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New Toronto Star Editorial Slams Ontario Government for Not Enforcing Disabilities Act When it Knew Thousands of Private Sector Organizations are Violating It, and When Allocated Funds are Available for Enforcement

Minister Hoskins Now Commits to Enforce the Law

November 22, 2013

SUMMARY

The November 19, 2013 Toronto Star included a blistering editorial, set out below. It blasts the Ontario Government for failing to effectively enforce the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act. This failure is especially troubling since the Government knew that 70% of Ontario private sector organizations with at least 20 employees are violating that law’s accessibility reporting requirement.

The excellent editorial recites the AODA Alliance’s struggle to get the Government to enforce this law. It echoes our call for the Government to bring forward a plan for its effective enforcement.

On November 18, 2013, as a result of the Toronto Star’s coverage and our news release issued on that day, media coverage of this issue spread to other news outlets. This included CBC Radio, the Hamilton Spectator, and Toronto’s CFRB 1010 News Talk Radio. CFRB Radio’s November 19, 2013 Live Drive Show with John Tory included an interview with AODA Alliance chair David Lepofsky.

This most recent Toronto Star editorial comes right on the heels of the Star’s November 18, 2013 news article. In that earlier article, we revealed this stunning breach of the Government’s longstanding promise to effectively enforce the AODA, and the fact that the Government has unused appropriated funds that could be used to enforce this law. It also followed on the Star’s earlier October 31, 2013 editorial that blasted the Government for having withheld information that we had sought since January 2013 on the enforcement of this law. That earlier editorial and NDP MPP Cheri DiNovo’s October 29, 2013 question in the Ontario Legislature’s Question Period helped force the Government to reveal this troubling information about non-compliance with the AODA and the lack of effective enforcement.

After the Toronto Star made public the Government’s failure to enforce the AODA, and the high level of non-compliance among private sector organizations with at least 20 employees, the Government had one of its own MPPs ask Dr. Hoskins about the AODA’s enforcement, during Question Period in the Legislature on November 18, 2013. This is to our knowledge, the first time the minister has agreed to say anything publicly about the AODA’s enforcement, for which he is the lead minister. Earlier, on May 28, 2013, NDP MPP Cheri DiNovo tried to get Economic Development, Trade and Employment Minister Eric Hoskins to answer a question about the AODA’s enforcement. He ducked that earlier question.

It is a cruel irony that on November 18, 2013, the Government put to Minister Hoskins the very questions that we had been trying to get the Government to answer since at least January 22, 2013. Usually, the Government uses Question Period to ask its own minister a question when it has good news to report.

Answering this friendly question from his own team, Minister Hoskins said he takes the AODA’s enforcement “very, very seriously.” He agreed that not enough businesses have complied with the AODA’s Customer Service Accessibility Standard and that this is “unacceptable.” He said his goal is to enforce the law until full compliance is reached.

In recent years, the Government has been very reluctant to even say that it will enforce this law at all in cases of non-compliance. He announced: “the next two weeks, we will be sending warning notices to businesses that have failed thus far to file compliance reports. Failure to comply, failure to file, will result in penalties.” He also said: “To increase the number of organizations that have filed their customer service standard compliance report, we will work with the Accessibility Directorate of Ontario to promote the customer service standard and fine those organizations that, after multiple warnings—I repeat, multiple warnings—have not yet complied.”

On the next day, November 19, 2013, NDP MPP raised the same issue with Minister Hoskins. He answered:

“Since becoming minister, I’ve taken this issue extremely seriously. During my tenure as minister and minister responsible for the AODA, we have doubled the number of businesses that now are complying. In September, I asked the ministry and they sent out more than 50,000 letters; 2,500 enforcement letters are going out this week, Mr. Speaker. This is an issue that I take very seriously.

To some extent, unfortunately, I have to admit that in the AODA legislation itself, as was passed unanimously by this Legislature, the mechanism for enforcement is in some respects cumbersome in terms of the process that we have to follow. For that reason, we are following the process as outlined in the law, but I am working on this vigorously. I intend to go as far as we need to to get full compliance.”

He also said:

“I want to say, because this is important, on the positive side as well, many businesses have complied. But we have 100% compliance for this act as well as for this standard in the entire Ontario public service and the agencies this government is responsible for.

