Chair and CEO Scott Streiner addresses Age-friendly Societies Forum on April 30, 2018

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Great explorations: Advancing the accessibility of travel for all ages

It's a pleasure to be speaking at the International Longevity Centre's Age-Friendly Societies Forum. Longevity, of course, is about moving further through time, and when it comes to our own lives, the more of it, the better. I want to assure you, however, that I will not be applying the same principle this evening, as I recognize that in contrast to a healthy life, a speech can easily go on for too long, especially when it's the last item on the agenda before the networking and general fun begin!  I will endeavour, therefore, to keep my remarks to about 20 minutes, after which I'd be pleased to take a few questions.

We are fortunate to live in an era of unprecedented longevity.  If age is just a number, let's see what the numbers tell us.  Between the 1970s and the current decade, the proportion of seniors in the Canadian population grew from 8 to 14 per cent. In 2016, for the first time ever, seniors made up a bigger share of Canada’s population than children. And it's estimated that seniors could represent a quarter of the total population in 20 years.

Not only are we living longer; we're also staying healthier. Modern medicine and better choices, including an increasing emphasis on regular exercise, mean that we are able to enjoy a wider range of activities for more years than previous generations.

Among those activities is travel to see family, friends, and new places. Seniors travel more often and spend more money on trips than any other age cohort.

It is a truism, however, that with aging comes an increased likelihood of having some sort of disability. Not every older Canadian has a disability, of course, but we know that the prevalence of disabilities among those ages 15 to 24 is under 5 per cent, while the prevalence among those 75 years and older is north of 40 per cent. As we age, we may, for example, walk more slowly or need to use a mobility aid, see or hear less clearly, or require special meals or medications to manage conditions like diabetes.

These realities should not prevent us from continuing to enjoy rich, meaningful lives full of interesting experiences, including travel. But that requires that the transportation services that move us across the country and around the globe be attentive and responsive to age- and disability-related needs. 

At the Canadian Transportation Agency, the CTA, we're committed to fostering this attention and responsiveness. This evening, I'd like to take share some of the practical steps we're taking to do just that. 

Universal accessibility

Our point of departure is a conceptual shift in the approach to accessibility. 

In the past, accessibility has often been thought of in terms of individual accommodation. Now, there will always be times when the specific needs of a traveller have to be accommodated in a targeted way, so individual accommodation will remain an important part of how we ensure that transportation services are accessible. 

But that's not where we should begin. Individual accommodation should be a fallback. The default, the overarching value, should be universal accessibility. 

Consider, for example, curbside drop- off and pick-up points at airports. A universal accessibility lens leads to the construction of a ramp – which makes the physical space just as accessible to people who use wheelchairs as those who walk ‒ while an emphasis on individual accommodation might leave the curb as is, but make sure someone is available when required to pull the wheelchair over the curb.

In both scenarios, the traveller reaches the check-in counter on time. But in the first, she gets inside more quickly and doesn't feel as singled-out or dependent. And she isn't left waiting if the number of requests for assistance outstrips the availability of staff.

The Australian comedian and journalist, Stella Young, who was born with what's colloquially known as brittle bone disease, put it this way: "My disability exists not because I use a wheelchair, but because the broader environment isn't accessible."

Starting with efforts to avoid and remove barriers on a systemic basis – and turning to individual accommodations when, but only when, that isn't feasible – helps protect the independence and dignity of all travellers. 

In a society as committed to equality and inclusion as Canada, that should be enough to motivate us. But maximizing accessibility isn't only good for travellers – it's also good for business. The economics of airlines, passenger railway companies, ferry operations, airports, and marine terminals typically involve significant sunk costs and modest margins, so volumes are needed to make money. And that means that operators benefit when accessible services attract more customers.  

How do we advance universal accessibility for travellers of all ages?  By thinking about accessibility when facilities are planned, built, and renovated. When equipment is designed, bought, and retrofitted. When policies and procedures are written and implemented. When personnel are trained and their performance is evaluated.

We advance universal accessibility by being proactive rather than reactive, engaged rather than indifferent, innovative rather than hidebound.   

Regulatory modernization

One of the tools the CTA uses to encourage proactivity, engagement, and innovation in pursuit of accessibility is smart regulation. 

In May 2016, we launched the Regulatory Modernization Initiative, or RMI, a sweeping review of all the regulations and guidelines we administer to ensure that they keep pace with evolving business models, user expectations, and best practices in the regulatory field. The first phase of RMI consultations was devoted to accessible transportation. The input received from the CTA's Accessibility Advisory Committee (whose membership includes National Pensioners Federation and Fédération de l'Age d'Or du Québec), disability rights organizations, industry, experts, and individual Canadians showed wide support for a new accessible transportation regulation that will:

  • integrate two existing accessibility-related regulations and six voluntary codes of practice into a single, comprehensive regulation;
  • set clear standards for everything, from operating controls in washrooms and at seats that require minimal force to operate, to alternate formats for documents, including large print -- while leaving room for creative solutions;
  • reinforce the obligation to properly train staff in the delivery of services to people with accessibility-related needs; and,
  • provide for the preparation by transportation service providers of multi-year accessibility plans and regular progress reports.

