Wed Jan 5 2011
Maria Mendolia says she does whatever she can to make her salon accessible to disabled customers.
The Jackson Square business, Joseph’s Coiffures, features movable cutting stations to accommodate customers in wheelchairs. Her staff members go out of their way to aid patrons with visual impairments and other disabilities.
As far as meeting Ontario’s accessibility standards, Mendolia is doing more than what is required of her.
But like many other local business owners, she says she’s still in the dark about a piece of provincial legislation that will soon require her to develop
policies and procedures for serving disabled customers.
“I haven’t heard of it,” Mendolia said. “But we’ll do what we can to comply.”
In less than a year, Ontario’s private businesses and nonprofit organizations will have to implement the customer service standard — the first of five standards to be enacted under the province’s Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act.
The legislation, which comes into effect Jan. 1, 2012, demands that all businesses with more than one employee — everything from hair salons and theatres to churches and restaurants — train staff members in providing accessible customer service and establish formal policies for serving disabled patrons.
Businesses with 20 or more employees are also required to complete an online report and document the steps they’ve taken to make their services more accessible.
According to the Ministry of Community and Social Services, any business that doesn’t comply could face a hefty penalty — anywhere between $200 and $15,000.
Despite the ministry mounting a massive public education campaign and mailing notices to nearly all of the province’s 360,000 registered companies, many local businesses, such as Café Limoncello and the Staircase Theatre, said they hadn’t heard of the legislation.
“It’s been a challenge,” said ministry representative Sandy Mangat. “We’ve tried a number of avenues to try to get this information out. It’s an ongoing
effort by the government to inform people and make sure they understand what the requirements are.”
According to the city’s access and equity coordinator Maxine Carter, the problem could be that the legislation, which was implemented in the province’s
public sector a year ago, is “vague” and “confusing” for local business owners.
“I’m not sure what (the ministry’s) plans are over the next year, but I would hope that people get clear information,” she said.
“There has been a lot of feedback from people with disabilities and from people who don’t have disabilities who are trying to implement this who say that
it’s not specific enough.”
For Carter, part of the issue is that businesses associate accessibility with making changes to the layout of their stores or facilities, rather than improving communication with customers.
“It’s a mindset change,” she said. “If your business is not accessible physically, how do you still serve people?”
Carter said businesses are going to have to come up with innovative ways to make their services accessible. A shop that can’t accommodate wheelchairs, for instance, might have to cater to customers through online or telephone purchases.
“Education is really, really key to getting this moving,” she said. “We all have a responsibility to make sure we’re fulfilling the legislation.”
Gail Mores, director of national and provincial programs for March of Dimes, agreed.
“It’s about time,” she said. “The attitude and the behaviour of the employees in these places often creates the greatest barrier.”
With more than 15 per cent of Ontarians suffering from some type of disability, Mores said this legislation is a way for both businesses and the province
to stop marginalizing a substantial and integral part of the population.
“I would like to see much stronger promotion for it … I really see this as a huge opportunity to help open doors a little further for people with disabilities.”