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Definitions of Disability Across Canada

Many separate accessibility laws exist in Canada. Ontario, Manitoba, and Nova Scotia all have laws that mandate creation of provincial accessibility standards. In addition, the Accessible Canada Act mandates accessibility standards that apply to organizations under federal jurisdiction. However, the government of Canada intends to coordinate federal and provincial accessibility laws. Moreover, the third review of the AODA recommends that the Ontario government should support this aim by aligning its accessibility law, the AODA,  with the laws of other provinces and the country. If the governments work together to make these laws more similar, the AODA may change to align with laws in other places across the country. In this article, we explore definitions of disability across Canada. Differing definitions impact how citizens understand what disability is, and how to remove barriers to improve accessibility.

Definitions of Disability Across Canada

The AODA’s Definition of Disability

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.

Physical Disabilities

For instance, the act states that physical disabilities may include:

  • Diabetes
  • Epilepsy
  • A brain injury
  • Paralysis
  • Amputation
  • 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.

Other Disabilities

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

Definitions of Disability in Other Laws

Under the Accessible Canada Act, disability means an impairment or functional limitation that reduces someone’s full involvement in society because of barriers they face. For example, some kinds of impairments that people experience are:

  • Physical
  • Mental
  • Intellectual
  • Cognitive
  • Learning
  • Communication
  • Sensory

Moreover, some disabilities are permanent, while others are temporary. Alternatively, some disabilities are episodic. In addition, some disabilities are evident, or visible, while others are non-evident or invisible.

Understanding Disability

The AODA’s 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, definitions in other laws, such as the Accessible Canada Act and the Nova Scotia Accessibility Act, 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 definition helps people understand that structures and services should be open to people with disabilities.

Furthermore, both definitions offer many examples of disability to help people recognize it. The AODA’s definition mentions many specific impairments that people have. However, this definition focuses on disabilities that are visible. Moreover, simply listing the names of impairments does not help the public understand how these impairments affect people’s lives. In contrast, the Accessible Canada Act’s list of specific impairments is brief but broad. Instead, the definition points out important concepts that the public should know about disability. For instance, this definition helps people recognize that they cannot see every disability. Likewise, the Act points out that while some people’s disabilities are permanent, other people’s disabilities change over time.

In short, while the AODA’s definition of disability offers some basic concepts, the definition in the Accessible Canada Act provides broader concepts that increase public understanding about disability in daily life. Instead of focusing on people’s bodies and minds, this definition emphasizes how removing barriers improves people’s lives. As a result, if the AODA uses this definition, it will better reflect the purpose and power of accessibility laws throughout Canada.