Skip to Content

Feature Issue: Public Comments from Paul Thomas

Paul G. Thomas, Professor Emeritus of Political Studies at the University of Manitoba, served as Duff Roblin Professor of Government. Over his long and distinguished career, Dr. Thomas has received numerous types of recognition for his scholarship and contributions to public policy. In July 2007 he was inducted into the Order of Manitoba which annually recognizes twelve Manitobans for their outstanding contributions to the province, Canada and abroad.

We are honoured that Dr. Thomas shared the comments he sent to Minister Howard with us. We have included his full comments below and are pleased to provide them as PDF and Word documents.

Honourable Jennifer Howard, M.L.A.
Minister of Family Services and Labour
Government of Manitoba

October 15, 2012.

Dear Minister Howard,

I am writing this open, public letter to share my perspectives on the initial recommendations from the Accessibility Advisory Council made to the Government of Manitoba on June 15, 2012.

Let me begin by commending you as the minister responsible for disability issues and the Government of Manitoba for moving towards strong and effective legislation that will contribute to the removal of existing and the prevention of future barriers to full citizenship and equal opportunities for the significant number of Manitobans who must deal with a wide range of disabilities.

This initiative is overdue. For too long citizens with disabilities have been marginalized within Manitoba society and have been forced to confront legal, economic, social and political disadvantages in achieving their aspirations for full, vibrant, meaningful lives. Over the terms of various provincial governments there has been too much rhetoric, debate, dithering and delay and there has been too little or inadequate action by governments at all levels. Other institutions within society have also been slow to provide full recognition of what disabled people can contribute to society when given real opportunities and appropriate supports in the form of legal rights, services, financial assistance and recognition of their capabilities.

Now is the time for action that goes beyond symbolic gestures to provide the core, foundational elements of full citizenship for our fellow citizens with disabilities who must be more fully integrated and have a stronger sense of belonging to Manitoba society. Your government can be a leader and champion in the field of disability policy and programming if it carries forward in a comprehensive and effective manner with the good intentions and initial promising steps on the journey towards the complete elimination of the barriers to the advancement of disabled citizens.

In my judgement your government has adopted the right initial course in terms of consulting widely with a broad range of interested parties, including of course with a number of organizations representing people with different types of disability as well as different perspectives on the issues of recognition, accommodation and integration. The use of the Accessibility Advisory Council to bring together representatives of different sectors within society was a necessary first step. I applaud the work that it did in six short months to identify the issues and to make consensus recommendations in terms of the next steps that need to be taken in the form of strong, effective legislation followed by successful implementation.

A consultative and transparent approach to policy making in the disability field is needed for several reasons.

First, disability issues are multi-faceted, complicated and dynamic, touching upon law, social and economic policy, regulations, administrative actions and budgetary choices within government, partnerships with the other levels of government, actions by commercial enterprises, non-profit and trade union organizations and various components of public opinion. Developing policies and rules in the disability field involves issues which are value laden and therefore sensitive in social, economic and political terms. It is the responsibility of governments is to deal with disability issues carefully so as to avoid unnecessary social conflict that might further stigmatize and marginalize disabled individuals and their advocacy organizations. Developing a culture and climate of respect and civility around disability issues must be a goal of both the process and the outcomes of policy-making.

A second reason that governments should consult widely is that they do not have a monopoly on the information, knowledge and good ideas about the needs and wants of a diverse disability community and other perspectives in the field. Ministers and public servants need the benefit of multiple viewpoints, in part to make realistic calculations about what actions are feasible in legal, policy, administrative and budgetary terms in order to remove the barriers to full access and inclusion of disabled citizens The aspirational goal of complete inclusion may never be reached, and the means for achieving it will have to be modified as circumstances change, but without a strong commitment to an ultimate destination, there is the danger of lost momentum and lack of progress in the journey towards a fairer society for disabled individuals.

Thirdly, in government it is not sufficient just to make “right” decision in terms of policies and other actions that serve the public interest. It is also necessary to ensure that there is widespread understanding, consent and support for the actions that government undertakes. After consulting widely, governments must provide principled, consistent leadership that stays the course when controversies arise.

Progress in building consensus on new directions in disability policy was achieved through the process and report of the Accessibility Advisory Council. There is much to praise within the Council’s report. The report represents improvement in terms of both the diagnosis and the prescription for reform from the discussion paper released earlier. I don’t have the space here to comment on the positive features of the report, which are many. Instead I will focus more on what I see as the deficiencies of the Council’s game plan for moving forward.

