Many separate accessibility standards development processes exist in Canada. Ontario, Manitoba, and Nova Scotia all have laws that mandate creation of provincial accessibility standards. In addition, the Accessible Canada Act mandates accessibility standards that apply to organizations under federal jurisdiction. However, the government of Canada intends to coordinate federal and provincial accessibility laws. Moreover, the third review of the AODA recommends that the Ontario government should support this aim by aligning its accessibility law, the AODA, with the laws of other provinces and the country. If the governments work together to make these laws more similar, the AODA standards development process may change to align with laws in other places across the country. In this article, we explore the principles that underlie provincial and federal accessibility legislation. Accessibility principles across Canada can have a profound impact on how laws develop and how useful they are.
Accessibility Principles Across Canada
In Ontario, customer service providers must have policies that outline how they will serve customers with disabilities in accessible ways. Providers must base the contents of their policies on four accessibility principles:
- Equal opportunity
These four principles ensure that providers offer customers with disabilities the same quality of service as other customers receive.
Dignity means that providers treat customers with equal levels of respect. For instance, service providers treat customers with dignity when they look at and speak to them directly, instead of asking the people near them questions about them.
Independence means that customers are responsible for themselves. For instance, customers act independently when they explain the kinds of help they need and providers follow these instructions instead of trying to help in a different or inappropriate way.
Integration means that customers with disabilities can receive service in the same way as customers without disabilities. For example, providers integrate customers with disabilities when they do not ask them to wait for service until the building is less busy.
Equal opportunity means that customers with disabilities receive the same benefits as non-disabled customers, sometimes through small policy changes. For instance, providers ensure equal opportunity when they allow customers who find their websites inaccessible to benefit from in-person discounts instead of the online discounts available to all customers who can access the websites.
The principle of equal opportunity is also part of the Accessibility for Manitobans Act. In addition, people with disabilities must have barrier-free access to places, events, and functions that other members of the community can access. Moreover, people and organizations that create barriers have a systemic responsibility to remove and prevent them.
Furthermore, this act recognizes the importance of universal design. A universal design approach means creating spaces and services in ways that benefit the widest variety of people. For instance, stair-free access, wide paths, and automatic doors, are often useful to:
- Families with small children
- Parents with strollers
- Shoppers with bags or carts
- Travellers with luggage
Similarly, websites designed for use with keyboard commands also become easier for search engines to find. In short, designing accessible spaces and services helps many people.
Accessible Canada Act
Under the Accessible Canada Act, all people, regardless of disability, must have:
- Equal opportunity
- Barrier-free access to full involvement in society
- Options, and the freedom and support to make meaningful choices
The next principle relates to laws, policies, programs, services, and structures. People who design and develop any of these elements must take into account:
- People’s disabilities
- How people need to interact with their environments in different ways
- How people face different kinds of discrimination, sometimes at the same time
Moreover, people with disabilities must participate in designing and developing:
Finally, when the Act develops and revises standards, or makes regulations, these standards or regulations must ensure the highest level of accessibility.
The Act recognizes that all people should have access to the same buildings, programs, and services. When people create laws, policies, structures, programs, or services, they need to take into account the various access needs people may have. In addition, they must consult people with disabilities during the design process. This knowledge and consultation should help creators develop accessible designs, such as:
- Laws posted in accessible digital formats, such as Word, instead of PDF
- Policies without organizational barriers, such as accessible hiring practices
- Programs where staff interact comfortably with clients who have disabilities
- Services welcoming clients with disabilities, such as passengers who use service animals
- Structures where people with disabilities can move freely
Since these principles are already in the Accessible Canada Act, standards under the Act will not need to state them again. Instead, standards can provide detailed guidelines to build structures and services that allow all people dignity and opportunity.