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Ontario Missing Mark on Accessibility Standards, Activist Says

Blind lawyer and disability rights activist David Lepofsky says Ontario must reverse a recent regulatory change that he says weakens its target to make the province fully accessible by 2025. By Laurie MonsebraatenSocial justice reporter
Thu., June 23, 2016

Toronto lawyer David Lepofsky implores province to reverse recent regulatory change that he says weakens target of becoming fully accessible by 2025.

Tracy MacCharles, Ontario’s new minister responsible for accessibility, says businesses will still be required to comply with the law concerning accessibility regardless of whether or not they have a written policy.

Tracy MacCharles, Ontario’s new minister responsible for accessibility, must act quickly to reverse a recent regulatory change that weakens the province’s goal of becoming fully accessible by 2025, says a disability rights activist.

“This is the closest we’ve come to having a full-time minister on this file,” said Toronto lawyer David Lepofsky, head of a grassroots alliance that monitors progress on the province’s landmark Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA).

“We just hope she can undo the damage that she inherits.”

Under the act, passed unanimously in 2005, all businesses and non-profits with 20 or more employees must have a written policy outlining how they accommodate customers with disabilities, train staff and receive customer feedback. The policy must be available to the public upon request.

But earlier this month, as part of a periodic review of regulations under the law, the government exempted businesses and non-profits with 20 to 49 employees from having to put their accessible customer service policy in writing or to make it public.

As of July 1, only companies with 50 or more employees must have written policies.

Almost 33,000 organizations will be affected by the regulatory change, according to Ontario’s accessibility directorate.

“The government has been saying that it’s really important for organizations to deliver accessible customer service,” said Lepofsky, who is blind. “But how do you train your staff on a policy that’s not in writing?”

The organizations being exempted are among those already breaking the law by not filing annual compliance reports to the government on how they are serving customers with disabilities, he noted.

A year ago, 65 per cent of businesses still had not filed their 2012 accessibility reports, and 60 per cent had failed to meet the 2014 deadline, according to former accessibility minister Brad Duguid.

“How is this change going to improve compliance?” Lepofsky asked. “We are calling on the new minister to reverse this decision. It doesn’t come into effect until July 1, so it’s not too late for her to fix it.”

James Sanders, former chair of the provincial Accessibility Standards Advisory Council, said his group recommended the change after an independent review of the legislation last year urged the government to simplify the rules for businesses.

The act’s accessibility standards for employment, communications and transportation define small organizations as those with 50 or fewer employees. So the council agreed the accessible customer service standard should use the same benchmark, said Sanders, past president of the CNIB.

“We really wrestled with this one,” he said in an interview. “But in the end, we did it in the spirit of harmonization.”

All organizations with one or more employees must have accessible customer service policies and those with 20 or more staff still have to file compliance audits, he noted.

“One of the main objectives of the customer service review was to harmonize standards to make the requirements clearer for organizations,” said MacCharles, who was appointed to her post in a June 13 cabinet shuffle.

“These businesses will still be required to comply with the law regardless of whether or not they have a written policy,” she said in an email. “Our ultimate goal with accessibility is a culture shift, and we believe the best way to accomplish that is through education and awareness.”

Under the act, the government is responsible for developing, implementing and enforcing accessibility standards for Ontario’s 1.8 million people with a physical, mental, sensory, intellectual, or learning disability by 2025. The law covers goods, services, facilities, accommodation, employment and buildings.

The accessibility standards tell public and private sector organizations what disability barriers they must tear down, and by when.

Reproduced from https://www.thestar.com/news/gta/2016/06/23/ontario-missing-mark-on-accessibility-standards-activist-says.html