal government. In some cases the private sector is going a lot faster than the government, such as Google, Amazon and Microsoft with its own in-house suites of interpreters. So that their deaf employees don't have difficulty interacting. So, in some ways, the private sector has led. And those are some of the things that I'll point out to government in in my reports.
But what we really have to do, to see the change is to work away at how disability is perceived in society. We have to look at accessibility and inclusion as valuable enhancements to society and not as a burden, not as something we have to accompany but rather It's a natural part of our existence of being human and a necessary part of society.
We have to, to help everyone to understand. That the barriers that hold people back are not their own. My disability does not keep me confined and unable. But the physical environment does. People's attitudes do. Society can become more welcoming and understanding and inclusive.
We are moving from the medical model, which says that my disability is my problem and mine to overcome, to the social model, which says the barriers are the problem and it's society’s responsibility to ensure, everyone can reach their full potential. What do I mean by that?
People with disabilities are under employed. 22% of Canadians live with a disability. They are 645,000 people ready, willing and able to work right now today. 50% of them have a post-secondary education, with at least one degree. But they're not working. Why? 27% of them will tell you it's because they can't get to work because there is no accessible transportation. Others will tell you about unconscious bias and artificial intelligence screening them out in the hiring process right from the beginning.
And I'll personalize that example for you. I know someone She has a post-secondary degree and an additional certificate in human resources. She speaks three languages She has been called for interviews, but when people don't understand her on the phone, her speech is impaired by her disability. They hang up. I know, because I hired her. She's incredibly talented. The problem is that our unconscious bias allows us to make decisions about her. Without ever asking. We didn't make a decision about the fact that, well, I can't understand her. So, how did she possibly do the job?
She must not be smart? But she's capable. She has to be able to answer the phone. Or does she? She never answered the phone once with my office. We transferred that one task to another person in the office and we transferred the accounting to her because frankly, she was better at it.
It wasn't difficult to do. But I asked her, how do we make that work? Other people make an assumption. About the fact that she can't, therefore, I won't bother going any further from this process. And I understand it, I understand that because we all have these unconscious biases. We are all not sure how to deal with.
Something we haven't dealt with before. It's very natural. But we have to get past it. We have to. We have to know that. And we have to ask ourselves, “Why am I thinking this way? Why did I make that decision and could I do it differently?”
My husband and I are looking for a condo that can accommodate my wheelchair and my van in the parking area. We are not building homes that can accommodate people with disabilities. As we age most of us will require some of these features. I'm not the problem. It’s the circumstance.
The employer of a friend who is blind has provided him with all the necessary technology to review documents. Despite that accommodation he still can't do his job and is perceived as less capable. Why? Because all of the documents that he has to read are inaccessible. The reading program cannot process what is sent to him. So, he's got the technology but the rest of the organization has not figured out how to provide documents that are accessible.
In another instance the wife of a couple booked a trip for their anniversary. She booked a wheelchair accessible hotel room. And when she arrived in that foreign country, the hotel said, oh sorry, we gave that room away. Somebody else needed it. There are now no other rooms at that hotel. This kind of thing happens repeatedly. The problem in this case wasn't even the built environment because there was a room. The problem is the people.
So, we need to change our thinking. We need to change our understanding. We need to broaden it. There are very few voices challenging the way things are. We can do better. If Rotary wants to grow its membership base, are you actively seeking out people who don't look like you? People who have a different experience than you? Or are you seeking help from people, you feel most comfortable with?
I was speaking recently with a local bank. And they've embarked on a journey as a part of their path. And they went through an exercise with their team, starting with their management and board. They asked everyone to identify if they had a disability. What they found out was that a number of members did have a disability that wasn't visible.
That created an environment where people could feel safe to share. They have created a culture in their organization in a very short time that has allowed people to acknowledge their disability and to ask for workplace accommodation to best perform their at their job. The bank is seeing an incredible, positive shift in their culture and their environment. If you see something that isn't accessible, isn't the way it should be, say something.
In 2010 I was a new member of the Provincial Cabinet which had booked a retreat at a hotel for two full days. On the first morning. I got into the into the meeting room, a couple minutes late and I was all wet. And my colleagues around the table looked at me and said, what’s with that? Why are you all wet and why are you late? And I said, well, because I have to go outside to get here. They had come down the elevator walked down three steps and into the meeting room. I had to come down the elevator, go outside down around, in through another door, up another ramp, up an elevator, down another elevator. And down another ramp into the room.
One of my colleagues said, “Well, that's ridiculous. Why are we here?” And then they said, well what else is different? Is there any other problems? I say, “Well, I won't be having a shower for three days because the accessible hotel room, did not actually have an accessible shower.”
So that day, one of my colleagues took his car and drove 45 minutes into the local town, went to Home Depot, bought a shower chair and an adjustable shower head brought it back to the hotel. Went up to the manager and says, here install it now. It was one time where I really felt seen and supported.
It, it can be the littlest thing. But knowing that somebody else has recognized it and recognizes that you’re valuable and belong here, it's so powerful. So, if you have an opportunity to take that burden off someone else with a disability at some point in time, please do that.
And don't be afraid of saying the wrong thing or using the wrong language. We're all learning. And as long as we do it from the right place, It's okay to make a mistake. It's better that you make a mistake and learn.
I'm really excited to be in this job. I feel like I have really met my calling. I hope that they keep me for the full four years but we'll see after the first recording and I really appreciate. Thank you for the invitation to join you today to share a little bit about it because this is it's going to make a big change for people in our country.
We are leading. The world is watching. I am the first one of us chief accessibility officers in the world. We can show others how to do this. So let's get it right. Thanks very much.