By Gilbert NgaboStaff Reporter
Wed., July 24, 2019
A group that advocates for better accessibility standards in Ontario is voicing concerns about the province’s new assessment plan.
The Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) Alliance says the plan to conduct accessibility assessments of public and private buildings will remove few barriers and is bound to be marred by conflicts of interest.
AODA Alliance chair David Lepofsky, seen on hangout steps he says are inaccessible and difficult for people with vision loss, says it’s wrong for the provincial government to fund a private entity to assess its buildings for accessibility, noting the chosen entity recently gave a “certified gold” rating to a building with such steps.
In this spring’s budget, the province earmarked $1.3 million to conduct accessibility audits of some 250 public and private facilities over two years. The program will be conducted in partnership with the Rick Hansen Foundation (RHF).
In a report released this week, the AODA Alliance a non-partisan coalition advocating for the implementation of the province’s disability accessibility laws said the government should reconsider its decision.
AODA Alliance chair David Lepofsky said it is wrong for the government to fund a private entity like the RHF to certify its buildings.
“You can’t say, ‘Hey, you’re about to inspect my house, here’s some cash.’ You shouldn’t be allowed to do that,” said Lepofsky, a lawyer and longtime advocate for people with disabilities. “That’s a clear conflict of interest. It’s actually quite troubling.”
Using properly trained government inspectors would be a better choice, he said, as they’d be bound by the established laws of accessibility.
The alliance is also critical of the government for not consulting members of the disability community before unveiling the certification process. Lepofsky said there’s risk of leaving out people whose disabilities are not related to mobility, vision or hearing.
In a statement to the Star, Seniors and Accessibility Minister Raymond Cho said the process will be devoid of conflict of interest because those who will conduct the accessibility ratings will not be employed by the government or the RHF.
Instead, Cho said, they’ll be contracted by the foundation as independent professionals who have completed accreditation courses offered by the RHF through George Brown and Carleton University and passed exams conducted by the Canadian Standards Association (CSA Group).
CSA Group will also be responsible for ensuring the ratings are consistent and accurate, he said.
Brad McCannell, RHF’s vice-president of access and inclusion, said the foundation’s certification program is impartial and was developed using extensive research on best practices in accessibility.
“When you request (an RHF accessibility certification) rating, you are not hiring the Rick Hansen Foundation,” he said in an email. The qualifications for assessors include a diploma in architecture, engineering or urban planning, as well as a minimum of five years’ experience related to accessibility in building environments, he said.
After the assessment, buildings receive a rating score corresponding to their level of accessibility: “certified gold” if they score over 80 per cent, “certified” if they score between 60 and 80 per cent, and noncertified if they score under 60 per cent. The scorecard includes key elements of success and suggestions for improvement for each assessed facility.
McCannell also noted that the foundation’s program is geared toward industry, not consumers.
“The RHFAC is not designed to assist people with disabilities to find the nearest accessible washroom, but rather it’s an industry program designed to influence professionals in the design and construction industry to recognize the gap between code requirement and the real needs of people with disabilities,” he said.
The Ministry for Seniors and Accessibility says it chose the RHF based partly on its track record of conducting such certifications in B.C. and Nova Scotia.
But Lepofsky pointed to the Vancouver airport a RHF “certified gold” rated building in 2018 as a reason for caution.
In a RHG tweet announcing the rating, a photo shows “hangout steps” for socializing at the airport, which are inaccessible to people using wheelchairs or other mobility devices and are difficult for people with vision loss or balance issues, he said.
Lepofsky, who raised the problem of hangout steps in Ryerson University’s Student Learning Centre in an online video in 2017, questioned how a public building with hangout steps can deserve a gold rating for accessibility.
“It is troubling that this gold rating signals to the Vancouver International Airport and to the public that having hangout steps is fine from an accessibility perspective,” he said. “It is also troubling that it signals to design professionals that they should feel free to include them in other buildings without worrying that it raises any accessibility concern.”
The provincial government continues to draw criticism from accessibility advocacy communities and experts over AODA.
Earlier this year, former lieutenant-governor David Onley issued a report on the implementation of the 14-year-old act, in which he observed that people with disabilities are still facing “soul-crushing” barriers in Ontario. The goal of achieving the fully accessible Ontario by 2025 is “nowhere in sight,” Onley’s report concluded.
This month, 21 disability organizations across Ontario sent a letter to the premier decrying a long-standing lack of leadership on the accessibility file and calling for a concrete plan of action on the recommendations from the Onley report.
“The Doug Ford government in the past year has done absolutely nothing new to speed up and strengthen the implementation of the AODA. Absolutely nothing,” Lepofsky said.
“We think (the building certification plan) is just a big distraction rather than doing their job.”
With files from Laurie Monsebraatan
Gilbert Ngabo is a breaking news reporter based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @dugilbo