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Message from Interim Chief Commissioner Ruth Goba: Global Accessibility Awareness Day

May 21, 2015

Toronto2015: Let’s build an accessibility legacy

The upcoming Pan Am and Parapan Am Games are an exciting opportunity to showcase the many ways Ontario is a world leader. One notable accomplishment should be our ability to welcome and include guests and residents of all backgrounds and abilities. The Games offer a good opportunity to raise awareness about what Ontario and its municipalities are doing to promote and enhance accessibility.

At the same time, Ontario runs a very real risk of not meeting its own human rights standards when accommodating people with disabilities. The Ontario Human Rights Commission believes these Games offer an opportunity to identify what is working, and what persistent barriers continue to hurt the quality of life of many Ontarians with disabilities. We urge all levels of government to note the successes and take action to remove barriers to accessibility.

The Games organizing team says:

In hosting the largest multi-sport Games ever held in Canada, TO2015 has an opportunity to not only deliver accessible venues and services for the TORONTO 2015 Pan Am/Parapan Am Games, but to influence the built environment as well as attitudes and behaviours of its partners, sponsors and the communities where the Games are being held. – http://www.toronto2015.org/about-us/diversity-inclusion-and-accessibility

Accessibility it’s the law

Both the Ontario Human Rights Code and the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) place a legal duty on employers, service providers (like restaurants or movie theatres or taxis) and housing providers to make their facilities accessible. And even after being designed with inclusion in mind, there is still a legal duty to accommodate people with disabilities to the point of undue hardship.

When looking at accessibility, we have to ask questions like whether there is a ramp for people who use wheelchairs, or whether people who are deaf have captioning at a movie, or transit stops are announced so visitors who may be blind know where they are when riding our buses, subways and streetcars.

In some cases, we have to ask whether accommodations that reflect the spirit of the Human Rights Code are okay, even if they may conflict in a small way with a municipal rule or practice. When accommodation and Code requirements conflict with other requirements, it’s time to look more closely at the rule or practice, to make sure the rule itself does not discriminate.

We have seen several recent media reports of people with service animals facing barriers in restaurants, hotels and other amenities. In many cases, people ranging from hotel managers to police officers are simply not aware of their duty to either follow or enforce the law.

Laws such as Ontario’s Code and the Blind Persons’ Rights Act make clear the duty to accommodate people who use service animals, which are being relied on increasingly by people with different disabilities. Some key things to consider are:

  • A service animal is not a pet. Hotels, restaurants, taxis and other service providers must accommodate people with disabilities who use service dogs.
  • Denying a person with a disability access to services because they are accompanied by a service animal is discrimination under the Human Rights Code and may also contravene the Blind Persons’ Rights Act.
  • It is also against the law to require a person with a disability to pay an extra hotel fee for a service animal.
  • Service providers and their staff have a legal obligation to be aware of their duty to accommodate.

Creating a legacy of accessibility

In several statements, the AODA Alliance has called for the Games to have a disability accessibility legacy. We support this call, and believe the legacy should include improvements made before the Games begin, and steps to overcome barriers that we learn about during the event.

It is important that municipalities collect feedback on how accessible the games were for both athletes and spectators. Think about the accessibility of the venues and the experience as a whole (ranging from where they stayed to how they got to the venue). To do this, we recommend that both the Pan Am/Parapan Am Games’ Organizing Committee and the municipalities who host events collect and track complaints/compliments about accessibility, and use that feedback to guide broader efforts to improve accessibility.

Collecting this feedback can be as easy as setting up social media accounts, or applying existing accessible feedback mechanisms that are required under the AODA. Either approach must be widely publicized to be effective. As the Games are a public event, the results of any review must also be made public.

Designing inclusively, understanding accommodation requirements, asking what’s working and what barriers still exist, and reporting publicly on results are all important steps that can help the Pan Am and Parapan Am Games leave a true accessibility legacy that will benefit everyone in Ontario for many years to come.

Ruth Goba, Hon. BA, LLB
Interim Chief Commissioner
Ontario Human Rights Commission
http://www.ohrc.on.ca
http://www.facebook.com/the.ohrc
twitter.com/OntHumanRights http://twitter.com/OntHumanRights