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17 Years Ago Today Ontario’s Non-Partisan Disabilities Act Movement Was Born!

November 29, 2011


Seventeen years ago today, on November 29, 1994, the non-partisan grassroots community coalition to campaign for a strong and effective Disabilities Act in Ontario was born. It was originally called the Ontarians with Disabilities Act Committee.

The ODA Committee waged a 10-year long tenacious campaign for a law to make Ontario fully accessible for all Ontarians with disabilities. The law was originally to be called the Ontarians with Disabilities Act.

In 2001, Ontario’s Conservative Government under Premier Mike Harris passed a weak and limited law, the Ontarians with Disabilities Act 2001 (ODA 2001). The ODA Committee kept on campaigning for a more comprehensive, strong and defective law. In 2005, the new Liberal Ontario Government under Premier Dalton McGuinty passed the more comprehensive Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act 2005 (AODA 2005).

After the AODA 2005 was passed, the ODA Committee wound up, its goal achieved. In its place, the AODA Alliance was immediately established, with a mandate to campaign for the timely and effective implementation of the AODA 2005.

To learn more about the events on November 29, 1994 that led to the launch of our organized accessibility movement, we set out a 3-page excerpt below from the history of the first eight years of our movement. It appears in a 200-page published article entitled “The Long Arduous Road to a Barrier-free Ontario for People with Disabilities: The History of the Ontarians with Disabilities Act – The First Chapter,” found in volume 15 of the National Journal of Constitutional Law. It was written by David Lepofsky, who led the ODA Committee from 1995 to 2005, and who chairs the AODA Alliance since 2009. Footnotes are omitted from this excerpt.

If you would like a copy of the full 200-page article in MS Word format, send a request to us at:

To read how the ODA Committee reflected on the earlier ten year anniversary of this important birthday back on November 29, 2004, visit:

To see the step-by-step activity of the ODA Committee from 1995 to 2005, visit its website.

Although the ODA Committee no longer exists, its website remains as a record of its legacy. It is at

To see the public record of the AODA Alliance from 2005 to the present, picking up where the ODA Committee left off, visit:

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a) The Birth Of The Organized ODA Movement

The realization within Ontario’s disability community that a new law was needed to tear down the barriers facing persons with disabilities did not take place all at once as the result of a single catastrophic event. Rather, it resulted slowly from a simmering, gradual process. That process led to the birth of Ontario’s organized ODA movement.

How then did the organized ODA movement get started? Most would naturally think that it is the birth of a civil rights movement that later spawns the introduction into a legislature of a new piece of civil rights legislation. Ironically in the case of the organized ODA movement, the opposite was the case. The same ironic twist had occurred 15 years before when the Ontario Coalition for Human Rights for the Handicapped formed in reaction to the Government’s introduction of a stand-alone piece of disability rights legislation.

In the early 1990s, after the enactment in the U.S. of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990, sporadic voices in Ontario began discussing the idea of seeking the enactment of something called an “Ontarians with Disabilities Act.” There was little if any focused attention on what this new law would contain. It was understood from the outset that an ODA would not be a carbon copy of the ADA. For example, some parts of the ADA were already incorporated in the Ontario Human Rights Code. There was no need to replicate them again.

In the 1990 Ontario provincial election campaign (which happened to take place just days after the U.S. had enacted the Americans with Disabilities Act) NDP leader Bob Rae responded to a disability rights legal clinic’s all-party election platform questionnaire in August 1990 with a letter which, among other things, supported appropriate legislation along the lines of an Ontarians with Disabilities Act. Rae’s letter didn’t spell out what this law would include. This letter did not get serious airplay in that election campaign. It was not well-known when the NDP came from behind in the polls to win that provincial election. Because the NDP had not been expected to win, it was widely seen as campaigning on a range of election commitments that it never anticipated having the opportunity to implement.

Despite sporadic discussions among some in the early 1990s, there was no grassroots groundswell in Ontario supporting an ODA. There was also no major grassroots political force building to push for one. This was quite similar to the fact that there was no organized grassroots disability rights movement pushing for the inclusion of disability equality in the Ontario Human Rights Code in 1979, before the Ontario Government proposed its new disability discrimination legislation in that year. In the early 1990s, Ontario disability organizations involved in disability advocacy were primarily focused on other things, such as the NDP Ontario Government’s proposed Employment Equity Act, expected to be the first provincial legislation of its kind in Canada. That legislation, aimed at increasing the employment of persons with disabilities as well as women, racial minorities and Aboriginal persons, was on the agenda of the provincial New Democratic Party that was then in power in Ontario.

