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Public Buildings to be Accessible in 2010

By Karen Wehrstein

As of the New Year, Muskoka’s public sector offices will be more accessible for people with disabilities. It’s the law.

The first deadline set by the provincial Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act of 2005 applies to public sector institutions and is coming up on Jan. 1. Muskoka’s towns, townships and school boards that haven’t already completed the necessary steps are working hard to get them done on time.

The provincial government has a long-term goal of making the entire province completely accessible to people with disabilities of all types by 2025. Under the legislation, five accessibility standards are being developed. The first one to come into force is customer service – making sure people with disabilities are treated with dignity and equality. Public sector organizations must meet requirements by Jan. 1, and the same will be required in the private sector by Jan. 1, 2012. Subsequent standards, to be rolled out over the next 15 years, involve information, communication, transportation, equal opportunity in employment, and the built environment.

It’s not known exactly how many people with disabilities live or visit in Muskoka. But Ontario statistics show about 1.85 million Ontarians, or 15.5 per cent of the population, have a disability. That percentage rises to 47.2 per cent in people over 65.

Debbie Kirwin, chair of Huntsville’s accessibility advisory committee, notes about the customer service standard: “Providers must document their policies, procedures and practices governing the provision of goods or services to people with disabilities,” she notes.
They fall into five main categories, starting with the use of personal assistive devices.

“That means, for example, if they have a wheelchair or walker, you greet them and make sure they have access to places they need to go,” says Kevin Cutler, superintendent of special education and safe schools for Trillium Lakeland District School Board. “They may have oxygen tanks, or may be visually impaired, and need marks to see where they’re going.”

Next is use of service animals, primarily dogs. “These are highly-trained animals,” says Cutler, noting that one of his own staff members, who is hearing-impaired, has a dog to notify her of fire alarms, ringing phones, etc.
“Part of it is that students aren’t to run up to the dog and pet them.”

The standard addresses personal assistants and their access. “For example, a parent who needs a sign language translator, and wants to have an interview with a teacher or principal, needs to be able to bring that person,” says Cutler.

People with disabilities are required to be notified as soon as possible of disruptions of service that affect them, such as automatic doors not working, and when the disruption will end.

All staff, including volunteers, must be trained in sensitivity in dealing with people with disabilities.

Finally, the standard requires a feedback mechanism, allowing people with disabilities to give the organization comments and suggestions.

If an organization fails to meet the requirements, it can be fined $100,000 per day of noncompliance.

“If you were suddenly into a physical disability tomorrow, you’d still expect to be able to get into town hall,” says
Bob Jones, co-chair of Bracebridge’s accessibility advisory committee,

Huntsville has been recognized by the Ontario government as a leader in the movement, notes Kirwin, who is an incomplete quadriplegic since a car accident 17 years ago. She adds that the key is attitudinal: “Once that barrier was eliminated the rest fell into place.”

“Huntsville town council passed its customer service policy on Nov. 9, and started staff training last year,” says
Denise Corry, director of corporate services. “We knew this was coming down the chute so we wanted to be a little aggressive.”

Bracebridge’s policy is up for passage at a December town council meeting, according to Dorothy-Anne Leavens, assistant to the director of development services and also secretary-treasurer of the town’s accessibility advisory committee.

“We have trained many of our staff, especially the full-time permanent staff working directly with the public here,” she says. “It’s been kind of difficult for municipalities, in a way, because the time frame is short and municipal people are so busy. But we really are enthusiastic. It’s a wonderful sort of way of breaking barriers together.”

Gravenhurst passed its policy on Nov. 17, says town clerk Candace Thwaites.

“We currently have training sessions scheduled for a few dates in December for all of our staff, council, committee members and a large number of volunteers in order to be compliant,” she says.

Lake of Bays is ahead of the game, having passed its policy in July and finished its training, according to deputy clerk Carrie Sykes. Two full-time staff members were given “train the trainer” sessions to qualify them to train others.

“They have been diligently training the volunteers, firefighters, library board, cemetery board, and everyone else,” says Sykes.

Muskoka Lakes is set to pass its policy on Dec. 15, and held training sessions on Dec. 4 and Dec. 11.

“The key part is patience and willingness to find a way to communicate with people. It is the right thing to do,” says Shelley Walker, administrative assistant at the clerk’s office.

An accessibility customer services policy has also been adopted at the district level.

“We’ve been doing training with hundreds of district staff over last couple of years,” says Rick Williams, District of Muskoka commissioner of community services.

Accessibility, Williams points out, is good for business, particularly tourism.

“If Muskoka’s amenities became more accessible than other communities, it would become known and it would be a draw for people with disabilities. And that is a large and increasing percentage of the population.”

Training the more than 2,000 individuals who work for the Trillium Lakelands District School Board is a massive undertaking, but Cutler is confident it will be complete by the March deadline required of school boards.

“We’ve developed one policy and five procedures and they’re ready to go,” he adds. “They just need to be approved by the board at this point. I think we’re in good shape; I think we’re going to comply with the regulations, and then some.”

Diane Legg, manager of corporate communications and public affairs for the Simcoe Muskoka Catholic District School Board, says the board will have no problem meeting deadlines. However, there is concern about financing for the future requirements, especially the built-environment standard. Newer buildings tend to incorporate accessibility features, she notes, while older ones will need upgrades.

“We’ll have to see what kind of challenges it does present, especially at a time when there are huge government deficits and we’re hearing talk of cutbacks,” she says.

Public sector staff who have undergone the accessibility customer service training agree that it’s eye-opening, especially the half-day advanced course.

“The first part was sensitivity training, about how we should act,” says Corry. “For example, you don’t just grab a visually-impaired person by the arm and take them across the road.”

Legally, she points out, that could actually be construed as assault. “You ask them ‘May I take your arm to cross the road?’ and if they say ‘Yes,’ that’s great; if not, you keep your distance. You shouldn’t assume that persons who have disabilities need help. It may take them longer but they can still put that jacket on.”

The course also includes simulations of disabilities. “Some of us had to wear goggles that distorted your view, and some of us wore earmuffs so our hearing was muffled,” says Sykes, who took the training in June. “Some of us were in wheelchairs, and our activity was to come in and out of our municipal office. We had mats at the doors, and we thought it was a good thing because it saved people from slipping and tripping, but they were a real obstacle for a chair, or for someone who can’t see, using a cane, they are a tripping hazard.”

“It was quite powerful,” says Williams. “One of the trainers was a person with a significantly disabling medical condition which is not visible. She just looked like a normal, attractive person. Then she started talking about her life and the barrier that this disability creates for her and the adaptations she must make on a daily basis to get through. It’s quite powerful for people.”

Lise Saumur, manager of parks, recreation and public facilities for the Township of Muskoka Lakes, took the course with Changing Paces, a private company whose instructors all have disabilities. “They could bring it right home to you,” she says. “They do an excellent job.”

What Saumur realized was that the principles she learned could be applied to everyone.

“You don’t make the distinction, ‘You have a disability so I have to treat you differently,’” she says. “I should be treating everybody with that extra as well. I shouldn’t put the disability first. Everybody deserves the same quality of service.”

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