Statement from Chief Accessibility Officer Stephanie Cadieux on first-ever National Air Accessibility Summit


May 13, 2024 – Ottawa (Ontario)

On May 9, 2024, Canada’s Chief Accessibility Officer, Stephanie Cadieux addressed attendees at Canada’s first-ever National Air Accessibility Summit. The following statement summarizes her remarks:

“It’s been over six months since the night my wheelchair was left behind by Air Canada. In some ways, it seems like just yesterday, because I vividly recall the emotions and the feeling of frustrated outrage at having lost my independence and my security. In other ways, it seems longer – too long.

In recent months, other incidents have occurred that fix a bright spotlight on how much this sector needs to change – and now.  Mobility aids are extensions of the human body and need to be treated as such. Full stop. People with disabilities are passengers. Period.

We are people, not machines, but right now, regulators and the sector are still willing to accept that many people with disabilities cannot access lavatories on planes. If the lavatory was out of service for everyone else, the plane simply wouldn’t fly. But it is still considered acceptable for passengers with disabilities to go without.

The inaccessibility of air travel goes beyond the issues faced by passengers with mobility issues.  And many of those other concerns were voiced by members of the disability community in attendance yesterday.

We’ve all heard the downright atrocious, inhumane experiences people with disabilities have endured during air travel, some resulting in serious injury, all causing deep emotional harm.  We are talking about nothing less than the human dignity of each traveller.

Recent progress
Over the past six months, I have seen this issue catch fire in a way I don’t think it ever has before. In that time, I have seen some progress, but not enough. I have learned a lot. I’ve had conversations with airports, service providers, airlines, industry associations, and I’ve met with international leaders at conferences like the ones hosted by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) and All Wheels Up. This is a global issue. In some areas, Canada is leading the way, and we should be proud of that, but we should be much farther ahead.

Airlines have been working on improvements, testing new ways of storing and securing wheelchairs, investing in more training for staff, and making commitments to do better.  I want to see those commitments in action. I want to see consistency.

Airports are making progress too.  Whether it be Sunflower lanyard programs, dog relief areas, or wayfinding applications, I applaud and encourage the efforts.

I also welcome the important legislative and regulatory tools introduced in the last five years, such as the Accessible Canada Act (ACA) and the Accessible Transportation for Persons with Disabilities Regulations (ATPDR).

But progress overall is slow. People with disabilities are rightly fed up. Rights are not being respected, they are being “accommodated” in haphazard, often disrespectful ways, and when something goes wrong, remedies are inconsistent, time consuming, and physically and emotionally stressful for the person affected. We need concrete changes. Quickly.

Government and the National Airlines Council of Canada (NACC) made a number of commitments last year. I came to the summit wanting to see progress.  I heard some of those same commitments repeated, including:

  • the industry will develop a simplified approach for accommodation requests and medical (or rather, accessibility) documentation that can be shared between airlines so that passengers with disabilities will only have to tell airlines once about their needs,
  • the sector will proactively collect and share data about the experiences of their passengers with disabilities, and
  • the Government of Canada will take a leadership role with international partners to promote better passenger experiences for persons with disabilities.

Further recommended action
These are important commitments, but there are some additional items I believe need to be brought forward with the same urgency:

  • we need to see deliverables and timelines attached to these commitments and therefore, to provide accountability I am recommending the Deputy Minister of Transport Canada convene an air passenger continuum working group to move these and other items forward,
  • airlines should join the newly launched Disability Inclusion Business Council, to learn from other private sector businesses that are further ahead with accessible service delivery,
  • key federal departments, the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA) and airlines all need to undertake information campaigns that clearly communicate (in plain language) the rights and responsibilities of passengers with disabilities,
  • airlines should move to inform passengers at time of booking, of issues related to the size and stowage of mobility devices and of equipment availability for boarding and deplaning at destination, and
  • government and regulators need to help jump start work to ensure development and implementation of accessibility features on airplanes (this may entail issuing a timeframe to ensure all onboard services such as screens and call buttons, are accessible and a clear signal to industry that soon, planes will need to accommodate wheelchairs onboard and provide accessible washrooms).

Treating people with disabilities with dignity is not something that can be regulated by government. It is part of organizational culture, starting at the top. We need senior leadership to get vocal, be visible, and make it clear that providing accessible service is nonnegotiable.

This is just a beginning, and a long overdue one.  Above all, as laid out by the Accessible Canada Act, consultation with people with disabilities must remain constant and transparent. It simply has to be part of the way the sector does business.

I am encouraged by what I have seen and heard at the summit but I’ll be watching for and reporting on the progress that occurs.

Quick facts

  • The role of Chief Accessibility Officer (CAO) was created by the Accessible Canada Act (ACA), which came into force in 2019
  • As an independent adviser to the Minister, the CAO provides advice on wide-ranging accessibility issues, monitors and report on progress made under the ACA, and will provide annual reports detailing outcomes achieved under the ACA, as well as systemic and emerging accessibility issues
  • The Office of the CAO serves as a trusted source of information on accessibility, and supports the CAO in promoting a positive and productive dialogue between the federal government, disability stakeholders, national and international organizations.

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Jennifer Houle
Senior Communications Advisor
Office of the Chief Accessibility Officer

Media Relations
Office of the Chief Accessibility Officer

This is on Govt of Canada website go to the link here

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