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Making Accessibility Standards Work for Durham Businesses

Whitby This Week
By Parvaneh Pessian

WHITBY — Catherine Anderson knows the importance of good customer service for all businesses but for some types, in particular, she says it can make all the difference in the world.

“As an insurance brokerage, all we have is customer service — we have no tangible item that we can provide to someone,” said Ms. Anderson, HR finance manager at Petley-Hare Limited, with offices in Oshawa and Bowmanville.

“We are the conduit from the insurance company to the customer, so it’s even more crucial that we make it easy and comfortable for them to communicate with us.”

The key to effective communication, she added, is knowing how to meet the needs of each and every customer, including those with disabilities.

Ms. Anderson recently attended a special presentation held at the Abilities Centre in Whitby to provide local businesses with a step-by-step guide to meeting Ontario’s accessibility standards. The event was hosted by the Whitby Chamber of Commerce and featured guest speaker Louie DiPalma, director of small and medium enterprise programs at the Ontario Chamber of Commerce.

“The employment rate for persons with a disability is much higher than a person without a disability even though educations are equivalent or the same,” explained Mr. DiPalma. “Why is that important to businesses in Ontario? It’s important because there’s a skills gap out there.”

The Ontario Chamber of Commerce is a business network of 160 local chambers of commerce and boards of trade across the province. Through this network, the chamber provides a voice for 60,000 members ranging from small businesses to major corporations and industry associations.

According to results of a survey conducted by the chamber, Mr. DiPalma said 30 per cent of members had difficulty sourcing the proper individual to meet their business needs over the past year.

“So, it makes good business (sense) to take a look at that talent pool because there is a plethora of rich skill sets out there,” he said.

The Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act was established in 2005 with a goal of making Ontario accessible by 2025. All levels of government, non-profits, and private sector businesses with one or more employees are required to comply with the Act and all of its applicable standards, including customer service, transportation, information and communications, the design of public spaces and employment.

The accessible customer service standard, which ensures organizations offer goods, services or facilities in ways that take the needs of people with disabilities into account, was the first standard to come into effect in 2008. The Ontario government and other designated public sector organizations were required to comply by Jan. 1, 2010 while Ontario’s non-profits and businesses had to comply by Jan. 1, 2012.

Because disabilities can be both visible and invisible, and include physical challenges and those related to learning, development, mental health and other issues, Mr. DiPalma said it’s important to never make assumptions.

“When any individual comes into your organization — doesn’t matter whether they have a disability or they don’t have a disability — ‘How may I help you?’ are the golden words,” he said.

“It starts the interaction and once you get that interaction going, you’ll have a better understanding of how to better serve that individual.”

Amanda Bailey, member relations lead at the Whitby Chamber of Commerce, said it’s the responsibility of the chamber to ensure all businesses have the information and resources to follow accessibility standards.

“What we have found is they’re unaware that all businesses do have to comply,” said Ms. Bailey.

“I don’t think they’re aware that this is so important and that it will be coming down the chain and people will be knocking on your door and making sure that you are abiding by the legislation.”

Tina Wieringa from Essential Communications Ltd. in Whitby said she attended the presentation to gather more information about who the responsibility falls to for accessibility enhancements when a business is leasing a space.

“I do not see that landlords of buildings have to meet the same guidelines as businesses under the Act, so if a business is (leasing) a space they will need to ensure it is accessible and choose accordingly or incur expense themselves to make it accessible if the landlord is not willing to accommodate their tenants’ needs,” she said, adding she wants the process to be improved by having the same guidelines in place for both businesses and landlords.

At Petley-Hare Limited, Ms. Anderson said they are slowly navigating through each of the accessibility guidelines while relying on advice from fellow business operators.

“I find that the process has been straightforward so far but I think that I’m fortunate because I’m able to network with other organizations in this type of environment where we can talk to each other,” she said.

“Some businesses might be a bit timid to admit they’re behind in the process or unsure what to do next but that’s OK, no one is going to come find you and shut your business down. It matters what you do going forward.”

Reporter Parvaneh Pessian covers the town of Whitby for Metroland Media Group’s Durham

How This Impacts You

  • More than 1.85 million Ontarians or 15.5 per cent of the population have a disability and that number is rising as society ages. By 2017, for the first time, Ontarians aged 65 and older will account for a larger share of the population than children under 14.
  • The Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act applies to visible and non-visible disabilities, including a broad range of physical disabilities, vision loss, blindness, hearing loss, deafness, brain injury, speed impairments, diabetes, epilepsy, development disabilities, learning disabilities, mental health disabilities, and others.
  • Whether you are a solopreneur or a company with more than 500 employees, you must comply to Ontario’s accessibility standards. From training to recruitment and emergency response to customer service standards, there are things all businesses should already be doing or will have to do by the Jan. 1, 2016 deadline.
  • Organizations that do not comply with the Act could face financial penalties, court enforcement and prosecution.

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