The Canadian disability rights movement arose in the latter half of the 20th century. It includes multiple social movements that take a similar but distinct approach advocating civil rights for almost four million people with physical, sensory and cognitive impairments — nearly 14 per cent of the Canadian population.

Disability rights activists and their allies lobby all levels of government to enact barrier-free policies and legislation for people with disabilities, mainly in the areas of employment, transportation, education and housing. Activists work to build a sense of identity within the disability community by highlighting common experiences of inaccessibility and discrimination. Canadian disability activists have been remarkably successful on both fronts, promoting greater awareness of disability issues that has led to the enactment of progressive legislation to secure certain rights and opportunities.

The Late 19th and Early 20th Centuries

Widespread trust in medical authority and the growth of industrialization created a set of social, political and economic conditions during the 19th and early 20th centuries that fostered the segregation of disabled people in Canada. The growth of various political institutions in the mid- to late 19th century included the establishment of residential institutions, including psychiatric hospitals, schools for the blind, Houses of Refuge and church-run homes, which collectively housed large numbers of people with mental health issues, intellectual disabilities and physical disabilities. Social reformers appealed to the dominant Christian ethic at the time by encouraging Canadians to support various charitable programs and services for disabled people (see Women’s Organizations). Within this social and political context, many people with disabilities were seen to be incapable and dependent on others and thus were denied the opportunity to fully exercise their civil rights (see Human Rights).

This status quo began to change following the First World War, when thousands of injured and disabled veterans returned to Canada. Many veterans with visual impairments, mobility challenges and psychological disturbances (such as shell shock) encountered great difficulty reintegrating into mainstream society. As a result, non-profit organizations, such as War Amps, were established to advocate on behalf of veterans and deliver services that were lacking in the community; rehabilitation, vocational training in sheltered workshops, employment counselling and placement services were designed to return ex-soldiers to the workforce as quickly as possible. Relatively generous pensions were handed out to ex-servicemen compared to injured workers receiving workers' compensation and other disabled people dependent on family or charitable support.

The Mid-20th Century

The disparities between disabled veterans and civilians with disabilities accelerated in the aftermath of the Second World War. The array of social supports, occupational services and political clout of veterans awakened a larger community of people interested in developing opportunities for others (see Social Security). Civilian disabled people and their allies within the veterans’ movement promoted the expansion of services to all who needed them regardless of the source or cause of one's disability. Activists argued that disabled people had a right to participate in mainstream society and should enjoy equal access to services that helped them live and work in the community. The advent of new assistive technologies, including new types of wheelchairs, enabled users to travel more freely and independently than before.

New social movements and coalitions of activists involving parents and families of disabled children, professionals and disabled people developed during this period. Disability activists and their allies advocated "deinstitutionalization": removing people from residential institutions and replacing these institutions with networks of community-based services. In the 1950s and 1960s, organizations such as the Canadian Association for Retarded Children (later renamed the Canadian Association for Community Living) organized community agencies and group homes for youth and adults with intellectual disabilities. These organizations also lobbied governments to close large institutions and commit to funding the expansion of community services.

The 1970s: Growth of Consumer Groups

By the 1970s, people with disabilities began to form their own groups to advocate for civil rights. Rooted partly in a youth culture of protest and inspired by other social and civil rights movements, these disability rights activists struggled to establish a disability rights movement led not by sympathetic parents and professionals but by people with disabilities. Some groups, such as the Scarborough Recreation Club for Disabled Adults, began as social clubs that evolved to include activist organizations, while others, such as the United Handicapped Groups of Ontario, were founded on consumer-led activist principles. Other groups included the British Columbia Coalition of the Disabled, Committee of Action Groups of the Disabled (Alberta), Voice of the Handicapped (Saskatchewan), League of the Physically Handicapped (Manitoba), United Handicapped Groups of Ontario, Carrefour Adaptation (Québec), Council of the Disabled (Prince Edward Island), The HUB (Newfoundland), and League for Equal Opportunities (Nova Scotia). By the end of the 1970s, these groups came together under the banner of a national organization called the Coalition of Provincial Organizations of the Handicapped (later renamed the Council of Canadians with Disabilities).

