5 Things to Know About Canada’s Chief Accessibility Officer

March 7, 2023 BY JENA WALLACE

A Quick Guide to the Accessible Canada Act: Read the Blog

The Government of Canada announced Stephanie Cadieux’s appointment as Chief Accessibility Officer (CAO) in May 2022. The CAO role was introduced as part of the Accessible Canada Act (ACA), an accessibility law that aims to identify, remove, and prevent barriers to accessibility across Canada. Cadieux brings a deep background of advocacy, leadership, and lived experience as a disabled person to the inaugural position.

But how does the CAO position fit into the Government of Canada’s disability inclusion initiatives?

In this blog, we’ve rounded up the top five things you need to know about Canada’s Chief Accessibility Officer. Let’s explore what a Chief Accessibility Officer is, why Stephanie Cadieux was chosen for this new federal role, and how the position could impact Canadian accessibility for years to come.

1. What does a Chief Accessibility Officer do?

Chief of Accessibility Officer roles have grown mainstream over the past decade, with Robert Sinclair being one of the first to use the title in his role at Microsoft back in 2010. The addition of CAO to the C-suite level has allowed organizations to move beyond compliance with federal and provincial regulations. 

CAOs help integrate accessibility into all levels of an organization. Responsibilities typically include:

  • Ensuring organizations offer accessible experiences and products
  • Championing accessibility as a core value
  • Setting policies for accessibility and inclusion

While Chief Accessibility Officer roles have typically been associated with corporations and organizations, Canada is the first country to introduce the position into the federal government. And for Melina Nathanial, President of 3Play Media Canada, it’s an exciting development that could further accessibility initiatives in all areas of business.

The federal government’s appointment of a Chief Accessibility Officer marks a strong step towards building standards and practices that will lead to more inclusive and accessible work environments in the federal public sector.  We look forward to seeing the progress made in this regard and how this influences initiatives that are being advanced in the private sector. Melina Nathanail, President, 3Play Media Canada

The CAO position remains in its early stages as of 2023. But as Cadieux works towards building the office out, it is likely that Canadian organizations, both public and private, will be watching closely as accessibility initiatives develop over Cadieux’s term.

2. How is Canada’s Chief Accessibility Officer unique?

Canada is well known for its progressive approach to accessibility policies across territories and provinces. A few key laws include:

Up until 2019, Canada did not have accessibility legislation that applied to the entire country. That changed with the passage of the Accessible Canada Act, a wide-ranging law that included space for the creation of new roles and committees to provide guidance and oversight over Canadian accessibility initiatives. One of the new roles as a part of the ACA? A government-appointed Chief Accessibility Officer.

The role of Canada’s Chief Accessibility Officer is designed to promote “a positive and productive dialogue between the federal government, disability stakeholders, and national and international organizations.” 

Specifically, Canada’s CAO will be expected to serve as an independent special advisor to the Minister of Employment, Workforce Development, and Disability inclusion. The CAO will also report on systemic and emerging accessibility issues, and produce annual reports detailing progress achieved under the ACA.

3. Who is Stephanie Cadieux, and why was she chosen as Canada’s Chief Accessibility Officer?

Stephanie Cadieux began her four-year term as Canada’s first Chief Accessibility Officer on May 2, 2022. Although the role is new to the Government of Canada, it was a natural progression for Cadieux, who brings deep expertise in both governmental initiatives and disability inclusion.

As Canada’s first Chief Accessibility Officer, Stephanie Cadieux will help identify and address issues related to accessibility and disability inclusion, working with the disability community.  She brings both professional expertise and lived experience to the role, and I look forward to working with her to improve the lives of all Canadians with disabilities.Carla Qualtrough, Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Disability Inclusion

Prior to her appointment to CAO, Cadieux was a member of the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia from 2009 to 2022. She additionally served as Minister of Children and Family Development from 2012 to 2017, along with various other political positions.

Cadieux is particularly notable for being the first disabled woman to serve in the Canadian legislature and cabinet, having used a wheelchair since the age of 18. 

