Carla Qualtrough, Minister for sport and people with disabilities – By Ray Hudson

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Carla Qualtrough, photographed in her constituency office. Photo:Ray Hudson

Constituency perspectives part two

Carla Qualtrough, photographed in her constituency office. Photo:Ray Hudson
Carla Qualtrough, photographed in her constituency office. Photo:Ray Hudson

Visually impaired since birth, Carla Qualtrough competed in swimming at the 1988 and 1992 Paralympic Games, winning Bronze in both games. Following her athletic career, Qualtrough studied political science at the University of Ottawa and then earned a law degree from the University of Victoria.   As part of the Constituency Report the Minister for Sport and People With Disabilities spoke with Ray Hudson about her ministerial activities.

Sports:

Carla Qualtrough: Sports, as you know, are my life, and I believe very strongly that we should invest in Sport by giving more people more access to it. We should be proud of our high performance athletes Olympians and Paralympians. Those medals are important, but I also think a policy shift is needed. Five of the ninety truth and reconciliation ‘calls to action’ deal directly with sport, acknowledging the value of aboriginal sport, traditional games, celebrating aboriginal athletes, using sport as a tool to engage aboriginal children and youth.

When you watch the Paralympics and see somebody achieving great success maybe you, as a small business owner, will change your mind about hiring someone with a disability. Maybe you won’t be afraid to let your child play with a child with a disability, or whatever kinds of myths or assumptions you hold that could change your mind because you’ve seen this person achieve great things. We’ve got type-two diabetes, obesity, sedentary lifestyles, so many social nuts I think we can crack through sport and recreation. I don’t mean organized high-performance, rather, more like active play.

I’m the first Federal Sport Minister to have recreation in their mandate, which is a provincial jurisdiction historically, but it has allowed me to have conversations with Canadian Parks and Rec about having good sport in recreational facilities and with Provincial Education Ministers about having daily physical education and daily activities.  So just having that word in my mandate has broadened the discussions around using sports and physical activities to advance these other broader social policy objectives.

When I came into office, we went straight into the Rio Olympics and the Paralympics, and I’m heading off next week to a Special Olympics World Championship in Austria. I think we have one Delta athlete in that. Seeing so many of our Delta athletes succeed at the Olympics and Special Olympics has been quite the bonus.  Delta athletes are really good!

I’ve also been involved in the World Anti-Doping Agency travelling to Australia a couple of weeks ago, so I’ve done some really cool things on the sports side.

Disabilities:

Carla Qualtrough: It’s on the Disabilities side though, where I think we’re going to make history, where I will leave my legacy. I’ve been tasked to create accessibility legislation that we’ve never had before. We’ve spent a year consulting and getting legal advice and looking at other models internationally and we’ve just morphed into the phase where we’re trying to draft this thing.

Ray Hudson: How is it going to be different from what we’ve had before?

Carla Qualtrough: We have a very strong human rights system in Canada, so we don’t need any more rights protection mechanisms. We need to deal with the fact that you have to be discriminated against before I can help you, and only after a lot of money and time might we reach a conclusion that discrimination has occurred. Meanwhile the damage has been done. Right now 50% of the complaints to the Human Rights Commission of Canada are on the grounds of disability. When you think of race, sexual orientation, religion and all the other issues together, disability comprises 50% of the complaints. So this accessibility legislation is trying to close a gap by creating a proactive mechanism to address barriers to participation before we get to the problem of discrimination. We’ll be setting standards for employers so we can tell you what we expect of you as a business, or a company, or quite frankly, as the federal government.  Then we’ll put in compliance and enforcement mechanisms that don’t rely on the individual to pursue systemic complaints. If we see that all ATMs aren’t accessible to people who are blind, this law would allow us to go into the banking industry and mandate through regulation that all ATMs have a certain standard for accessibility.

Ray Hudson: Some disabilities are obvious, but what are the least understood or recognized disabilities?

Carla Qualtrough: Hearing impairment and mental illnesses are the least recognized or understood disabilities. They’re invisible to a degree, such as my own disability. You wouldn’t necessarily know that I’m legally blind, likewise, you wouldn’t know that someone would have a mental health condition or hearing impairment, something that is less visible. The wheelchair is a good visual reminder that somebody can’t get into a building, but if I walk into a building and I can’t read your signs, find your elevator or where I need to go there’s a problem.  But that’s the reason we’re not calling this a Canadians With Disabilities Act. This will impact a huge group who probably don’t consider themselves to have a disability.  They may have some sort of barrier to participation in employment or in a service provision circumstance, so I think this has huge potential.

Tens of thousands of people have participated in consultations or online. We’re at a very interesting time in the disability rights movement in Canada where a lot of things are aligning.  Not the least being that we have the first generation of Canadians with more severe disabilities, who are out-living their parents. Because of advances in infant mortality rates, medicines and medical procedures, their lives have been considerably extended under parental care that has been provided their whole life.  But all the parent can think of is, ‘what is going to happen to my adult child when I’m no longer around’ and we haven’t thought of that as a country yet. At the provincial level, on employment, we’ve actually done a pretty good job.  Canadians with disabilities generally have higher levels of education than the general population, because what do you do if you can’t get a job? You go back to school.  Many of us are lawyers because we couldn’t get a job working at Seven-Eleven or the video store, so we just keep going back to school.  That’s very cheeky but there’s some opportunity out of that scenario.

Consider the cost of inaccessibility. If you have a labour shortage, I have an untapped labour pool. If your business isn’t accessible, you’re missing out on 14 percent of the consumer base. If I can’t get into your building, I can’t shop there, and I can’t work there. If the three of us are shopping and if I can’t get in, you’re not getting my friends’ business either.  If ten of us are going for dinner with my friend Stephanie, the cabinet minister who is in a wheel chair, and if there’s no bathroom for her in your restaurant, you miss out on all of us and the money we’d have spent. If you want to bring a three-thousand-person convention to Vancouver and you don’t have eight accessible wheel chair accessible rooms in your hotel, you miss three thousand persons worth of business. Here’s a really strong economic case. When I talk to business, and I say ‘you have to do this-it’s the law or the right thing to do’ I get a ya-ya reaction. But when I say this will be good for business, they say I’m speaking their language.

Consider accessible tourism for the increasing number of aging baby boomers who want safe and accessible places to travel to.  That’s a multi-billion-dollar market that we could be tapping in to. It’s a huge affluent market that needs someone to service.

Because of the Canada 150th celebrations, admission to the National Parks is free, but how accessible are they?   Some of them are and some of them aren’t.  We’ve had those conversations because it’s a huge opportunity for people to enjoy the parks, but if I can’t get in, or you don’t have a large print map, it’s a problem.  Accessibility actually isn’t as expensive or as burdensome as some people think. It just means considering things from the start. Check out canada.pch.gc.ca