Equal in theory : an assessment of anti-discrimination statutes as equality tools for people with disabilities


University of British Columbia

Date Issued


Document Type



Master of Laws - LLM




In recent years, the enforcement of Canadian human rights statutes has been the subject of much criticism. That criticism comes not only from organizations that are required to change their practices to comply with the statutes, but from advocates who question the effectiveness of human rights enforcement. Studies which attempt to address these criticisms generally review the criticisms and then seek to modify the enforcement models to ameliorate the problems which have generated the criticism. This thesis considers the problem from a more theoretical perspective. With a focus on disability, this thesis considers whether Canadian anti-discrimination statutes, which were created when the prevailing theory of equality was a formal one, are capable of achieving substantive equality as it is now conceived. Applying a disability rights perspective, substantive equality for people with disabilities requires that a wide and complex variety of barriers be removed. These barriers may result from intended or unintended discrimination. They may be physical or attitudinal. They may be isolated, individual acts or they may reflect widespread societal norms. To eliminate such an array of barriers, anti-discrimination statutes must include a range of powers and procedures: they must incorporate provisions that protect people with disabilities from such barriers; they must provide mechanisms to identify the barriers; there must be mechanisms to determine whether the barriers contravene the protected right; and the statutes must provide effective remedies. This thesis concludes that contemporary human rights enforcement models are capable of effectively addressing many individual barriers to equality for people with disabilities. However, under a complaint-based model, human rights agencies cannot effectively address barriers that result from the operation of widespread norms. Canadian human rights agencies are therefore limited in their ability to achieve the societal transformation that is necessary to achieve substantive equality for people with disabilities. For such equality to be realized, anti-discrimination statutes must be seen as just one facet of a much broader approach.


People with disabilities -- Legal status, laws, etc. -- Canada; People with disabilities -- Civil rights -- Canada; Civil rights -- Canada

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