Remarks from the Chair and CEO, Scott Streiner, at the Canadian Institute of Transportation Engineers annual conference in Ottawa, on June 3, 2019

Equality in motion: Designing and building for accessible transportation

On April 15, the 123rd Boston Marathon was held. The race is famous for many reasons, including its status as the world’s oldest marathon. But this year, something was missing: for the first time since 1981, Rick Hoyt wasn’t a participant, as he was recovering from a bout of pneumonia.

Rick’s absence was notable not just because he made it to the previous 37 races, but also because, uniquely at first, he has completed the race by being pushed in a specially designed wheelchair by his father or, more recently, a family friend.

Rick has had cerebral palsy since birth. From early in his life, doctors told his mother and father that he would always be unresponsive and suggested that he be institutionalized. His parents believed otherwise – in part because they saw how Rick’s eyes followed them around the room – and eventually hired engineers to design a computer through which Rick could form words using head motion. Rick was 11 at the time. Once the barrier to communication was removed, it quickly became clear that he was both highly intelligent and capable. He started attending public school and went on to graduate from Boston University with a degree in special education.

Rick first became interested in racing in 1977, when he asked to participate in a run for a lacrosse player who had been paralyzed. His out-of-shape father, Dick, agreed to push him, and they both got the running bug. But they also recognized that a regular wheelchair was much too heavy and unwieldy for racing. So they again turned to a team of engineers, who designed a sleek, lightweight wheelchair with a single front wheel and high handles. Rick and Dick ran over 1,100 events using that model, including 257 triathlons and 72 marathons. The breakthrough design of their special wheelchair also led to the development of the jogging stroller than has allowed millions of parents of young children to stay fit as their kids bounce happily in front of them.

Many people face challenges like those confronted by Rick. In fact, one in five Canadians has a disability. Maybe it’s one of your parents or grandparents who uses a wheelchair, cane, or walker. Maybe it’s a daughter or son who grapples with a learning disorder. Maybe it’s a sibling with a severe allergy, a neighbour who’s deaf, or a colleague who’s blind. Maybe it’s you.

Accessibility is everybody’s business. And at a conceptual level, there’s nothing complicated about accessibility: it’s simply about preventing and removing barriers so that we can all participate fully and equally in all aspects of life, regardless of whether or not we have a disability.

Accessibility is a human right each of us has. And helping realize it is a responsibility we all share.

The Canadian Transportation Agency

At the Canadian Transportation Agency, or CTA, we have a specific role in this regard. The CTA is Canada’s longest-standing independent regulator and tribunal. We’ve been around since 1904, but our accessible transportation mandate – one of our three core mandates – is much more recent, dating from 1988.

The tools we have for delivering our mandates include making, and ensuring compliance with, regulations; resolving disputes between transportation service providers and their customers through facilitation, mediation, and adjudication; and providing information on transportation-related rights and responsibilities to service providers and travellers.

For the purposes of accessibility, we oversee all airlines and airports, along with interprovincial and international passenger rail, marine, and bus services.

Our vision is to make Canada’s national transportation system the most accessible in the world. This is an ambitious goal, but we believe that in a country whose fundamental values include human equality, dignity, and inclusion, we should strive for nothing less.

Of course, translating that goal into reality requires practical steps. Sometimes, those steps involve retrofitting existing facilities and equipment. But at least as important is to avoid creating barriers in the first place by applying the lens of universal accessibility. We should plan, design, and build in ways that maximize access for all people, all the time.

This is not only a matter of social justice – though it is certainly that. It’s also a business imperative. As the population ages and the proportion of travellers with disabilities grows, allowing them to move through terminals, board trains and planes and ferries and buses, and reach their destinations without any unnecessary difficulties expands the customer base and stimulates economic activity.

Accessibility, in short, is in everyone’s interest. But advancing it can entail short-term costs and effort, and we have to take deliberate action to make it happen.

Major changes aimed at spurring such action are coming to federal laws and regulations.

The Accessible Canada Act

Last Wednesday – during National AccessAbility Week – the House of Commons unanimously adopted a version of Bill C-81, the proposed Accessible Canada Act, that incorporated all amendments passed earlier by the Senate. This means that as soon as the Bill receives Royal Assent – which should happen quickly – it will become law.

The Accessible Canada Act is the first comprehensive accessibility legislation at the federal level. It will require that the federal public service and federally regulated sectors develop plans, obtain feedback, and report on progress towards achieving barrier-free built environments, employment, communications, procurement, and service delivery.

Just as importantly, this landmark legislation articulates a number of guiding principles. It underscores that a disability only complicates an individual’s equal participation in society because of its interaction with a barrier. It contains a commitment to ensuring that all people have the same opportunity to make for themselves the lives that they are able and wish to have, regardless of disabilities. And it emphasizes the tenet of "nothing about us without us”, which ensures persons with disabilities are full participants in the development and implementation of policies and measures aimed at preventing and removing barriers.

Finally, the Accessible Canada Act gives the CTA new tools to help advance the objective of accessible transportation. These tools include stronger inspection and enforcement powers, the ability to provide funding to facilitate the participation of persons with disabilities in hearings into their complaints, and the authority to award compensation for pain and suffering when a disability-related complaint is found to have merit.