On top of Cadieux’s lived experience, she served as both a provincial peer coordinator and director of marketing and public relations for the BC Paraplegic Association throughout the early 2000s.

Is your organization barrier free? Learn how the Accessible Canada Act affects you 🇨🇦

4. How will the Chief Accessibility Officer and other new positions created under the Accessible Canada Act impact Canadian accessibility?

The Accessible Canada Act not only established the position of Canada’s Chief Accessibility officer, but also the position of Accessibility Commissioner to the Canadian Human Rights Commission (CHRC) and a new entity known as the Canadian Accessibility Standards Development Organization. 

These new roles and organizations are designed to ensure proper oversight of the ACA, with the CAO advising the Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Disability Inclusion, and overseeing the implementation of the act across applicable sectors.

Accessibility Commissioner

The Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Disability Inclusion announced the appointment of Michael Gottheil to the Accessibility Commissioner role, effective May 9, 2022. 

The Accessibility Commissioner provides executive leadership and direction for the administration and enforcement of the ACA, including:

  • Promotion of compliance with the ACA
  • Ensuring federally regulated organizations meet accessibility obligations
  • Investigating and ruling on complaints filed under the ACA

Essentially, the Accessibility Commissioner will be responsible for spearheading compliance with the ACA and will report to the Chief Commissioner of the CHRC. Gottheil, a justice sector leader with over 35 years of experience in advocacy and human rights, is blind and, like Cadieux, brings lived experience to the new role.

Canadian Accessibility Standards Development Organization/Accessibility Standards Canada

The Canadian Accessibility Standards Development Organization (CASDO), now known as Accessibility Standards Canada, is responsible for developing accessibility standards to be integrated into federal regulations.

The majority of Accessibility Standards Canada’s Board of Directors, and a quarter of employees, are people with disabilities.

‘Nothing without us’ is the principle that drives everything we do. We value the knowledge and experience of people with disabilities. We put this into practice by consulting and working closely with people with disabilities, diverse disability communities and other experts.Accessibility Standards Canada

The group has been actively creating accessibility standards for federally regulated entities and organizations in Canada since the passing of the ACA in 2019.

5. What can Canadians expect from the Chief Accessibility Officer and Accessible Canada Act going forward?

The appointment of Stephanie Cadieux to the Chief Accessibility Officer role moves Canada a step closer to complete implementation of the Accessible Canada Act and “the realization of a barrier-free Canada.”

Throughout Cadieux’s four-year term, Canadians can expect the Office of the CAO to report about achievements related to the ACA as well as persisting accessibility issues throughout the country. 

As an independent advisor, I will have a vital duty to provide a clear and candid view of the Government’s commitment to the inclusion of persons with disabilities… [T]he work ahead to foster a culture of inclusion will be dependent upon collaboration with partners and stakeholders in the federal government, the disability sector, and the Indigenous community.Stephanie Cadieux, Canada’s Chief Accessibility Officer

Because the ACA is focused on creating a barrier-free Canada, Canadian citizens can also expect the implementation of a Disability Inclusion Action Plan. Key objectives of this plan focus on employment for disabled citizens:

  • Reducing poverty among people with disabilities
  • Helping disabled citizens move into high quality jobs
  • Simplifying access to federal programs and services
  • Fostering a culture of inclusion for all Canadian citizens

The Action Plan is guided by principles laid out in the ACA: “Nothing without us,” a human rights-based approach, and intersectionality. This plan primarily covers federal responsibilities but pledges to collaborate with “provincial and territorial governments, disability stakeholders, and persons with disabilities on its implementation.” Read the full Disability Inclusion Action Plan.

The creation of Canada’s Chief Accessibility Officer position marks an exciting era for Canadian accessibility. Cadieux’s appointment to CAO, along with the additional appointments of disabled Canadians to key roles and organizations, commits to the Accessible Canada Act’s guiding principle of “Nothing without us.” And for the 6.2 million Canadians aged 15 or older with disabilities, meaningful access and inclusion through ACA initiatives is an important step forward for Canada—and the world.

Everything you need to know about the Accessible Canada Act. Creating a barrier-free Canada by 2040. Read the blog.