We are working on this vigorously, and I’m prepared, if necessary, to issue further enforcement letters, including fines, until businesses comply.”

Below we set out the text of these entire exchanges in the Legislature. We also give an analysis of what Minister Hoskins said. At the end of this Update, we give you links to key information to which this Update refers.

We very much appreciate the Star’s excellent coverage of this issue. A newspaper editorial is among the best ways that media coverage can add wind to the sails of our cause. This is the eleventh time in 15 years that our accessibility campaign has secured endorsement in a newspaper editorial.

These developments further show that our tireless tenacity as a disability community can yield results. It is truly unfortunate that even with the possibility of a provincial election just months away, we must resort to such efforts just to get the AODA enforced.

We encourage you to:

* circulate this update widely, including to your local media.

* Let your MPP know what you think of this news. Urge them to raise this issue in the Legislature, and to press the Government to now announce a comprehensive plan to enforce the AODA, and

* Send a letter to the editor to the Toronto Star. You can send it by email to lettertoed@thestar.ca

We always welcome your feedback. Write us at aodafeedback@gmail.com

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MORE DETAILS

A Closer Look At the Government’s November 18 and 19, 2013 Public Statements About the AODA’s Enforcement

It is good that the Government has finally publicly admitted what it has known all along, that 70% of Ontario private sector organizations are violating the AODA’s accessibility reporting requirement. It is also good that Minister Hoskins has admitted in the Legislature that this is unacceptable, and that he told the Toronto Star that he finds this upsetting. Finally, it is good that Minister Hoskins has said that he will use the AODA’s enforcement powers, including monetary penalties, with a view to achieving full compliance.

Minister Hoskins made other claims that deserve closer scrutiny. He says that “Since becoming minister, I’ve taken this issue extremely seriously.” Earlier this year he described accessibility as a top priority.

As we have said earlier, and often on Twitter, inaction speaks much louder than such words. Why did it take over 275 days, a Freedom of Information application, questions in Question Period, and a pointed Toronto Star editorial to get the minister to answer our inquiries about AODA compliance and enforcement, and to get him to publicly announce any measures on enforcement?

He also said that the AODA’s enforcement terms are cumbersome. We disagree. The Government could have taken prompt action on January 1, 2013 under the AODA to kick into gear with these enforcement powers. It need not have delayed for months. It could have done a much better job of alerting the private sector of their obligations under this Act. It is unhelpful for the Government to blame its own legislation, which the Government drafted and of which it is so proud. What is to blame is the Government’s inaction under this legislation, not the legislation itself.

This incident proves that legislation on disability accessibility must be effectively enforced, to have a real impact on the lives of people with disabilities. A voluntary law simply doesn’t work.

This is what the Ontario Liberal party itself said in 2003 when it promised a Disabilities Act with effective enforcement. Its failure since then to keep its promise to effectively enforce the AODA, proves that the Liberal party was right in2003. Ontario’s Liberal Government needs to now listen to its own wise words from 2003, and act decisively on them.

We urge the Government to announce a detailed plan for effective enforcement of the AODA. We call on Minister Hoskins and his fellow cabinet ministers to bring the message to the public, including the private sector, that this law is now to be effectively enforced. It is not enough to say this in tweets or in the Legislature. It must often be conveyed, and in a very public way.

We urge the opposition parties, the NDP and Conservatives, to keep pressure on the Government on this issue. We also call on them to announce what they would do, if elected, to effectively enforce the AODA.

The Toronto Star November 19, 2013

Article available on line at http://www.thestar.com/opinion/editorials/2013/11/18/ontario_must_enforce_equality_rules_for_disabled_editorial.html

Editorial
Enforce the rules
Imagine a blind person with a guide dog is turned away from a store or restaurant. Not only is that refusal a sign of bad judgment, it’s also a breach of Ontario’s accessibility law.

Unfortunately, the 2005 legislation that promised equal access for the disabled within Ontario businesses has actually accomplished very little. And that should be an embarrassment for the provincial government.

After all, the Liberals got a moral boost by passing the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act. But the reality is that the act is little more than whimsical window dressing because the vast majority of businesses don’t comply with the basic rules. To make matters worse, the government has done nothing to enforce those rules. It’s a sham.

