June 1, 2011
GUELPH — A leading advocate for people with disabilities said universities and colleges have an enormous amount of power to affect accessibility practices and technologies, not only on campuses but across society.
Rozanski Hall on the University of Guelph is the site of the third annual The Accessibility Conference, which opened Tuesday and runs through Wednesday.
Attendees are primarily post-secondary disability services staff from across Ontario, all working to make services and facilities easier to access for
Numerous barriers continue to impede those with learning, seeing, hearing and mobility challenges, and vigilance is needed to ensure that recent accessibility legislation comes to fruition in practical terms, conference participants heard on Tuesday morning.
David Lepofsky, a distinguished constitutional lawyer and champion of the groundbreaking Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, said information technology is in a constant state of renewal and evolution, and post-secondary institutions are in a very influential position to demand technology that is accessible to people with disability.
“We need your universities to commit to having fully accessible information technology within five years,” said Lepofsky, who made his address via Skype, an information technology that featured frequent stalls, delays and fade-outs. Lepofsky was unable to attend the conference in person.
Starting immediately, universities and colleges should make it clear that they will not spend money on any future information technology – whether hardware or software – that is not accessible to the disabled. By letting vendors know now of this intention, those producers of technology will be forced to innovate in the interests of the disabled.
“If the universities and colleges all do this at the same time, think of the huge amount of pressure they could bring to bear on future information technology,” Lepofsky said. “You have a lot of purchasing power at your universities.”
When designing buildings, a website, or even a document, it is important to think about accessibility from the outset, rather than constructing a barrier
that needs to be eliminated in the future, he indicated. He encouraged “barrier buster tours” in communities, during which barriers to the disabled are
identified and publicized, and solutions to them proposed.
Lepofsky, a key organizer of an advocacy group that fought for over a decade for legislative changes to make Ontario more accessible, also encouraged advocates to bring attention to the issue during the provincial election. Study the platforms of the various parties, he said, and let the public know where each one stands on accessibility.
Many election polling stations and booths, he said, remain inaccessible to those with certain disabilities and that is simply wrong. Polls should be chosen with accessibility in mind.
Jeanette Parsons is a leading accessibility advocate, and former accessibility coordinator at Queen’s University. In an interview she said the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act is unique in the world. It goes beyond the Ontario Human Rights Code to address accessibility issues.
“It’s basically saying, we are not going to wait for somebody to face discrimination, we’re going to go after these barriers and try to remove them before
someone encounters a barrier,” she explained. “That is very different from any place else in the world.”
But Ontario is now in the thick of implementing the act’s standards, she said, and the practicalities of doing so are proving very challenging. Accessibility
costs money. The private sector faces major expenditures in bringing their operations in line with the legislation. The act was passed in 2005 and gave
a 20-year timeline for implementation.
“Economically, this can get a little challenging, and so the standards themselves are not rolling out as smoothly as one would have hoped,” she said. “The other thing is we don’t have a strong enforcement process. Even when organizations are not in compliance with the standards, the minister is not necessarily following up with those organizations quickly.”
Lepofsky said accessibility may not be foremost on the minds of Ontarians, but the subject should be.
“People without disabilities will eventually get one,” he said. “We all have a disability in waiting.”
Athol Gow is on the conference organizing committee. Conference programming, he said, is geared mostly to post-secondary staff of disability services offices.
The programming is aimed at those interested in working with students with disabilities.
He added there was a strong turn out for the conference.