Scott Streiner - Making Canada's National Transportation System the Most Accessible in the World: From Principles to Practice


In just 12 days, we will mark the 150th anniversary of Confederation.  This is an opportunity to reflect on how lucky we are to live in this land of peace and prosperity, appreciate the progress we've made as a country, and consider the distances we have yet to travel. 

At the heart of Canada's success and identity lie commitments to tolerance and  inclusion.  As a country founded through dialogue and compromise, we have developed an exceptional ability to live and let live, and an abiding belief in the equal worth of all people.

But as deeply held as these values are, we all know that they have not always been translated into practice.  Indigenous nations subjugated through force.  Women denied the right to vote.  Chinese workers compelled to pay a head tax.  Passengers on the Komagata Maru aggressively denied entry.  Jewish refugees sent back to a Europe falling under Nazi control.   Black Haligonians evicted from Africville.  LGBTQ public servants denied career opportunities.

And yes: Canadians with disabilities who were marginalized and denied equal access to employment and services because of ignorance, prejudice, and an unwillingness to make necessary changes and spend the required funds.  

Over its century and a half of existence, Canada has made tremendous strides towards a fuller realization of its ideals.  Many of the wrongs of the past have been acknowledged and corrected, or are in the process of being addressed.  Compared to most countries, Canada is a model of decency and diversity.  But there is still work to be done.

Accessibility for persons with disabilities is about human dignity and equality.  Today, Canada does a better job of protecting and advancing this fundamental right than it did, say, in the year of its centennial.   But many physical and attitudinal barriers to equal access remain.

Within the broad category of accessibility, accessible transportation has a special significance.  Full and equal participation in contemporary life is not possible if, because of a disability, it is impossible or difficult for you to get from your home to your work, to move between cities and towns, to visit other countries.  Transportation connects us to each other and to the world.  Making transportation accessible ensures that the "us" being connected includes everyone.

These basic propositions are widely accepted.  Accessible transportation is a common goal.  The question is: how do we advance that goal?

Universal accessibility

The first step in answering that question is to consider how we think about accessible transportation.

Traditionally, the focus has been on accommodation.  There's no doubt that accommodation is necessary.  But it's not the right starting-point.

Instead, we should begin with an aspiration to universal accessibility.  As a matter of course, airports and airplanes, passenger trains and ferries, terminals and buses should be as accessible as possible, to as many people as possible.

We should design for accessibility.  Build for accessibility.  Train employees for accessibility.  Hard-wire accessibility into planning, policies, and practices in the same way as we hard-wire for safety and security. 

Accessibility should be top-of-mind as new facilities are constructed, new equipment is purchased, and new staff are oriented.

We should aim for the target articulated by Stevie Wonder at the 2016 Grammy Awards, when he said: "We need to make every single thing accessible to every single person with a disability."

This is not just the right thing to do; it's also the smart thing to do. One in seven Canadians has a disability and this proportion is rising as the population ages.  So something closer to universal accessibility is both an ethical and a business imperative. 

Of course, we'll still need individual accommodation where a particular need simply cannot, realistically, be met on a systemic basis.  But individual accommodation should be the failsafe, not the default. 

This evolution in thinking is a necessary condition for moving closer to the objective of full and equal access to transportation services for all Canadians.  It is necessary – but not sufficient.  Because the conceptual shift must be accompanied by concrete action.

Regulatory modernization

This brings me to regulatory modernization, a second part of the answer to the question: how do we advance the goal of accessible transportation?  

Regulations give shape and substance to public policy goals set out in legislation.  As Canada's longest-standing independent, expert regulator and tribunal, the Canadian Transportation Agency has a unique ability to craft and implement economic and accessibility-related regulations for the national transportation system.

A year ago, the CTA launched the Regulatory Modernization Initiative, or RMI, with the objective of bringing the regulations we administer in line with current business models, user expectations, and best practices in the regulatory field.  The RMI is the most ambitious regulatory review in the history of the CTA: every regulation we apply is being looked at. We want to ensure that industry's obligations are clear, predictable, and no more burdensome than necessary to achieve public policy goals, and to facilitate the quick identification and correction of non-compliance.

The RMI is divided into four consultation phases. The first, which was initiated at the Accessibility Advisory Committee meeting last June, deals with accessible transportation.  At today's Accessibility Advisory Committee session, we'll have a chance to discuss the results of the last year of discussion and analysis, along with next steps.

The consultations on accessible transportation regulations have involved some 30 face-to-face meetings and over 200 written submissions.  We've found broad support for:

  • creating a comprehensive set of accessible transportation regulations that apply across the national transportation system, in place of the current patchwork of regulations and voluntary codes;
  • emphasizing staff training and education on how to serve and interact with persons with disabilities; and,
  • having service providers develop multi-year accessibility plans that encourage proactive rather than reactive strategies to advance accessibility.

As we finalize regulatory directions, we'll have to find an appropriate balance between regulations that are specific enough to achieve real results, but neither so prescriptive that they stifle innovation, nor so onerous that they impose undue hardship on service providers. We'll also need to think about questions of coverage, such as what obligations to place on smaller operators with more limited traffic and resources, and on companies operating international transportation services to and from Canada.

