National AccessAbility Week 2021

Release date: June 3, 2021

Catalogue number: 45-20-0003
ISSN: 2816-2250

New barriers and new freedoms: A conversation with StatCan’s Champion for Persons With Disabilities

We sit down (virtually!) with Tony Labillois, StatCan’s Champion for Persons With Disabilities, to talk about the new challenges and opportunities experienced by persons with disabilities during the pandemic.


Tegan Bridge


Tony Labillois, StatCan's Champion for Persons With Disabilities

Download: National AccessAbility Week 2021 (MP3, 19.38 MB)

National AccessAbility Week 2021 - Transcript

Tegan: In September, we're launching StatCan's first podcast. It will be available in both English and French under the names Eh Sayers and Hé-coutez bien. To celebrate National AccessAbility Week, we're sharing a preview of our first episode. We've all been working hard on it, and I hope you enjoy.

[Theme music]

Welcome to the very first episode of Eh Sayers, it's a podcast from Statistics Canada, where we meet the people behind the data and explore the stories behind the numbers. I'm your host, Tegan.

Today, we're talking about disability. According to the 2017 Canadian Survey on Disability, more than 6 million Canadians aged 15 and over report having a disability. That's about 1 in 5 Canadians. So what do we mean when we say persons with disabilities?

Tony: Well, it can mean many things for many people, and some people will will have activity limitations and probably will not even think of themselves as being a person with a disability. We mean people with visible and invisible conditions that may affect them in their daily life or in their daily work.

Tegan: That's Tony Labillois.

Tony: My name is Tony Labillois. I'm the Director for public sector Statistics Division at Statistics Canada, and I'm also the champion for persons with disabilities in our organization since 2002. And I'm visually impaired since I was born. I have low vision. And for me it's normal vision.

Tegan: 1.5 million Canadians aged 15 years and over have a seeing disability, like Tony.

What do you mean by invisible conditions?

Tony: You see, immediately, when you meet someone, like you will see that I have dancing eyes, if you see me, you'll notice that my eyes are different. So you'll know that I'm visually impaired or there's something different. But there's a lot of invisible disabilities, there's a lot of people where you will meet the person and you could not know that they have an activity limitation. And think about things like learning disability, mental health challenge, or even pain, chronic pain or hypersensitivity to the environment. All those things are affecting us as human beings, either for an episode of our life or permanently. And that's what can be included in persons with disabilities. But it doesn't mean that the person would recognize himself or herself as having a disability or being part of that group. It's a question of acceptance or a question of perception depending on our experiences... yeah our experiences.

Tegan: Could you talk a bit more about that? Why a person might not identify themselves as having a disability?

Tony: Yes, absolutely. I remember the time that when I was not even sure if I should self identify, or I wasn't sure I was even accepting myself as I was, as a teenager. And as we evolve as human beings, or as our condition evolves, as human beings that perception might change. Unfortunately, disability or an activity limitation is something that can be acquired. So it may change our perception of ourselves. And it may change the way we answer a question if there's a question. Are you a person with disability? Yes or no. But there's also even despite the condition itself, there's a level of trust in ourselves and trust in others, acceptance of ourselves and the way we feel that we will be accepted or not by others, that will have an influence on us self declaring, especially if it's invisible. Someone wouldn't have to necessarily self declare.

Tony: So I may choose especially if it's an invisible disability not to disclose. We're all facing that as we're getting older. Unfortunately, we can acquire a disability, something very simple in many people's lives when they get in their 40s. And suddenly, they don't see as well as they used to, and suddenly they need glasses. But before they accept for themselves that they need to go see optometrist and get the right prescription,they will often try to look at a piece of paper that they receive in the mail or at something else a bit further or closer to try to get the right focus and so on. It's a very simple example where there's--they need to accept that they will need that accommodation in their life. It's usually something that will not generate any discrimination in society because many people already have glasses and it's accepted socially and professionally, that people can be efficient even when they have glasses. Other persons with disabilities need other accommodations sometimes or not. But they often are not certain that these accommodations or their different ways of doing something will be as accepted as glasses would be or using glasses would be.

Tegan: Invisible disabilities may be more common than you might expect. For example, in 2017, just over 4 million Canadians aged 15 and older had a pain-related disability and over 2 million had a mental health-related disability.

Tony told us a little more about the reality of living with an invisible disability.

