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Accessibility Not A Priority

by Willy Noiles
December 12 – 18, 2013

The Ontario government celebrated the United Nations’ International Day of Persons with Disabilities by doing what the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disability Act Alliance (AODA Alliance) hoped they wouldn’t: simply offer more platitudes and lofty rhetoric (of which some was inaccurate or overblown). With the AODA Alliance having already demonstrated earlier this fall how little the government has done to implement its own 2005 accessibility legislation this year, Dec. 3 should’ve been a time to finally announce new standards and a plan to enforce existing standards, but instead all it really did was name a couple people to a committee it had promised a year ago would be developing new standards.

When the Liberals passed into law, with unanimous support from all MPPs, the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) in 2005, it promised to change the way government looks at barriers for persons with disabilities. The promise was to implement the legislation through various accessibility standards until 2025 when the province would be fully accessible. But since then, as many editorialists have pointed out, the government has done little. Even the Toronto Star, long a Liberal–friendly newspaper, called the Act nothing than “whimsical window dressing” that is a “sham.”

Eight years after introducing and passing the Act with much fanfare, the gains the disability community have achieved have often come through Ontario Human Rights wins, rather than the AODA. Yet, it was supposed to be different. When the Act was first passed into law, the minister who was then responsible, former Citizenship Minister and the Minister for Democratic Renewal Dr. Marie Boutrogianni promised among other things that standards ensuring accessible transportation would be introduced within five years. Instead the only standards the government has enacted surround customer service and websites. And even there, as the AODA Alliance revealed in November, not only has the most basic of requirements not been met by business, but the government hasn’t done anything to enforce it.

The AODA Alliance, a volunteer group that had been lobbying for accessibility legislation since the early 1990s, revealed Nov. 18 that the government has known that 70 percent of Ontario’s private sector organizations with at least 20 employees have been violating the AODA’s accessibility reporting requirements for over 10 months. Five years ago, organizations, including the public sector, with at least 20 employees were forewarned they’d have to file an accessibility self–report by Dec. 31, 2012 detailing how they accommodate disabled customers, train staff and listen to feedback. But even with the long notice and the relatively simple requirements, only 30 percent have thus far complied—and even this is an increase if what the current minister says is to be believed. Worse still is that the government had not conducted a single inspection of any organization, nor issued a single compliance order, nor imposed any monetary penalties even though it has ample power to do so. It cost the Alliance $2,000 in freedom of information fees to discover this.

Responding to a softball question from a Liberal backbencher the day this news broke, Minister for Economic Development, Trade and Employment (who has responsibility for the AODA) Eric Hoskins stated, “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.” But as the AODA Alliance asks, if Hoskins takes the issue as seriously as he claims, why did he not address the matter until after it became a news story and why did he and his government stonewall this volunteer group?

Sadly, the government made other promises this year around accessibility it’s only now getting around to. Examples include a promise to develop new accessibility standards this past January and a commitment in this year’s Throne Speech to make it easier for the disabled to find employment. The government announced on Jan. 21, 2013 that new accessibility standards would be developed and that the government has created an advisory body, the Accessibility Standards Advisory Council (ASAC), to develop proposals, once the government tells it which accessibility standards to work on. To date, not one new standard has even been named, let alone developed, and it wasn’t until last week that Hoskins even named anyone to its ASAC. As for focusing on employment for the disabled, it wasn’t until, again, last week that Hoskins said he’s going to develop a strategy to do this. But in a softball question on this issue to Ted McMeekin, the minister of community and social services, this minister boasted of the Ontario Disability Support Program’s employment assistance program. McMeekin said this program had 4,537 clients enter the program and receive supports and that some 2,264 have actually found employment. (This is under 50 percent and yet the government is proud of this?) These were commitments they made of their own volition and they couldn’t even keep those. And Hoskins wants us to believe he takes accessibility “extremely serious.”

Considering the government’s sorry record thus far—and most especially this year—many were expecting more from Hoskins on International Day for Persons with Disabilities. Instead what they got was another half–hearted sorry for the government’s record thus far, a promise to do better and announcements of who he’s appointed to a body created 11 months earlier. That body will be reviewing the customer service standard. He also revealed, regarding the lack of compliance with this standard, that “we have an enforcement plan and we will implement it.” But he also couldn’t help himself from further rhetoric. “Ontario has made a commitment to make the province fully accessible by 2025, the first province in the country to do so. In fact, Ontario was the first jurisdiction in the world to move to a modern regulatory regime that mandates accessibility. In 2005, the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, or the AODA, came into force with unanimous support from all parties in this Legislature.

“This year, our government’s speech from the throne transferred the Accessibility Directorate of Ontario to my ministry, the Ministry of Economic Development, Trade and Employment. With this transfer, our resolve to make our province accessible and inclusive continues with determination. As the minister responsible for the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, one of my top priorities is to ensure that all Ontarians living with a disability have barriers to employment opportunities removed and that all workplaces become inclusive.”

The first laugher is the assertion Ontario was the first jurisdiction in the world to implement such an act. Guess he’s never heard of the United States where they implemented the Americans with Disabilities Act back in 1990. If this wasn’t a deliberate lie, it calls into serious question just how knowledgeable he and his staff are on a file he claims to take “extremely serious.” Then, of course, is the employment matter. If this is one of his “top priorities,” why has it taken him so many months to begin to address it?

During the Liberal leadership race late last year, Premier Kathleen Wynne committed to making enforcement and further progress on the Act one of her chief priorities. She acknowledged, as the AODA Alliance, has long known, that the government has not even met its own timetable for further standards. (The next standard to take effect will be one regarding accessible websites, to take effect Jan. 1, 2014, which will first apply only to new websites or existing ones where there is a revamp with at least 50 percent of new content; others have until 2021.) When the Act was being debated in 2005, some were concerned the long implementation period could lead to stagnation or worse that many accessibility champions could be dead before the province was truly accessible. Sadly, the way the government is moving, even young accessibility champions could be dead before the Act is fully implemented.

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