During this year of work on regulatory reform options in the area of accessible transportation, we've kept in close touch with the Minister of Sport and Persons with Disabilities and with her officials, as they develop options for national accessibility legislation.  We're confident that these initiatives are complementary, and we will continue to collaborate to ensure alignment between them.

Compliance and dispute resolution activities

Sound rules need to be accompanied by timely, fair, and effective compliance monitoring and dispute resolution services.  This, too, is part of the response to the question: how do we advance our commitment to accessibility in the real world?

Compliance monitoring is in the interests both of the people the rules are designed to protect, and the companies who respect the rules and who should not face unfair competition from those who don't. 

To help achieve these goals, the CTA is developing a state-of-the-art, risk- and evidence-based compliance assurance program.  Building on decades of experience administering accessibility provisions, we will take a three-pronged approach to maximizing compliance with accessible transportation regulations:

  • Education: We will undertake efforts to inform service providers across the national transportation system about accessibility-related rules and best practices.
  • Advice: Where service providers want advice, the CTA's Centre of Expertise for Accessible Transportation will be there to help.
  • Audits and inspections: We'll initiate audits and inspections to confirm levels of compliance with legislative and regulatory requirements.  Where we find an issue, we'll give the service provider a chance to resolve it, but if that doesn't happen, we won't hesitate to use all the tools at our disposal to ensure compliance.  

Alongside the compliance assurance program, the CTA offers dispute-resolution services that allow individuals and organizations to bring forward complaints if they believe a service provider hasn't respected its accessibility-related obligations.  Here, too, we're taking action:

  • Since last summer, we've conducted targeted public information activities to make sure Canadians are aware of their right to seek recourse through the CTA, because the evidence suggested awareness of the CTA's roles and services might be low.  Since those outreach activities began, the number of accessibility-related complaints received by the CTA has risen from an average of 3 or 4 per month, to somewhere between 10 and 15 per month.  This increase isn't inherently positive or negative.  There's no "right" level of complaints – except zero, if everything is going perfectly well.  But what is good is for people who have a concern to know what recourse mechanisms are available to them.   
  • We've created an accessible online complaint form that takes just a few minutes to fill in. 
  • We're redoubling efforts to help parties resolve cases through informal facilitation and mediation processes – which can often produce quicker results with less aggravation for all concerned – saving formal, court-like adjudication for more complex or intractable cases.  Last year 63 of the 69 accessible transportation disputes were resolved through facilitation or mediation. 

Steps industry and community organizations can take

Even as the CTA takes steps to modernize its regulations, compliance assurance program, and dispute-resolution services – all with an eye to translating principles into practice – there are actions industry and disability rights organizations can take as well. 

Airports, for example, can provide a relieving area for service animals on the secure side of their terminals, ensure that contracted taxi companies have vehicles that can transport mobility aids, and prominently display information regarding accessibility services on their websites.

Airlines can set up a dedicated 1-800 number for travellers with disabilities who need accommodation, publish the dimensions of cargo hold doors by aircraft type, and ensure that agents ask passengers about their specific disability-related needs. 

Airports and airlines can work together to ensure that there is no confusion about "who does what" when it comes to the provision of accessibility-related assistance from curb to gate, and from gate to curb.

All service providers – airports, airlines, ferry and terminal operators, extra-provincial passenger rail and bus companies – can consult with disability rights groups, the CTA's Centre of Expertise for Accessible Transportation, and other experts during the planning and design phase for new facilities and equipment purchases. 

Many of the actions I've mentioned have, in fact, already been taken by at least some service providers.  Operators can and should learn from, adapt, and adopt one another's best practices when it comes to accessibility. 

Finally, all parties – industry and community organizations alike – can maintain a meaningful, respectful, ongoing dialogue with each other and with the CTA to ensure that we're making concrete progress towards our common goal of accessible transportation services. That's the purpose of the Accessibility Advisory Committee meeting that will take place today – and it will be an important priority for the CTA going forward. 


I'd like to conclude my remarks today with a short tribute.

On May 26, Simon Ibell died at the age of 39.  As some of you know, Ibell had Hunter syndrome, a rare genetic condition.  And while he was diminutive in height, standing at just 4'8", he stood tall and spoke with the clearest of voices about the importance of embracing human diversity and what he called our various "rarities".  When asked what had shaped his life, Ibell gave credit to his mother's resourcefulness and persistence, saying: "I was included in everything growing up, from school, arts, sports, and community activities, which gave me the confidence to believe in myself."

Inclusion.  Dignity.  Equality.  Accessibility.

Travel on a plane, train, bus, or ferry is not just a convenience – it is an essential part of modern life.  That is why we should reach for universal accessibility.  There will, of course, be constraints on our ability to achieve that result.  But together, we can move much closer to it, and make Canada's national transportation system the most accessible in the world. 

That is a goal worth embracing on Canada's 150th anniversary.  It reflects our core values and will contribute in myriad ways to Canadians' economic and social well-being.  And hopefully, in the years to come, inaccessible transportation will seem as foreign an idea to our children and grandchildren as women not having the vote seems to us.

The CTA is ready to do its part, and looks forward to continued engagement with industry and disability rights organizations on how we can make this vision a reality.

Thank you for your attention.

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