On 9 December 1975, the United Nations issued the Declaration on the Rights of Disabled Persons. The declaration outlined key rights for disabled people and encouraged member countries to enact legislation and promote initiatives to safeguard these rights and opportunities. The declaration was hailed by growing numbers of disability rights activists who advocated for new legal rights to support the advancement and protection of disabled persons in all areas of civic life, including economic security and self-reliance. New offices, councils and committees were established at all levels of government to liaise with disability rights lobbyists and incorporate their concerns into the political decision-making process. At the federal level, the Bureau on Rehabilitation was established in 1979 to coordinate national efforts to promote the interests of disabled people. In 1975, the Ontario government created the disabled-led Ontario Advisory Council for the Physically Handicapped to consult with disabled Ontarians and make recommendations to government. In 1978, for example, the Québec government established the Office des personnes handicapées following the enactment of provincial legislation promoting the social and vocational integration of disabled people.

One issue of particular concern to disability rights groups during this period was the treatment of people confined in psychiatric hospitals. Disability activists and their allies joined together to promote a new model of care that enabled people to live and work in the community, rather than living out their lives behind the doors of large residential hospitals. This philosophy of deinstitutionalization involved replacing large, centralized institutions with small-scale networks of facilities embedded within local neighbourhoods. The majority of patients in institutions were deinstitutionalized during this period, but concerns about the quality of care in the community continued due to the systemic underfunding of non-profit service agencies and other community organizations.

The 1980s: New Legislative Rights

The UN International Year for Disabled Persons (IYDP), celebrated in 1981, represented a high mark in the pursuit of disability rights in Canada. The IYDP and the subsequent UN Decade of Disabled Persons (1983–92) fostered an unprecedented level of public and political interest in Canada regarding the rights and opportunities afforded to people with disabilities. This increased general awareness of disability issues fuelled campaigns to include disability in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Initially denied on the suspicion that "disability" was too vague and open to interpretation, intensive efforts eventually ensured its inclusion as a protected category in the final draft of the Charter.

In 1986, people with disabilities were included alongside women, visible minorities and Aboriginal people in the new federal Employment Equity Act following the Report of the Royal Commission on Equality in Employment. A provincial Employment Equity Act was briefly introduced in 1993 by the Ontario New Democratic Party government but was overturned in 1995 with the election of the Progressive Conservatives under Premier Mike Harris.

New disability organizations, such as the Advocacy Resource Centre for the Handicapped (ARCH), were established to support people with disabilities and to protect and enhance their legal rights, using the Charter to establish favourable jurisprudence by pushing landmark cases through the Supreme Court of Canada.

Separate legislation pertaining to the particular needs of people with visual impairments was first introduced at the federal level with the Blind Persons Act (1951) and later Blind Persons’ Rights Act (1976), followed by provincial legislation in Nova Scotia (1989), Ontario (1990), Newfoundland (1990) and Alberta (2000).

The 1990s: Neo-liberalism, Cutbacks and Growth of Disability Studies

The global economic recession of the late 1980s and early 1990s deeply affected the disability community. Escalating public debt and deficits changed the political climate in Canada, producing an era of fiscal restraint and austerity. The disability community was particularly hard hit by these changes as social assistance rates were slashed, subsidies to disability organizations evaporated and official political liaisons were reorganized or eliminated entirely. Under these conditions, many disability rights organizations such as People United for Self Help Ontario (PUSH Ontario) disbanded while larger umbrella groups, such as the newly renamed Council of Canadians with Disabilities (CCD), regrouped and redoubled their efforts to promote the interests of disabled Canadians.

A new interdisciplinary scholarly discourse also emerged in Canada during this period, focused on critically analyzing the role of disability in society. Drawing upon international disability studies, it seeks to empower disabled people to take control of their own stories and histories. Many early disability studies, including Politics of Disablement (1990) by Michael Oliver, closely reflected the political interests of the developing international disability rights movement. But as the volume and influence of critical disability studies continued to grow into the 21st century, the debate has widened to include many other scholars from a range of disciplines and perspectives.

The 21st Century

In Ontario, disability rights groups welcomed the introduction of unprecedented legislation in 2005 — the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA). The AODA relies on the submission of compliance reports by governments and organizations as well as complaints lodged by the public, and it sets out a series of accessibility standards with the express purpose of creating a barrier-free society in Ontario by 2025.

By the 21st century, the Canadian disability rights movement saw a significant revival in public interest and political commitment. Canada ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) on 11 March 2010. The CRPD commits Canada to a series of measures and principles to improve the social and economic condition of people with disabilities while taking steps to improve their legal and political rights. In 2014, Canada submitted its first report to the CRPD committee, outlining various measures that had been taken by federal and provincial governments toward its commitment to the CRPD.

Each year on 3 December, various organizations in Canada take part in the United Nations International Day of Persons with Disabilities, raising awareness of disability issues among policymakers and the wider public.