The Accessible Transportation for Persons with Disabilities Regulations

Even before Bill C-81 was introduced in Parliament, the CTA was working to modernize the rules aimed at ensuring the accessibility of the national transportation system. In May 2016, we launched a review of all the regulations we make and administer with an eye to ensuring that they reflect current and emerging business models, user expectations, and best practices in the regulatory field. The first phase of this sweeping Regulatory Modernization Initiative focused on accessibility, and included over two years of consultations with disability rights groups, industry representatives, and other interested Canadians. 

The result was a draft set of Accessible Transportation for Persons with Disabilities Regulations, which were released for a final round of stakeholder and public comment on March 9. These proposed regulations integrate and update two existing regulations and six voluntary codes of practice into a single, robust, and legally binding instrument. We hope to have the final version of the regulations published by the summer.

The regulations set out the obligations of airlines, airports and other terminals, passenger rail companies, ferry operators, and interprovincial bus companies in six broad areas:

  • Communications
  • Employee training
  • Fleets and equipment
  • Terminal facilities
  • Services
  • Border and security screening.

More specifically, the regulations require, for example, that:

  • transfer seats, mobility aid spaces, lifts, ramps, exits, and washrooms be designed for accessibility and be consistent with the Canadian Standards Association’s accessibility-related standards;
  • wheelchair assistance be provided by airports from curb to check in, and by airlines from check-in to plane;
  • relief areas for service dogs be set up in terminals;
  • websites, self-service kiosks, safety instructions, and in-flight entertainment systems be accessible;
  • persons who must fly with an attendant because of their disability get that attendant’s seat without charge on domestic flights;
  • personnel who interact with travellers with disabilities be trained to do so in a way that’s well informed, responsive, and respectful of those travellers’ dignity.

Most of these provisions will come into force a year after the regulations are published, with other, more complex obligations taking effect in two or three years. Non-compliance with any requirement could result in the levying of an administrative monetary penalty by a CTA enforcement officer.

The enactment of these groundbreaking regulations promises to make travel significantly easier for people with a wide range of disabilities. The CTA is committed to undertaking a program of education, monitoring, and enforcement to ensure that this promise is realized.

The Mobility Aids and Air Transportation Forum

At the same time, we know that rules alone can’t address every issue. As we consulted on the new regulations, it became clear that something more was needed with respect to the storage and transportation on planes of mobility aids, such as wheelchairs. In recent years, these devices have become larger, more technologically sophisticated, and more customizable. That’s good news for persons with mobility-related disabilities. But it’s also added to the challenges associated with safe loading, storing, and transportation by airlines and their ground handlers.

In June 2018, the CTA convened a multi-stakeholder forum to examine how we can work together to address these challenges. This work brought together representatives of the disability community, airlines, aircraft manufacturers, mobility aid manufacturers, ground handlers, and regulators from Canada and abroad.

The recommendations stemming from these discussions will be released this summer and are expected to identify both measures that can be adopted in the short term and longer-term options for further exploration. Those longer-term options will have significant engineering dimensions. From the design of mobility aids themselves to the creation of better lifting devices, from the shape of cargo hold doors to the types of securement techniques used within the holds, it will be engineers – working with persons with disabilities and other stakeholders – who will be asked to come up with practical solutions that increase the number of mobility devices that can be transported on planes while reducing the number that are accidentally damaged.

The Role of Engineers

This is just one of many areas where accessible transportation is going to turn on the engagement, expertise, and imagination of engineers.

As the Accessible Canada Act and the Accessible Transportation for Persons with Disabilities Regulations take effect, we’ll need engineers to help design fully accessible terminal entrances, elevators, and passageways. Accessible train platforms and cars. Accessible check-in kiosks and announcement boards. Accessible in-plane and on-train washrooms. Accessible online forms and information.

All of us – from persons with disabilities to transportation service providers to regulators – will look to you to come up with innovative approaches to achieving the most accessible transportation system possible. We’ll need incremental improvements in some areas, and breakthroughs – whole new ways of understanding and tackling barriers – in others.

The new legislative and regulatory regimes will help create a market for your best ideas.

As I approach the end of my remarks, I’d like to return to where I began: with Rick and Dick Hoyt. Today, a statue of the father-and-son running team stands at the starting point of the Boston Marathon. Like Terry Fox, whose statue stands opposite Parliament, and others who’ve demonstrated vision and grit in the face of disabilities and other challenges, the Hoyts have become heroes, and rightly so. Theirs is a story of extraordinary love, persistence, and resilience.

But the Hoyts aren’t the only heroes of this story. So are the engineers who designed the computer that allowed Rick to communicate and ended his isolation, and the wheelchair that allowed him to participate in so many races. Without their ingenuity, skills, and dedication, Rick – and countless others – would not have been able to live so fully and contribute so much to society.

Consistent with the theme of this conference – BOLD Thinking and Transformative Solutions: Today! Not Tomorrow – I encourage you to find opportunities for such heroism. What better way to make a difference through your chosen field?

Thank you for your attention.

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