Part 1 of A Short History of Accessible Commercial Air Travel in Canada

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Yvonne Peters, president of the Saskatchewan Voice of the Handicapped at the disability rights demonstration at Parliament Hill on November 3, 1980. Participants in background are not named in the original source.

Ingenium – Canada’s Museums of Science and Innovation’s collection is home to a large number of aircraft that were designed for everything from scientific experimentation, to warfare, to commercial transportation. Many previous Ingenium Channel entries have explored the fascinating technical details and histories of these planes, but this article focuses on another important element of Canada’s aviation history: passengers. Specifically, this article examines how accessibility legislation and aircraft design have determined who is able to access air travel and the resulting interactions between passengers with disabilities and airlines. This article is the first in a series on accessible air travel and is focused on the legislative side of this history.

The 1980s: An Era of Optimism
This history begins in the early 1980s. This may seem odd, as commercial air travel had begun several decades prior, but much of Canada’s accessibility legislation has relied on the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The charter, which was enacted in 1982 as part of the Constitution Act, declared that individuals have the right to “equal protection and equal benefit of the law” without “discrimination based on mental or physical disability.” This created a legal basis for lawmakers and disability rights advocates to campaign for further legislation.

Disability rights advocates were partially responsible for the last-minute inclusion of disability as a protected grounds in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. On November 3, 1980, members of the Coalition of Provincial Organizations of the Handicapped (COPOH) - renamed the Council of Canadians with Disabilities in 1994 - held a protest at Parliament Hill in Ottawa. Their primary demand was the inclusion of disability as a protected group in the charter. Their activism led to an invitation to act as observers in the development of Obstacles, a Report of the Special Committee on the Disabled and the Handicapped. This report contained numerous recommendations for federal legislation regarding people with disabilities, in terms of human rights protections, recreation, housing, employment, and transportation. Ultimately, the Charter’s inclusion of disability as a protected ground was one of only a few of the recommendations that were implemented; policymakers either did not address other recommendations or suggested that they could be considered in future revisions. 

The cover of Obstacles, a 1981 House of Commons report on accessibility.

The front cover of Obstacles. Individuals in the centre are people with disabilities who were consulted for the report. From left to right: Denise Beaudry, Craig Ostopovich, Jennifer Myers, and Julius Hager.

The 1990s to the 2010s: Inaction and Guidelines
The attention, consideration, and analysis mentioned above, through Obstacles and additions to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, were not followed by more positive results. The next government report pertaining to disability issues was No News is Bad News in 1988, whose title reflected the frustration felt by disability rights advocates in response to federal inactivity. This silence continued throughout much of the 1990s.

During this time, the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA), formerly the National Transportation Agency, was responsible for ensuring that persons with disabilities did not face any undue obstacles to their mobility in relation to federally regulated transportation. One way they sought to achieve this standard was through implementing personnel training regulations for air carriers in 1994, which remain in place today. They require airlines to create and make publicly available a training program for all employees and contractors that interact with the public, provide physical assistance, or handle mobility aids and special equipment. The CTA provides a short list of elements to be covered in a carrier’s training plan, but leaves space for airlines to interpret them without first consulting persons with disabilities or disability rights advocacy organizations.

The CTA also released accessibility guidelines for air travel carriers throughout the 1990s to the 2010s. These included guidelines on aircraft and terminal designs covering lighting, washrooms, wheelchair storage, and other elements of physically constructed spaces, and another on communicating with persons with disabilities through signage, interpersonal interactions, and various assistive technologies. If these guidelines had been enacted as regulations they would have addressed many concerns of disability rights advocates, but they remained optional guidelines that air carriers were not obligated to follow.

2019 and Onwards: The Accessible Transportation for Persons with Disabilities Regulations
As described above, the CTA was not inactive in protecting the mobility of persons with disabilities from the 1990s to the 2010s, but their approaches rarely included legally binding regulations. This changed with the 2019 implementation of the Accessible Transportation for Persons with Disabilities Regulations (ATPDR), which is the most comprehensive set of regulations concerning accessibility in Canadian transportation history.

The ATPDR applies to all areas of commercial transportation in the country that fall under the jurisdiction of the CTA, including rail, interprovincial buses and ferries, transportation terminals, and air travel. It contains regulations that apply both to all of these transportation industries, including the services that carriers are required to provide, as well as to the technical requirements specific to each area. The requirements for air carriers are similar to the earlier, optional guidelines provided by the CTA concerning built environments, as they focus on the physical specifications of aircraft design and layout. 

The early 1980s marked a shift in accessibility legislation in Canada, with disability rights organizations like the COPOH successfully campaigning for the inclusion of disability as a protected grounds in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Unfortunately, this did not lead to immediate and effective changes to accessible air travel, with optional guidelines being implemented instead of legally-binding regulations. The implementation of ATPDR in 2019 then marked the beginning of a new chapter in this history – one that is just beginning to unfold.

How has accessible air travel in Canada changed since the implementation of ATPDR? How effective have the regulations been? Who else, besides the CTA, has played a role in their creation? These questions and more will be addressed in future articles.

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Cassandra McKenney

Cassandra McKenney is the 2022/2023 Garth Wilson Fellow with Ingenium and a Master’s of Public History student with a specialization in Digital Humanities at Carleton University. She is passionate about creating public scholarship through community collaboration that places historically underrepresented lived experiences at the centre.