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On Accessibility, Ontario Needs Less Secrecy, More Action: Editorial

The government should stop fighting disability advocates and start working alongside them. By Star Editorial Board
Sun., Aug. 6, 2017

David Lepofsky just wants to make sure the province is doing what it promised to do. A disability advocate and lawyer, Lepofsky has worked tirelessly since the McGuinty Liberals passed the landmark Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) in 2005, holding the government to account as it moves toward its goal of a fully accessible Ontario by 2025.

Too often, however, what he has found is failure and too often the province has tried to keep him from discovering the frequently disappointing truth.

Last week, Ontario’s privacy commission ruled that the government was overcharging Lepofsky and his organization, the Access for Ontarians with Disabilities Alliance, for a Freedom of Information request related to the province’s progress.

The government had tried to charge the group a prohibitive $4,200 for the information, which Lepofsky requested about two years ago, on the basis that the documents did not pertain to public health or safety and therefore did not qualify for a fee waiver. Lepofsky, who is blind, rightly countered that accessibility issues are public health issues. The commission agreed and ruled that $750 was the appropriate charge.

The government’s two-year fight to levy the outsized fee seems to be part of a troubling pattern of obfuscation. In 2013, Lepofsky submitted a Freedom of Information request to take stock of how the act was being enforced and was charged more than $2,000. Outcry in the media eventually prompted the government to drop the fee.

This recalcitrance is particularly disturbing given the government’s shoddy record of enforcing the AODA. The information Lepofsky eventually obtained in 2013 showed that some 70 per cent of businesses with 20 or more employees were not complying with the act, which aims to tear down barriers, both physical and figurative, for Ontarians with disabilities. And some $24 million in public funds earmarked for enforcement of the law had not been spent.

The Wynne government’s first instinct upon meeting the bad press that followed was to loosen the rules rather than start enforcing them. But in 2015, on the 10th anniversary of the accessibility act, the government relented, admitting that it had fallen behind. It assured voters that it would still meet its 2025 goal and committed to a crackdown on the legislation’s many violators. It was the details of this plan that Lepofsky was after with his latest Freedom of Information request.

“What is the government trying to hide?” Lepofsky asked after last week’s ruling. Given the province’s history of inaction on accessibility and its apparent aversion to transparency on the issue, that’s a very good question. We eagerly await the forthcoming documents.

Lepofsky and the province both say they want the same thing. They want to ensure that people with disabilities have the same access to jobs, education, public services, restaurants and stores as anyone else in this province. They want buildings and bureaucracies alike to be designed with the challenges of living with a disability in mind. This is what the AODA promises to accomplish. And the Liberal government often points to this act, passed 12 years ago, as proof of its commitment to the rights of people with disabilities.

If the government is sincere in that commitment, it should stop fighting Lepofsky and his fellow advocates and start working alongside them to ensure that this good law is being enforced and that its laudable goal is truly realized.

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