What ultimately led to the birth of a province-wide, organized grassroots ODA movement in Ontario was the decision of an NDP back-bench member of the Ontario Legislature, Gary Malkowski, to introduce into the Legislature a private member’s ODA bill in the Spring of 1994, over three years into the NDP Government’s term in office. By that time, the NDP Government had not brought forward a Government ODA bill. Malkowski decided to bring forward Bill 168, the first proposed Ontarians with Disabilities Act, to focus public and political interest in this new issue. Malkowski was well-known as Ontario’s, and indeed North America’s, first elected parliamentarian who was deaf. Ontario’s New Democratic Party Government, then entering the final year of its term in office, allowed Malkowski’s bill to proceed to a Second Reading vote in the Ontario Legislature in June, 1994, and then to public hearings before a committee of the Ontario Legislature in November and December 1994.

In 1994, word got around various quarters in Ontario’s disability community that Malkowski had introduced this bill. Interest in it started to percolate. Malkowski met with groups in the disability community, urging them to come together to support his bill. He called for the disability community to unite in a new coalition to support an Ontarians with Disabilities Act. A significant number of persons with disabilities turned up at the Ontario Legislature when this bill came forward for Second Reading debate in the Spring of 1994.

Over the spring, summer and fall months of 1994, around the same time as Malkowski was coming forward with his ODA bill, some of the beginnings of the organized ODA movement were also simmering within an organization of Ontario Government employees with disabilities. Under the governing NDP, the Ontario Government had set up an “Advisory Group” of provincial public servants with disabilities to advise it on measures to achieve equality for persons with disabilities in the Ontario Public Service. In the Spring of 1994, this Advisory Group set as one of its priorities working within the machinery of the Ontario Government to promote the idea of an ODA.

This public service Advisory Group met with several provincial Cabinet Ministers and later with Ontario’s Premier, Bob Rae, to discuss the idea of an ODA. It successfully pressed the Government to hold public hearings on Malkowski’s ODA bill.

As 1994 progressed, Malkowski’s bill served its important purpose. It sparked the attention and interest of several players in Ontario’s disability community in the idea of an ODA. No one was then too preoccupied with the details of the contents of Malkowski’s ODA bill.

Malkowski’s bill had an even more decisive effect on November 29, 1994, when it first came before the Legislature’s Standing Committee for debate and public hearings. On that date, NDP Citizenship Minister Elaine Ziemba was asked to make a presentation to the Committee on the Government’s views on Malkowski’s bill. She was called upon to do this before community groups would be called on to start making presentations to the legislative committee. The hearing room was packed with persons with disabilities, eager to hear what the Minister would have to say.

Much to the audience’s dismay, the Minister’s lengthy speech said little if anything about the bill. She focused instead on the Government’s record on other disability issues. The temperature in the room elevated as the audience’s frustration mounted.

When the committee session ended for the day, word quickly spread among the audience that all were invited to go to another room in Ontario’s legislative building. An informal, impromptu gathering came together to talk about taking action in support of Malkowski’s bill. Malkowski passionately urged those present to come together and to get active on this cause.

I was one of the 20 or so people who made their way into that room. In an informal meeting that lasted about an hour, it was unanimously decided to form a new coalition to fight for a strong and effective Ontarians with Disabilities Act. There was no debate over the content of such legislation at that meeting. However, there was a strong and united realization that new legislation was desperately needed, and that a new coalition needed to be formed to fight for it. This coalition did not spawn the first ODA bill. Rather, the first ODA bill had spawned this coalition.

Days later, in December 1994, the Legislature’s Standing Committee held two full days of hearings into Malkowski’s bill. A significant number of organizations, including disability community organizations, appeared before the Legislature’s Standing Committee to submit briefs and make presentations on the need for new legislation in this area. Among the groups that made presentations was the Ontario Public Service Disability Advisory Group which had pressed for these hearings to be held. Its brief later served as a core basis for briefs and positions that would be presented by the brand-new Ontarians with Disabilities Act Committee.
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