Regulatory drafting is now under way. We expect to finalize the regulation – which will require the dual approval of the CTA and Cabinet – later this year.

Education and enforcement

Modernized rules are critical to making travel possible for as many Canadians as possible, but they'll only get us so far. Once the rules are in place, we need to make sure travellers with disabilities are aware of their rights, and transportation service providers understand and comply with their obligations.

That's why the CTA has published a number of accessibility-related guides over the years – and why our Centre of Expertise for Accessible Transportation will lead efforts to inform travellers and service providers about the new accessible transportation regulation when it comes into effect.

Those efforts will use plain language, rely on online as well as more traditional formats, and leverage partnerships with other organizations ‒ including, we hope, the International Longevity Centre ‒ to get the word out. 

Maximizing compliance is obviously in the interests of travellers, but it's also in the interests of operators who respect the rules and should not be placed at an unfair disadvantage because their competitors don't. An effective compliance assurance program doesn't just improve accessibility for travellers; it also creates a level playing field for the companies offering transportation services to those travellers.

Dispute resolution

Even with the clearest rules, savviest education efforts, and best compliance program, disagreements will arise between travellers and operators. Sometimes, this will be because they have different views on how a rule should be interpreted. Sometimes, it will be because the issue between them isn't covered by any specific rule, just a broad principle.

That's where the CTA's dispute resolution services kick in. When a traveller submits a complaint, we'll first try to help the parties arrive at a mutually acceptable settlement through facilitation and mediation. But if those informal methods don't work, we can undertake an adjudication and issue a binding ruling.

Our status as a quasi-judicial tribunal is most evident in the context of such adjudications, during which we receive and weigh evidence and arguments, rule on procedural matters and requests to intervene, and are bound by the principles of natural justice and procedural fairness. 

The number of complaints about the accessibility of transportation services has been rising steadily. In 2017-2018, we received 123 such complaints, almost double what we received in 2015-2016. Of these 123, all but three were against airlines and almost half concerned services for people who need to use wheelchairs or other mobility aids.

One adjudication that has received significant media attention involves the storage of scooters on VIA Rail trains. After hearing from VIA and from a couple who travel together using scooters, the CTA ordered VIA to provide clearer guidance to its personnel on how to handle mobility devices, and to look at either storing two scooters in a single car's tie-down area or ensuring that each train has more than one tie-down area. 

Aspects of the case are still being considered, so it wouldn't be appropriate for me to go into further detail, but I will note that VIA and the Government recently announced a major fleet renewal project that has universal accessibility – including sufficient tie-downs for mobility aids – as one of its central objectives. The CTA's Centre of Expertise for Accessible Transportation will engage with VIA throughout the project to help it realize this goal.

The international arena

Before concluding, I'd like to shift briefly from the domestic to the international arena, where the CTA is working to advance a common set of accessibility principles for air travel. Because flights so often cross borders, a global consensus on how to make them more accessible will be good for both travellers with various needs – who will experience fewer inconsistencies and surprises as they board planes in different countries – and for airlines – which won't have to comply with significantly divergent regimes.

The place for forging such a consensus is the International Civil Aviation Organization, ICAO, which is based in Montré al. And the forum for ratifying it is ICAO's General Assembly, which meets once every three years. Although multilateral discussions inevitably take time, with effort and goodwill, we may be able to secure a statement on accessibility principles at ICAO's 2019 General Assembly.

In parallel, the CTA is working to facilitate collaborative, trans-national responses to the challenges of storing and transporting wheelchairs and other mobility aids on aircraft – challenges that are growing as those devices get bigger and more technologically complex. On June 12 and 13, we'll host a forum in Toronto that brings together disability rights groups, airlines, aircraft manufacturers, wheelchair manufacturers, regulators, and experts from Canada and aboard to start looking for solutions that will enable those who rely on such devices to travel by air. 


As I approach the end of my remarks, I'm reminded of a saying variously attributed to Mark Twain, Satchel Paige, and Jack Benny: "Age", one, the other, or perhaps all of them said, "is a case of mind over matter: if you don't mind, it doesn't matter."

There's wisdom in that aphorism. We all know that a positive attitude can make a big difference. As Helen Keller observed – and here, there's no doubt about the source of the quote – "no pessimist ever discovered the secret of the stars, or sailed to an uncharted land, or opened a new doorway for the human spirit."

That said, a positive attitude is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for success. Concrete steps to change things for the better are also needed.

A combination of optimism, clarity of purpose, and a focus on practical action underpins the CTA's multi-pronged strategy to ensure accessible transportation services for everyone from hard-of-hearing seniors who want to fly off for new adventures, to travellers in wheelchairs who want to take a train to see their grandchildren, to multi-generational family groups who want to board a cruise ship to celebrate a special occasion. 

The CTA's straightforward but ambitious vision is for Canada's national transportation system to be the most accessible in the world. 

At 114 years of age, the CTA is itself an exemplar of longevity. Building on our experience as Canada's longest-standing independent, expert regulatory tribunal, we will help make that vision a reality.

Thank you for your attention.

"We advance universal accessibility by being proactive rather than reactive, engaged rather than indifferent, innovative rather than hidebound."
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