By Megan Stacey
Oct 19, 2020
The longest-serving member of a volunteer accessibility committee at city hall has quit, marking the second resignation in two months as the group’s meetings remain stalled at city hall amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Michael Dawthorne resigned his post in an email to politicians after 10 years of service, warning councillors they could be found in violation of Ontario’s accessibility law and urging them to take disability issues more seriously.
It’s the second such departure, on the heels of a resignation from Jacqueline Madden, longtime chair of the committee, last month.
“I do want them to take notice,” Dawthorne said of his exit.
“There’s a million ways that someone like Jackie (Madden)and myself can support our community, can support our kids. We chose this one, and it wasn’t working anymore.”
Since COVID-19 hit London last spring, almost all advisory committee meetings have been cancelled. Dawthorne and Madden say the group has offered for years to meet virtually, a move that would actually make work easier and more accessible for many of its members, rather than travelling to city hall using ParaTransit.
City clerk Cathy Saunders has said if there was work the group was legislatively required to complete, a committee meeting would be called. That’s happened for another committee required by law, which advises council on heritage issues and has met during the COVID-19 crisis.
City hall must convene those meetings – the committee can’t just charge ahead on its own. Ward 5 Coun. Maureen Cassidy pledged to bring up the issue at council’s next meeting if it’s not addressed by bureaucrats.
“I don’t like where this is going,” she said of the disdain she believes exists for advisory committees like the accessibility group.
“These are citizens who care about the city and put in their own time. They put in a lot of hours, they do research projects, they provide a lot of expertise to staff.”
The Accessibility for Ontarians With Disabilities Act requires all cities to have an accessibility advisory committee to advise elected officials on accessibility standards and requirements.
“It’s absurd to think that nothing in the city is happening that (politicians) would have thought, Maybe we should ask about this, maybe we should pick somebody’s brain about accessibility?’ ” Dawthorne said.
“Unfortunately not everybody understandsaccessibility, the needs,orthe reasons for it, what it looks like . . . it is a lot cheaper to get something done once, and done right, than to have to revisit it when it hasn’t been done right or correctly,” he added.
Madden filed a complaint with the province and Ontario’s watchdog after she quit in September, alleging London city hall has violated the act by keeping the group’s work on hold.
“We recognize the pandemic has created many challenges for organizations to comply with the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA),” a spokesperson with Ontario’s Ministry for Seniors and Accessibility said in an e-mailed statement on Monday.
“The AODA does not prescribe how many meetings municipalities must hold, rather it requires, municipalities to consult their accessibility advisory committees (where they exist) when taking certain actions such as when approving site plans, updating accessibility plans, approving plans for outdoor trails and paths of travel, and outdoor play spaces.”
Though it’s exceedingly rare for an organization to be hit with penalties under the accessibility law, if proven, city hall could be on the hook for up to $100,000 for every day the violation occurred. It’s been more than seven months since the accessibility committee has met.
Still, the province tends to work with organizations, including cities, to address accessibility issues rather than jumping straight to fines.
“We are helping to educate organizations on how being accessible is good for business and good for the community,” the spokesperson with the Ministry for Seniors and Accessibility wrote.
Dawthorne urged councillors to take the allegation seriously, saying each one of them could be held liable if the complaint is successful.
“I implore you to take heed and ensure you are acting in both the spirit and the letter of the legislation,” he said in his resignation email.
Cassidy said people like Dawthorne provide a wealth of expertise and insight to city hall.
“These people are very passionate, and they care about what they’re doing. They sometimes push hard and some people don’t like that. But you can’t get anywhere without people pushing hard. That’s how change has always been made,” she said.
Dawthorne, who has a child with disabilities, slammed city hall and politicians for lack of action.
“People never know when they’re going to need accessibility. People who think – that doesn’t apply to me’ have yet to fall and break their leg or dislocate a hip or have a child diagnosed with cerebralpalsy,” he said.
“Accessibility applies to everyone, even if they don’t realize it.”