In the third review of the AODA, the Honourable David Onley recommends needed improvements to the Act. One of these improvements is the need for a new definition of disability within the AODA. This updated definition could help the public better understand what disability is. During public meetings Onley held while preparing his review, attendees outlined the importance of redefining disability.
New Definition of Disability Needed
Currently, the AODA defines disability broadly. It states that disability can happen at birth, or through illness or injury. Furthermore, the act also outlines several types of disability. These types are examples, rather than a complete list of all disabilities.
For instance, the act states that physical disabilities may include:
- A brain injury
- Lack of coordination
- Visual impairment
- Hearing impairment
- Speech impairment
- Reliance on a:
In other words, disability sometimes affects how people’s bodies move, or how they perceive or communicate. In addition, some people with disabilities use service animals or assistive devices. Alternatively, other people have invisible disabilities. Moreover, there are different kinds or degrees of disability. For instance, one person may have one amputated limb, while another person has more than one. Likewise, one person may be totally blind while another person has some sight.
The AODA then briefly lists some other types of disability, which include:
- Mental impairment or developmental disability
- Learning disability
- Mental health disability
- An injury or disability that allows someone to claim or receive benefits under the Workplace Safety and Insurance Act
Here, the AODA makes Ontarians aware of some other types of disability that people may have. For instance, it mentions mental health disabilities, another broad term that includes many medical conditions. These conditions can affect many different aspects of a person, such as:
- Thought processes
- Sense of self
- Capacity to connect with others
- Ability to cope with stress
Similarly, learning disabilities affect people’s ability to take in, understand, or remember information. However, learning disabilities impact people in different ways. For example, some people may have difficulty with writing but understand speech easily. In contrast, other people may not process speech but communicate easily using writing and visual information.
Limits of the Current Definition of Disability
This definition of disability focuses on how people’s bodies and minds differ. In other words, the definition uses a medical model of understanding disability. However, the definition does not help people understand how these physical and mental differences impact people’s every-day lives. In contrast, the updated definition which Onley recommends would use a social model of disability. This model explains disability in terms of how barriers in structures and services exclude people with physical or mental impairments. This updated definition would help people understand that structures and services should be open to people with disabilities. Onley’s review states that other laws and conventions Ontarians need to obey use this type of definition, including:
- The Accessible Canada Act
- The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities
Onley suggests that the AODA and the Ontario Human Rights Code (HRC) should use the same type of definition. This similarity would help Ontario coordinate its accessibility laws with federal ones.
Other Changes to the Definition of Disability
In addition, attendees of Onley’s public meetings suggest more changes that could improve the AODA’s definition of disability. For example, the definition could explain that disability can also happen through ageing. This change could show people that anyone can gain a disability through ageing and could benefit from barrier removal. Moreover, the definition could also explain that some disabilities are invisible. The current definition lists many examples of medical conditions that are invisible. Nonetheless, a statement about invisible disabilities within the AODA definition could inform people that they cannot see every disability. In short, a new definition of disability could increase public understanding about how removing barriers improves people’s lives.