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Toronto Looks Into Cost of Disability Accommodation

City has avoided hiring people with restrictions because of budget constraints, analyst said Laurie Monsebraaten
The Toronto Star Oct. 1, 2019

Louis Manno worked in the city’s old “Access Toronto” call centre for a dozen years until the current 311 information service was introduced in 2009 and forced him into early retirement.

Manno is blind, and the 311 technology was not compatible with his computer screen reader, which transcribed web pages into braille or speech so he could respond to callers’ queries.

“City staff knew I needed this technology to continue working there and they said they were building a new system from the ground-up to accommodate me,” Manno said in an interview.

“But at the end of the day, it didn’t work.”

To his knowledge, he is the last blind person to work for the service. The city refused to say if 311 currently employs any blind staff “due to privacy” concerns.

Manno isn’t sure what happened, but now 65 and “happily retired,” he wonders if money might have been a factor.

A motion before Toronto council this week from the city’s accessibility advisory committee is aimed at addressing the cost of accommodating current and future employees with disabilities.

If approved, the city’s chief financial officer and treasurer will report back to council as part of the 2020 budget process on the feasibility of exempting all operating and capital costs related to accommodating employees with disabilities from any proposed fiscal belt-tightening.

Council is also being asked to direct staff to look into creating a central fund for all accessibility-related accommodations and initiatives so that individual city departments aren’t forced to absorb the costs themselves.

City council turned down a similar request in 2017, a decision advisory committee members say breached Ontario’s Human Rights Code and needs to be corrected.

According to the code, “the costs of accommodation must be distributed as widely as possible within the organization so that no single department, employee, customer or subsidiary is burdened with the expense.”

If each department had to cover the cost of maternity benefits, none would ever hire a woman of child-bearing age, said Zeljko Razumic, a design technologist with the city who is deaf.

“People would be up in arms, as it would create a cost bias against hiring women,” he wrote in an email to the advisory committee last spring.

In April 2018, Razumic launched an Ontario Human Rights case against the city for installing a new phone system in 2012 without ensuring it was equipped to allow people with a hearing or speech disability to use text with the assistance of a relay operator.

It took three years – and much pushing by Razumic and allies at city hall – before a text/relay service was installed.

Razumic, whose human rights complaint claims the city did no outreach to other deaf staff to inform them of the service, says the experience left him feeling “isolated, excluded, emotionally hurt and not appreciated.”

The case was settled in March through mediation.

Huy Luong, a senior technology analyst with the city’s information and technology division, said he is often asked to provide technical support to staff with disabilities and has seen first-hand the financial crunch.

“Due to budget constraints, many city businesses often take shortcuts and cut corners. Business tools are acquired or developed without accessibility in mind. Since these tools tend to be in use for quite some time, a city business with inaccessible tools will – and do – avoid hiring persons with disabilities,” he said.

“As the City of Toronto is the largest municipality in Canada, they could set a precedent for others to follow,” he said.

Former advisory committee member Monica Winkler, an information technology administrator for the Canadian Council on Rehabilitation and Work, got the ball rolling when she introduced the original motion that was defeated at city council in 2017.

“I’m really glad it’s going forward again. Maybe this time it will actually pass,” she said.

Winkler said the committee heard from people who had applied for jobs and felt they weren’t successful because of their disability.

“We also heard from staff (that) people with disabilities had trouble getting accommodation because there wasn’t enough money in the budget of their department,” she said.

“Other corporations and other places handle accommodations from a pool of funds,” Winkler said. “That way, no one department is trapped and unable to hire or accommodate somebody.”

Ultimately, a centralized fund might even save the city money through bulk purchases of accessible technology, she added.

“It would also raise the profile of workplace accommodations and make them more widely accepted,” she added.

“It was a long fight to get curb cuts in sidewalks installed for people with wheelchairs,” she noted. “But if you talk to a mother with a carriage or a senior with a shopping cart, they help everyone.”
Jason Mitschele, a federal Crown prosecutor and advisory committee member who is blind, reintroduced the motion in July.

“It seems common sense to me that there should be a special fund for accommodating people,” he said.

Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam, chair of the 12-member advisory committee, said she became aware of the issue from city staff who raised it several years ago.

“City divisions have to draw from their own budgets when they are making accommodations for staff. And so it discourages divisions from hiring people with disabilities because it reduces the budget they get to spend on other things,” she said.

“So there is built-in discrimination,” she said. “To me, it is an issue of equity.”

Ironically, there is a global accessibility budget for city councillors who have used it for sign language interpretation or personal support workers at public meetings and other events, she noted. “It’s always under-drawn,” she added.

Wong-Tam said she was disappointed the motion failed in 2017, but is working to “make councillors more aware of the issue” this time.

Councillor Gary Crawford, city budget chief and among those who defeated the motion two years ago, said he is reconsidering his earlier vote.

“We just have to make sure it goes through the proper budget process,” he said last week after the city’s executive committee backed the motion. “I am supportive.”

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