By Laurie MonsebraatenSocial Justice Reporter
Thu., March 8, 2018
Former lieutenant-governor David Onley defends his appointment to lead review of landmark legislation.
Accessibility activist and lawyer David Lepofsky, who is blind, says the independent reviewer of Ontario’s accessibility law should not have recent ties to the government.
Former lieutenant-governor David Onley says the bulk of his work as the government’s special adviser on accessibility was consulting with the public, not crafting policy.
Laura Kirby-McIntosh, with husband Bruce McIntosh, of the Ontario Autism Coalition, says politics is about perception and appointing a former government adviser to review the province’s accessibility law is bad optics.
Accessibility advocates are questioning the Wynne government’s recent appointment of former lieutenant-governor David Onley to lead the next independent review of Ontario’s landmark accessibility legislation.
They say Onley, a childhood polio survivor, who completed a three-year appointment last fall as the government’s special adviser on accessibility, should not be reviewing the same policies and actions he so recently defended in that role.
“There is absolutely no question about the record and the commitment of Mr. Onley on disability advocacy,” said Laura Kirby-McIntosh of the Ontario Autism Coalition. “But the concern is, he is being asked to review the government he was part of. And optically, that is a little bit awkward.
“Politics is about perception. The difficulty here is the optics are bad. He doesn’t have the independence that he needs,” she added.
Ontario’s 2005 Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) commits the government to ensure the province’s 1.8 million people with disabilities have the opportunity to learn, work and play to their full potential by 2025.
To drive momentum over the 20-year timeline, the legislation mandates the appointment of a person to conduct a comprehensive review of the act every four years. The review must consult people with disabilities and other members of the public and may make recommendations to improve the act’s effectiveness.
Lawyer David Lepofsky of the AODA Alliance, who first raised concerns about Onley’s appointment last month, praised the former lieutenant-governor’s advocacy on accessibility, but said he is the wrong person to lead the review.
“The purpose of these reviews is for someone outside the government to take an independent look at how much progress has been made, whether we are on schedule for full accessibility by 2025, and if we’re not, where the shortcomings are and what needs to change,” he said.
“This independent review comes when we’ve got less than seven years before we hit the deadline of 2025,” Lepofsky added. “This is going to be an important time for us to say we’re not on schedule and things need to change dramatically. So it is very important that the person conducting this next review be and be seen to be impartial and fully independent of government.”
ARCH Disability Law Centre, a legal aid clinic dedicated to defending and advancing equality rights of people with disabilities, is also concerned.
“For ARCH the issue is really about ensuring public confidence throughout this review process,” said Robert Lattanzio, the clinic’s executive director. “If there is even a perception of a lack of independence, that just undermines the entire exercise.”
Onley says Lepofsky and other accessibility activists have misunderstood his role as special adviser and says the bulk of his work was with the public, not the government.
“Not only did I keep an arms-length relationship from the accessibility directorate, but they kept an arms-length relationship from me. It was mutually understood,” he said in an interview Thursday. “We were separate.”
Despite writing a letter to the Star in 2015 that said he believed Ontario was “on track” to meeting its accessibility goals by 2025, Onley said he does not hold that view today.
“In my analysis over the past two years, I now see things are not moving as quickly as I perceived at that time,” he said. “We have to move the needle on accessibility. And a large part of that will be the full implementation of the AODA.”
A spokesperson for Tracy MacCharles, minister responsible for accessibility, said Onley’s role as special adviser involved consulting with stakeholders with a variety of views on the AODA.
“His mandate did not involve drafting the legislation, its regulations, or reviewing how they have been implemented, their compliance and enforcement,” Mahreen Dasoo said in an email.
“As such, whether from a legal or operational perspective, Mr. Onley’s past role as special adviser does not disqualify him from reviewing the legislation,” she added.
Other groups questioning the appointment include the Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians; Citizens with Disabilities Ontario; Deaf Blind Services Ontario; Older Women’s Network; Ontario Disability Coalition; and Guide Dog Users of Canada.