Communications and Disability Rights: How Litigation before the CRTC Can Make a Difference

  • July 11, 2014
  • BakerLaw

This summer, Bakerlaw is pleased to host Julia Munk, Osgoode Hall Law School’s 2014 Kreppner Plater Fellowship winner. Julia is researching how effective advocacy before the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) can make gains for the rights of persons with disabilities generally. Bakerlaw will feature some of Julia’s work on the website over the summer, beginning with her first blog post on the historical development of telecommunications regulation and successful advocacy before the CRTC – by both lawyers and non-lawyers – in favour of disability rights:

Telecommunications Makes Canada a Nation and Access Makes Its Citizens

Telecommunications has played a distinct role in Canada’s national development. Along with coast to coast transportation (Canadian Pacific Railroad), the development of nationwide telegraph connections and later telephone connections were essential components in solidifying Canada’s national identity and cohesion, making access to these technologies an important aspect of full Canadian citizenship

Canada’s telecommunications and broadcasting companies have had a unique relationship with the Canadian government. In the 1900, in exchange for a monopoly, privately owned companies accepted government regulation rather than working within a competitive model. A private monopoly under government regulation was argued at the time to be the most effective system to ensure universal access. The need for universal access was grounded in understanding of telecommunications as public utility, on par with just water, gas and public transportation. The purpose of regulating telecommunications and broadcasting in this context was to ensure that private companies could not misuse the power entrusted to them and ultimately protect consumers while allowing the monopoly to provide more effective service and universal access that, it was argued, could not be provided in competitive market. Unfortunately, the national commitment to universal ‘access,’ did not extend to people with disabilities, particularly those with sensory disabilities.

From the Telephone to Twitter

When Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, he was attempting to create a device to increase communication options for deaf and hard of hearing people. Ironically, his invention resulted in increased isolation and exclusion of the community he was attempting to support. Before Robert H. Weitbrecht, Games C. Marsters and Andrew Saks developed the acoustic coupler in 1964 that led to today’s TTY, the telephone had detrimental effects, including reduced employment opportunities and increased isolation and dependency for persons with hearing disabilities. The development and distribution of TTYs in Canada and the United States represents grassroots initiative, as the project was driven by organizations and leaders within the deaf community who worked to ensure access to telecommunications.

In the 1980s, advocates for the deaf community, with the assistance of the ARCH Disability Resource Center, utilized the Canadian Radio and Television Commission (CRTC) processes to ensure that telephones became hearing aid-compatible. On April 10, 1985, while working with The Canadian Hearing Society (CHS), Judy Rebick, now a world-renowned activist and the creator of rabble.ca, joined a coalition that successfully used the CRTC complaints process to increase the accessibility of telephone services in Ontario and Quebec through the establishment of the Bell Relay Service (BRS), a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week message relay service that increased accessibility to telephones for people who are deaf or hard of hearing.  Once the CRTC ordered Bell Canada to implement the TTY message relay service in Ontario and Québec, on October 14, 1986, Judy became responsible for training the new operators.

According Denis Morrice, the former executive director of the CHS, Judy played a critical role in the CHS’s successes by persuading the CRTC to mandate hearing aid compatible phones and the message relay service in Ontario. Denis believes that it was Judy’s “strategic mind” and experience as an activist the allowed the CHS to argue before the CRTC, without a lawyer, and nevertheless emerge successful.  Judy’s personal reflections on the role she played in these landmark decisions to increase accessibility reflect her true dedication to empower communities to speak for themselves.  In reflections since these wins, Judy has remarked that she would have preferred to see more deaf and hard of hearing people participate in the process before the CRTC.

In addition the cases above, the deaf community has also successfully advocated for public TTY access, with the support of ARCH. These successes occurred during a period of deregulation, when Canada’s commitment to a monopoly system for ensuring universal access was replaced by CRTC directions resulting in an opening up of the market. This was a unique occurrence for people with disabilities, as it is often argued that increased government regulation will result in increasing accessibility for people with disabilities. However, in this case, deregulation allowed the community of persons with hearing disabilities to introduce and apply their own solutions.  As you can see from these examples, technology is not only an effective community organizing tool for the disability community, but the field itself – and the CRTC in particular – is becoming a forum wherein disability advocates, whether organizations or individuals representing themselves, can make significant advancements for the rights of persons with disabilities.

If you have any questions or comments about this post, please feel free to share them with Julia directly at julia.munk@gmail.com.




Related: , , ,