Tony: It means that you can choose, it means that you can choose not to ever divulge it, and to live with that choice. And it means that you can choose to tell others and live with that choice as well. Think of someone with a diagnostic of anxiety. That person is evolving in the workplace and is having issues at certain point in time. And if he or she chooses not to say anything, that means that it may affect the person very much and even affect the colleagues very much without nobody knowing that there is a specific condition that could be considered and could be accommodated. So, it's true for any invisible disability. But think also if suddenly that person decides to divulge the fact that he or she has an anxiety problem. Well, suddenly, if it's accepted, again, it's a question of trust and acceptance, if it's accepted by the person, and the person doesn't feel she will be stigmatized or limited by that with the perception of others, if she feels that the workplace is conducive enough to discuss mental health issues, or any invisible disabilities, suddenly, accommodations can be put in place, even the person can get coaching or the person can get some help in stressful moments, the person can even just be able to say that she's stressed and that will relieve some stress, maybe the only accommodation that that person will need to know that she can ask frequently to the boss if everything is going well. Instead of ruminating and having ideas in your mind so there's a choice there to say or not say something which is not the case with something visible. I mean, people will probably ask questions even about something visible if we pretend it's not there.

Tegan: Then, it's much more complicated than a yes/no question. "Are you a person with a disability, yes or no?" It's not always that simple, is it?

Tony: Yeah, we have a social model to measure disability like in our Canadian survey on disability done in 2017 and the one we will do in 2022, after the census, we will make use of a social model where we don't look at the medical conditions of the people, we mostly look at the potential activity limitations and potential barriers that they face in the environment that they're in for their life or for work. And with scales also for light, moderate, and high impact of these things.

Tegan: Why is it especially important to acknowledge that hidden disability exists especially during the pandemic, both to acknowledge that it exists in other people we might interact with, but also, you know, within yourself, within ourselves.

Tony: This pandemic brought a lot of new opportunities, and a lot of challenges too. There are some invisible things that now are activity limitations for people that may never perceive themselves as persons with disabilities, they will likely never tick that box on a questionnaire if you ask them Are you a person with disability or not? You think of someone with a weak immune system, with someone, someone with pulmonary disease, someone with a newly developed phobia of the public space, these people don't perceive themselves and may never perceive themselves as a person with disability and that's okay. But that they will likely need accommodations. In fact, all of us we need accommodations to work from home for example, the way many of us will do now, even if we are not with disabilities. An analyst would need two screens to work efficiently and it's not a disability it's a question of productivity like it is for anybody with activity limitations. analysis is more easily done with lots of space to actually conduct it.

Tony: Another important aspect is that the pandemic has taught us that it could be any one of us that would suddenly face an activity limitation. If you think of the people with weak immune system or with pulmonary disease or other conditions, suddenly, from one day to the next, because of the context, they faced a situation that they had never envisioned. And that impacts on their ability to participate in a physical workplace or in society in general. It could be any of us that suddenly faced this, we could have a context that evolved or our own personal health could evolve. And it will have an impact on our ability to contribute, work or to participate in, in society and in the economy of Canada. And it becomes very important that we all build an inclusive world, an inclusive workplace, an inclusive economy and society so that we're not going to face an inability to contribute or to participate, even if the context would change, or even if our own health would change as we get older.

Tegan: So how does using the term barrier rather than disability help people to better understand that accessibility benefits everyone?

Tony: That's a really good question. The barrier is often something that is not attached to the person itself. It's attached to the environment. And it's something we can change, we can reflect on how to make sure that it's removed. And once it's removed, the person can do and you see more the ability than the disability. The Disability is often caused by the barrier. Let's take my own example. I see in a way that makes me appreciate scenery or art or I take pictures and I see colors I enjoy what I see, but I see much less than most human beings. And if all human beings would see like me, the environment would be different. Signs would be bigger, labels would be bigger, or we would have found accommodations for everyone so that we can all see equally and contribute equally. But sometimes I have a hard time seeing something something I receive a document that is in PDF and it's not accessible. Well, if everybody would use the same color scheme that I do or the same elements of my, my workstation, we would all be working in the same way. And there are ways to make sure that this--these barriers don't exist, they're often simple. They're just not known because they're not needed by the majority. So, when you talk about the barrier, instead of disability, we can all work on it, we can all make sure it disappears and that someone like me can do my job as a director, I can fulfill my role as a father or I can even repair some things around the house because I found my own ways to do these things and we can all find our own ways with the help of others sometimes or with our own perseverance other times and to contribute and lead a full life.

Tegan: how can broadening the definition of disability help more people accept that disability is everywhere and shouldn't be a taboo subject?

Tony: The more we open this definition but also the discussion, the more we are inclusive. I think the more that the level of knowledge will increase in society and hopefully the level of trust in the abilities. Because it's not about the disabilities it's about abilities that we need to look for.

[Theme music]

Tegan: That's it for now, but I hope that you'll be back to hear the full episode when we launch in September. A big thank you to our guest, Tony Labillois, and thanks to you for listening. See you next time!

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