I will start with the rationale for the recommendations made by the Council. Its report places a strong emphasis on the loss to the economy from our failure to integrate people with disabilities more fully into the labour market. This failure leads to lost productivity and even innovation within the economy. It also means more public spending on programs like employment insurance and social assistance. This is the “economic and business case” for why governments, businesses, non-profits, trade unions and other organizations should invest in creating economic opportunities for the disabled because there is a potential return on such investments. I accept this argument.

There is also, however, a “moral and social case” which, in my judgement, needs to be recognized more than it was in the Council’s report. Providing disabled citizens with legal recognition of their rights and with services to support their full participation in society is important for their development as individuals, their sense of self-worth and dignity , the autonomy they should enjoy in their lives and the respect they should receive from others.

These values need to be embedded in the cultures of organizations and in the culture of the entire society. Ethical leaders in all parts of society need to embody these values in their words and deeds. There needs to be a stronger interpersonal climate of understanding and respect for persons with disability among all Manitobans. Creating and measuring the achievement of these values involves a more difficult, uncertain and longer term process than more immediate and tangible legal, policy, programmatic and administrative reforms. However, reflecting these values in the cultures and day-to-day norms of behaviour within all institutions of society is more than necessary, it is crucial in order for the contemplated legal, policy and administrative reforms to achieve their full effect in terms of creating a barrier free society for all Manitobans.

Turning to the specific recommendations made by the Accessibility Advisory Council, I share the five broad concerns identified by Barrier Free Manitoba (BFM), an advocacy organization which speaks on behalf of disabled Manitobans. In endorsing BFM’s call for stronger measures in five areas, I offer the somewhat different perspective of an academic who has studied and participated at times in the political and the policy process for four decades. My bottom line, however, is that the Government of Manitoba should strive to get as much right as possible on this round of reforms because we owe it to the disability community who have waited decades to have their rights enshrined in strong legislation and to have those rights supported by effective programmes and services.

Creating strong legislation is a necessary but not sufficient condition to achieve progress for disabled citizens. Good legislation does not implement itself. This is why BFM is calling for targets tied to calendar dates, for more effective penalties for non-compliance, for strong public sector leadership on the file, for strict monitoring and accountability and for early reporting on progress achieved.

The research on the implementation stage of the policy process indicates that both top down and bottom up approaches are important for success. In other words, provincial policy leadership expressed initially through strong legislation and related programme/budgetary changes based on clear aims is required. But translating laws and policies into effective action also requires that organizations working on the front lines of service delivery to disabled citizens be directly involved in the development, delivery and evaluation of programmes and services.

The implementation approach represented in the Council’s report reflects its diverse membership with different interests, values and perspectives that needed to be accommodated in a set of consensus recommendations. The approach combines education/outreach with regulation/enforcement. I think that this dichotomous understanding of the implementation process needs to be expanded to provide for more options for achieving the aims of legislation.

It would be useful within your department and in the ongoing work of the advisory council to think about a wider range of policy instruments used in combination to achieve public policy goals. A more sophisticated approach to implementation, which holds more prospect for success, would involve reliance on numerous policy tools, either singly or more often in combination. We need more debate over what are the potential and limits of the following policy tools:

• Legal tools—legislation, regulations, standards, enforcement and fines
• Enforcement mechanisms—reporting, monitoring, publicity, blaming and shaming
• Resource provision—programmes, services, financial support, administrative support
• Incentives---- targets, fines, evaluation, recognition, support, rewards,
• Education----strategic communication, outreach activities, information provision, social marketing in the media
• Symbolic policy-making— changed language, positive rhetoric, exhortation, moral suasion and the celebrations of progress.

Your department has no doubt thought about and already uses many of these policy tools, but I am arguing for a more systematic, comprehensive and coordinated approach.

Thinking of the various policy tools as a continuum of more or less interventionist and binding measures is helpful. Governments tend to prefer and rely in the first instance on the least interventionist approaches and use court actions/ fines as a last resort. Indeed the Council’s report reflects a philosophy which might be described as “regulatory reasonableness” which involves working with stakeholders to find an approach to regulation/enforcement which affected organizations can live with in terms of interference in their internal affairs and making demands on their resources. The reluctance of the Council to recommend targets attached to dates, the lack of legislated requirements for leadership by public bodies, and the levels of fines proposed for non-compliance reflect, I believe, this type of thinking. There may be pragmatic reasons for the more flexible, less strict approaches to enforcement, but there also needs to be caution that decisions at the early stages do not dilute the commitment to the goals of the proposed legislation.

The BMF is strongly critical of the Council’s failure to call for targets attached to dates for accomplishment and carrying consequences for non-achievement. On balance, I favour targets, but they are not without their limits and problems as mechanisms for enforcement. Targets would create urgency and pressure on governments and other organizations within society to make the progress which is overdue. They would focus responsibility and lead to greater accountability.

