Democracy Dialogues: Empowerment through Accessibility: Toward Inclusive Democratic Engagement

Article 7 / 11 , Vol 44 No. 1 (Spring)

Democracy Dialogues: Empowerment through Accessibility: Toward Inclusive Democratic Engagement

Wendy Reynolds is Manager of Accessibility, Records and Open Parliament in the Information Services Division at the Legislative Assembly of Ontario.

Canada’s first Deaf parliamentarian recently spoke about his experience seeking elected office and how Ontario’s Legislative Assembly worked with him to accommodate his needs and, as a result, became one of the most accessible legislatures in the world.

Ryerson University’s Democracy Dialogues series1 recently invited, Gary Malkowski, the first deaf parliamentarian in Canada,2 to speak about his experiences in office.

Elected to the Ontario Legislature in 1990, Malkowski confessed that his first experience of voting was to vote for himself in the 1990 provincial election. For most candidates, this might be an unusual career path – many young politicians gain experience and exposure to democratic processes by participation in school government, developing connections to other politically engaged students, and developing an appreciation for and understanding of democratic tools and processes.

Malkowski, on the other hand, had little exposure to the democratic process in his youth. His secondary schooling did not include a civics class and he did not participate in school government. His first experience came when he moved to Washington DC to attend Gallaudet University, the world’s only university for Deaf students. Gallaudet University is a world-class institution with a rich history of transformation and impact. For more than 150 years, Gallaudet has been the political, social, and economic engine of the signing community.3 There, he developed an appreciation for activism, and a willingness to engage.

On his return to Ontario, he became part of the Deaf Ontario Now movement, which demanded American Sign Language (ASL) and langue des signes du Québécoise (LSQ) interpretation in schools for deaf children. Inspired by his experiences with Deaf Ontario Now, Malkowski ran for the NDP in the riding of York East. Reflecting on his time as a candidate and parliamentarian, Malkowski recounted a number of changes which had to be made to parliamentary operations:

The Elections Finance Committee ruled that extraordinary expenses incurred by the candidate for sign-language interpretation would not count under the candidate’s expense ceiling.
The first bill passed in the Ontario Legislature in that parliament was to allow sign-language interpreters on the floor of the Chamber.
Malkowski was given a small monitor for his desk so that he could see the closed captioning on the screen.
Flashing lights were installed to supplement the bells traditionally used to call Members into the Chamber.
When asked, Malkowski responded that his reception at Queen’s Park was “phenomenal” and he felt that he was “treated as an equal.” Working together with the new Member, the Legislative Assembly of Ontario became “one of the most accessible legislatures in the world.”

Legislation, such as the Accessible Canada Act and the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act can point the way to more inclusive institutions. But no written standard can anticipate the range of people and the ways that they interact, use information and communicate. This truth highlights the need for consultation with people with disabilities, a feature of both the federal and Ontario acts which Malkowski approves of. He also urged participants with disabilities to consider running for office, or supporting issues of importance to the Deaf and Disabilities communities.

Malkowski noted that people with disabilities are more politically active now than when he was a candidate and MPP. However, it is clear that some barriers remain to full political participation by people with disabilities. For example, Elections Canada and Elections Ontario both place the duty to provide interpretation or captioning at all-candidates meetings on the organizers. This means that these services are frequently forgotten, or provided at the last minute, because organizations may not know of the need for such services.

Elections Ontario offers information on its website about accessible voting4 and for people considering becoming a candidate.5

Elections Canada, through its Inspire Democracy toolkit, provides information on the barriers6 faced by specific groups in Canadian society. It also provides information on how to become more engaged with democratic processes, and community resources to help.

Now in its third season, Democracy Dialogues is “a free virtual series that will answer some of the biggest questions and concerns we have about what it takes to build a vibrant and inclusive democracy now and in the future.”