How a one-hour meeting sparked a two-decade movement responsible for key accessibility laws in Ontario. By: Bob Hepburn Politics, Published on Wed Nov 26 2014
David Lepofsky is a blind Toronto lawyer who has long been fighting for disability rights. Since 1994, he has seen a series of provincial governments pledging to take disability issues seriously, but failing to act in any substantial way.
Back in 1994, David Lepofsky and 20 other people walked down a corridor at Queen’s Park and entered a small room to vent their frustrations over the NDP government’s failure to approve Ontario’s first disabilities act.
Little did Lepofsky know, however, that the informal hour-long meeting would spawn a 20-year movement that has achieved remarkable success in helping the disabled in Ontario at home, at work and in the community.
“We were angry,” says Lepofsky as he recalls the events of Nov. 29, 1994. “The meeting was spontaneous. We started with nothing. I had no idea how the next 20 years would turn out.”
The meeting was held after NDP citizenship minister Elaine Ziemba, who was responsible for disability issues, blatantly refused to discuss a proposed disabilities act during a legislative committee appearance.
What the tiny group did that day was form a new coalition to challenge the government and fight for a strong, effective disabilities act.
Today, the coalition can rightly take credit for spearheading the adoption of two of the most important pieces of disability accessibility legislation over the past two decades.
On Friday, a celebration will be held at Queen’s Park to mark the birth of this grassroots movement to make Ontario barrier-free.
The non-partisan Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance, which Lepofsky chairs on a volunteer basis and which has replaced the former coalition as the driving force for disabilities legislation, will use the occasion to renew its call for strong disability accessibility laws and to have them effectively implemented and enforced.
Some 1.5 million Ontario residents have physical, mental or sensory disabilities. They face countless barriers every day, from steps to enter a bus and websites without features to make them usable by blind people to offices that lack telephone lines that allow deaf people to call in.
Lepofsky is a blind Toronto lawyer who has been fighting for disability rights since the 1970s. He has been awarded an Order of Canada and several honorary degrees by Canadian universities for his work.
Since 1994, he has seen a series of governments under the NDP, Conservatives and Liberals pledging to take disability issues seriously, but failing to act in any substantial way.
In 2001, the Tory government of premier Mike Harris passed the Ontarians with Disabilities Act, a weak piece of legislation that at least was a first step in gaining rights specifically for the disabled.
In 2005, the Liberal government of premier Dalton McGuinty won unanimous passage of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) that required Ontario to become fully accessible by 2025.
Sadly, that legislation has achieved very little to date, with many businesses failing to comply with even the most basic standards. Worse, the Liberal government under Premier Kathleen Wynne has done nothing to address these problems.
Signs of her government’s inaction abound. For example, despite a 2012 deadline, more than 30,000 of Ontario’s private businesses with 20 or more employees still haven’t even bothered to comply with the most basic reporting requirements, such as describing how they accommodate disabled customers, train staff and listen to feedback. None of them have been penalized or fined.
Another clear sign of the government’s indifference is the fact that four different cabinet ministers since 2011 have been handed responsibility for implementing and enforcing the AODA. The current minister is Economic Development Minister Brad Duguid.
While Wynne has promised her government will meet the 2025 goal, the reality is the government has been paralyzed in recent years, with no effective enforcement of the act, no real effort to strengthen it and no plan to achieve full accessibility by 2025.
Ontarians with disabilities deserve better. As a start, the premier should quickly launch a new campaign to enforce and strengthen this vital legislation.
As Lepofsky says, “Inaction speaks louder than words.”
Bob Hepburn’s column appears Thursday. firstname.lastname@example.org