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Gaps in Ontario’s Disability strategy Highlighted with PanAm Games

Aaron Broverman
Daily Brew

The Rogers Centre is one venue where patrons have experienced difficulty with accessibility.

As the PanAm Games draw to a close and Toronto prepares for the ParaPanAm Games to get underway, accessibility issues are leaving something to be desired for patrons with disabilities.

Recently, Yahoo Canada highlighted how walker user Mary Penner lost out on her $150 accessible seats to the opening ceremonies because someone was already sitting in them and Global News reported the story of Joey Freeman, a man with multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease who had to walk 400 metres from his parking spot to the Rogers Centre after finding no accessible parking close by for the Opening Ceremonies Dress Rehearsal.

Then, when looking for an accessible entrance close to his seat, he was instructed by a PanAm volunteer to walk from one gate to another on the other side of the building and the route back to his car became just as circuitous.

PanAm/ParaPanAm Games CEO Saad Rafi insists that both volunteers and staff received extensive training on accommodating people with disabilities. He told Global they received “[training] both on diversity language and on accessibility.”

But David Lepofsky, chairman of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance, is not surprised by what Penner and Freeman experienced.

Symptoms of a Larger Problem

“Incidents like the ones described if accurate, are strong illustrations that after ten years of having the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act [AODA], we are nowhere near reaching full accessibility by 2025 and after ten years this law has not made a significant difference in the lives of people with disabilities in Ontario,” he says.

The Ontario Government admitted as much in 2010 when, for the first time, the progress of the AODA legislation was independently reviewed. Former Liberal MPP Charles Beer called for “more focused attention at the highest levels of government.”

These sentiments were echoed in the latest mandated review by Mayo Moran, a University of Toronto law professor and provost of Trinity College, who acknowledged the “slow and challenging implementation to date” and suggested that “the commitment of the premier and, through her, the government of Ontario can make a critical difference at this time.”

For Lepofsky, Penner not being able to see from her seat and PanAm volunteers not being able to accurately direct Freeman to an accessible entrance are just symptoms of wider and more consistent issues around accessibility in this province. The lack of hospitality for people with disabilities at the PanAm Games is simply a microcosm of a much larger failure on the part of the provincial government.

“The kinds of accommodations sought in these instances are ones which are not hard to do and the needs didn’t only arise the moment these people presented them,” says Lepofsky.

Economic Impacts

Failure at such a basic level, notes Lepofsky, does harm not just to people with disabilities, but Toronto’s own Tourism and Hospitality Industry. Not being able to accommodate people with disabilities means a huge economic loss for the province.

“Tourism and hospitality, of the kind illustrated in these incidents, is a huge area where Ontario and Toronto lag behind and are economically shooting themselves in the foot,” he says.

“There are estimated to be a billion people with disabilities around the world around 1.8 million Ontarians have a disability with 4 million across Canada that’s a huge tourism and hospitality market. To the extent that Toronto and Ontario remain a problematic destination in terms of accessibility, it’s not going to be an attractive place for them to come and spend their tourism dollars. Therefore, all of Ontario loses.”

It’s not like the Ontario Government doesn’t know this. In 2010, with the introduction of some new accessibility standards in the AODA, they commissioned a report on the economic benefits of having a more accessible province. Along with an improved labour force, more participation in higher education and saving on healthcare and social assistance costs, one of the main benefits was the expansion of the retail and tourism sectors.

“In the case of the PanAm/ParaPanAm Games, they want people to go to the events. They also want people to go eat after, leave the bubble of the games themselves, and be able to ensure they can find a place to stay that’s accessible, a taxi that’s accessible, use public transit that’s accessible and even go to a bathroom that’s accessible,” says Lepofsky.

“That’s kind of basic to being a tourist. If they can do all those things, they can spend money in our community and we all benefit. It’s not one or the other, it’s everything.”

A Lost Legacy

Typically, when a major sporting event comes town, residents of the host cities are hoping for some sort of enduring legacy that will benefit their community in the long-term. Both London and Vancouver made increased accessibility part of that legacy after they hosted the Olympics. But, as part of hosting the PanAm Games, Toronto did not.

That’s when Lepofsky and other members of the AODA Alliance met with representatives at the highest levels of government to try and get them to see this missed opportunity. As a result, the government acted in some areas, but Lepofsky says they made one crucial and obvious mistake.

“They did not take on, or act seriously, in the area of increased accessibility in the tourism and hospitality sector,” he says.

The AODA Alliance urged the provincial government to increase the number of restaurants, hotels and stores that were accessible, but instead, the reverse is now the case.

“Right now, the municipal government in Toronto is actively trying to get Signs Restaurant to remove a ramp the owner installed. The city is using public money to oppose accessibility. It’s an illustration that we’re going the wrong way,” says Lepofsky.

“We don’t have enough accessible restaurants. What is the city of Toronto trying to do? They’re trying to make things worse and are using public money to do so. It’s crazy.”

Meanwhile, the Ontario Government is extremely proud of the fact that all ParaPan athletes will have fully-accessible venues to compete in.

“That’s great, but that’s a pretty basic thing if you’re hosting the PanAm/ParaPanAm Games,” concludes Lepofsky. “But when you get beyond that, they’ve fallen down on the job.”

Reproduced from