As the Star’s Laurie Monsebraaten reports, 70 per cent of Ontario’s private businesses with 20 or more employees (about 360,000 across the province) have not bothered to comply with the law’s most basic reporting requirements. That rule says businesses had to file an electronic report with the government by Dec. 31, 2012, detailing how they accommodate disabled customers, train staff and listen to feedback.

The time to take action is long overdue.

The government should immediately tell the public, through a comprehensive plan, how it will finally enforce these hard-won rights. This plan must detail follow-up for inspections, compliance orders and fines. It is these requirements that give the law teeth and it’s now clear that without proper enforcement, little improvement will be made.

The data analysis comes from lawyer David Lepofsky, of the non-profit Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance. According to Lepofsky’s analysis, using government documents obtained through a freedom of information request, not one of the businesses in violation has faced a compliance order or fine. That’s just wrong.

It’s not bad enough that it took the Ministry of Economic Development 11 months to provide Lepofsky with the information he requested. Now, as he says, it turns out that the laws are largely irrelevant, and it’s clear why the government did not want to produce the documents.

It’s not going to harm businesses to answer questions, especially for such basic rules as accepting service dogs or training workers to interact with people of various disabilities.

And it’s not too much to demand that the government fulfil its promise for equality – or just admit that it’s doing nothing to help the disabled.
ONTARIO HANSARD LEGISLATIVE ASSEMBLY OF ONTARIO
Monday 18 November 2013

QUESTION PERIOD
ACCESSIBILITY FOR THE DISABLED

Mr. John Fraser: My question is for the Minister of Economic Development, Trade and Employment. The accessibility directorate is now under the purview of the minister’s ministry because our government is committed to ensuring that individuals with disabilities have equal access to job opportunities and economic security.

As part of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, businesses must comply with the customer service standard. As well, businesses and not-for-profits with more than 20 staff must file a compliance report.

Can the minister please update the House about how the customer service standard is being enforced?

Hon. Eric Hoskins: Thank you to the member from Ottawa South for this important question. All Ontario businesses and not-for-profits must be compliant with the customer service standard under the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act. This is the law. As the minister responsible for the AODA across government, I take this issue very, very seriously. Not enough businesses have complied with the customer service standard, and this is unacceptable. It is their legal responsibility to comply.

My goal as the minister responsible is to enforce this law until we reach full compliance. Over the next two weeks, we will be sending warning notices to businesses that have failed thus far to file compliance reports. Failure to comply, failure to file, will result in penalties.

The Speaker (Hon. Dave Levac): Supplementary?

Mr. John Fraser: Thank you, Minister, for the update. It’s important that all Ontario businesses are compliant with the customer service standard. Adhering to the standards of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act is also important to our economy. One in seven people in our province has a disability, and that number is expected to increase substantially as our population ages. This represents a significant portion of our workforce.

Speaker, through you to the minister, can you please update this House about your ministry’s plan to improve the percentage of organizations that have filed their service standard compliance reports?

Hon. Eric Hoskins: Of course, our government is committed to building a dynamic and innovative business climate, one where every Ontarian can work in a safe and accessible environment. Ontario can proudly boast that it’s one of the first places in the world to make accessibility a law. To increase the number of organizations that have filed their customer service standard compliance report, we will work with the Accessibility Directorate of Ontario to promote the customer service standard and fine those organizations that, after multiple warnings—I repeat, multiple warnings—have not yet complied.

Ontario is poised to be a global leader in this sector. It’s a human right that our province can’t afford to ignore, and it makes great business sense as well. As the jobs minister, I will use my portfolio to engage the business community right across the province to promote—

The Speaker (Hon. Dave Levac): Answer.

Hon. Eric Hoskins: —awareness of the customer service standard in the act. I’d like to call on all members of this Legislature to support me in doing that.

ONTARIO HANSARD TUESDAY 19 NOVEMBER 2013

ACCESSIBILITY FOR THE DISABLED

Ms. Cheri DiNovo: My question is to the minister responsible for the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act. Since December of last year, the government has known that 70% of Ontario’s private companies are not complying with the AODA reporting requirements. To make matters worse, this information was only discovered after the AODA Alliance spent months battling with this government to release its compliance data, information that should always have been publicly available.

The minister tells us now that he is “upset” about the lack of compliance, but can he explain to Ontarians why his government’s lack of enforcement had to show up in the Toronto Star for him to finally promise action?