However, we also know that the use of targets and performance measures in general can lead to “gamesmanship” in which reports from organizations are more self-congratulatory and flattering to their performance than the realities of organizational life. Targets can also create the impression that there is precise knowledge about what works in terms of improved access and acceptance for persons with disabilities. In fact, there is ongoing uncertainty about the best approaches to be followed to achieve the aims of full inclusion. Targets can also be artificially precise and when attached to penalties can cause well-meaning committed organizations to be portrayed as laggards or even law breakers when in fact they might face serious resource constraints (knowledge, staff, money, time etc.) that are not easily overcome.

In endorsing targets and deadlines, my advice is that they become benchmarks on the basis of which discussions of the contexts involved and the kinds of remedial actions needed take place. Making targets the basis for legal action will make them more threatening and not contribute to building a culture of partnership and collaboration between the public and the private sector, and across organizational boundaries, which needs to take place for successful, seamless implementation.

BFM is strongly critical of the relatively low monetary penalties attached to willful non-compliance with the laws affecting disability rights. It notes that the fines under other provincial laws are generally higher than the amount proposed by the Council. The promotion and protection of human rights should not be worth less in monetary terms than other purposes of public law. I agree. The real challenge is to find a graduated range of penalties, both financial and non-financial (such as negative publicity) which match the severity and frequency of the violations of the law.

Ideally time consuming, expensive, highly public, legal action and the imposition of fines should be the last resort. In most situations it should be possible to achieve fairness and justice for disabled persons by means of more expeditious, less expensive mechanisms such as an ombudsman-like process of mediation and even administrative actions. Lawyers and courts will not be primary leaders in making progress on disability issues. They have a role to play in providing ultimate legal protection for individuals, whose rights are not respected, but politicians, public servants, leaders of private sector organizations, disability advocacy groups and others will count for more in achieving progress.

Transparency and reporting requirements can help to achieve accountability and encourage improved performance both by governments and private sector organizations. However, there is not an automatic relationship between disclosure and improved performance. Reporting is a means to accountability, but only if it leads ideally to learning and improvement or less positively to legal actions and monetary penalties. In short, real accountability must go beyond disclosure and reporting to involve consequences that make a difference in terms of progress towards the goals of the legislation. Finding the appropriate balance between a preventative, constructive, learning approach to accountability versus a more reactive, punitive, blaming approach will be an ongoing challenge in the enforcement of disability legislation.

The Council recommends that there be a designated minister with responsibility for overseeing the implementation of legislation and setting policy/budgetary priorities within her department. Requiring the minister to report annually to the Legislature about developments and progress under the legislation is a good idea which focuses responsibility and accountability and thereby will create pressure for improvement.

Your government recently passed legislation requiring a review of all proposed public-private partnerships. As part of the budgetary restraint strategy there is likely to be greater use of outsourcing the acquisition of goods and services and the delivery of some public services. In light of these trends, I would recommend that upholding the principles and goals of disability rights law should be incorporated into all reviews of these alternative delivery methods, with the designated minister responsible for ensuring that disability concerns be identified and addressed.

I agree with BFM on the crucial importance of ongoing values-based credible leadership on disability matters. There is clearly a need for “champions” of disability reform on all levels, from the premier, cabinet, the minister responsible, senior public servants, programme managers and leaders in organizations throughout society. We should not think of leadership in terms of heroic individuals who singlehandedly move the disability agenda forward. Given the multi-dimensional and multi-level character of the disability policy-making and implementations processes, leadership must be collective and shared.

For collective leadership, partnerships and collaboration to work in the disability policy field will require that imbalances in resources and potential influence among stakeholder groups be addressed. Without the provision of core financial support to organizations representing disabled persons there will be inequalities in the advisory council and other discussion forums where the search for consensus and the formulation of advice to government takes place. Knowledge of disability issues based on observation and study is valuable, but there is no substitute for the distinctive, practical knowledge which representatives of disability community bring to discussions based on the real world experience of living with a disability on a daily basis.

Based on the impressive work that it has done to date and shared understandings which have developed within the Accessibility Advisory Council, I would recommend that the proposed legislation designate the Council as the lead agency which provides advice to government, including the development of an evaluative framework for review of the legislation after four years of experience.

In conclusion, strong legislation with clear aims which are supported by appropriate regulations, enforcement mechanisms, policies, programmes, services and budgetary choices are needed to deliver real opportunities and progress for disabled Manitobans. Leaders in government and across society must believe in the values behind disability laws and embody them in the individual and organizational actions. As circumstances change, evaluation, learning and improvement must take place.

Thank you for considering my views.

Paul G. Thomas
Professor Emeritus, Political Studies
University of Manitoba