Hon. Eric Hoskins: I appreciate the question, as I spoke to this yesterday. I want to repeat that the compliance levels by businesses that have more than 20 employees and were required to file by December 31 of last year—that percentage is unacceptably low. Only 30% of the businesses in this province have complied.

Since becoming minister, I’ve taken this issue extremely seriously. During my tenure as minister and minister responsible for the AODA, we have doubled the number of businesses that now are complying. In September, I asked the ministry and they sent out more than 50,000 letters; 2,500 enforcement letters are going out this week, Mr. Speaker. This is an issue that I take very seriously.

To some extent, unfortunately, I have to admit that in the AODA legislation itself, as was passed unanimously by this Legislature, the mechanism for enforcement is in some respects cumbersome in terms of the process that we have to follow. For that reason, we are following the process as outlined in the law, but I am working on this vigorously. I intend to go as far as we need to to get full compliance.

The Speaker (Hon. Dave Levac): Supplementary?

Ms. Cheri DiNovo: Speaker, this 2005 legislation is an essential tool for ensuring equal access for persons with disabilities in Ontario, but it can only be effective if the standards are enforced, which is up to this government. Even more outrageous, the government earmarked $24 million to enforce the act, but they never bothered to spend any of it.

Instead of platitudes and empty promises, can the minister provide Ontarians with a concrete timeline—what you’re actually going to do—for enforcing the AODA, finally?

Hon. Eric Hoskins: Well, I think it’s important. There are two issues I want to reference. First of all, we didn’t have an opportunity to enforce a customer service standard until this year. The requirement for businesses to comply was December 31. Since the beginning of this year, we have sent out two letters to all the businesses across this province, more than 50,000 in September alone. I’m following up with 2,500 enforcement letters. We also have a marketing plan that we’re launching as well.

I want to say, because this is important, on the positive side as well, many businesses have complied. But we have 100% compliance for this act as well as for this standard in the entire Ontario public service and the agencies this government is responsible for.

We are working on this vigorously, and I’m prepared, if necessary, to issue further enforcement letters, including fines, until businesses comply.

KEY LINKS

To read the Toronto Star’s November 18, 2013 article on the Government’s failure to enforce the AODA, visit http://www.aodaalliance.org/strong-effective-aoda/11182013.asp

To read the AODA Alliance’s November 18, 2013 news release, making public key Government information on non-compliance with the AODA and failure to enforce it, visit http://www.aodaalliance.org/strong-effective-aoda/11182013.asp

To read the Toronto Star’s October 31, 2013 editorial on enforcement of the Disabilities Act, visit http://www.aodaalliance.org/strong-effective-aoda/11052013.asp

For Links to the 10 previous newspaper editorials since 1998, supporting the campaign to make Ontario fully accessible for all people with disabilities, visit http://www.aodaalliance.org/strong-effective-aoda/11052013.asp

To read the exchange on enforcement of the Disabilities Act in Question Period in the Ontario Legislature on October 29, 2013, visit http://www.aodaalliance.org/strong-effective-aoda/10302013.asp

Dalton McGuinty’s August 19, 2011 letter to the AODA Alliance, promising effective enforcement of the AODA, is available at: http://www.aodaalliance.org/strong-effective-aoda/090220111.asp

Dalton McGuinty’s April 7, 2003 letter, promising a Disabilities Act with effective enforcement, is available at http://www.odacommittee.net/news80.html

Kathleen Wynne’s December 3, 2012 letter to the AODA Alliance, promising to keep all Dalton McGuinty’s disability accessibility commitments, is available at http://www.aodaalliance.org/strong-effective-aoda/12032012.asp

The transcript of the May 10, 2005 Queen’s Park news conference, held immediately after the Legislature passed the Disabilities Act, is available at http://www.aodaalliance.org/strong-effective-aoda/09272013.asp

To read the AODA Alliance’s January 22, 2013 letter to the Ontario Government, requesting the Ontario Government’s plans for enforcing the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, visit http://is.gd/XdwlVG

Learn more about AODA Alliance Chair David Lepofsky’s August 15, 2013 Freedom of Information application by visiting http://www.aodaalliance.org/strong-effective-aoda/08152013.asp

To read Minister Hoskins’ declining to answer a question about the AODA’s enforcement in Question Period on May 28, 2013, visit http://www.aodaalliance.org/strong-effective-aoda/05292013.asp