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Malhotra and Johnson: People With Disabilities Must Not Be Forgotten Once the Lockdown Lifts

Author of the article: Ravi Malhotra, Christina Johnson
Publishing date: May 25, 2020

Luke Anderson along with the grade six students from Albert College delivered 12 ramps to storefronts in Picton on Wednesday. After Anderson’s biking accident in 2002, his life changed as he became dependant on a wheelchair and others help. The need for accessibility is what drove him to start the StopGap Foundation.

As municipalities ponder creative ways to open up after the end of the COVID-19 lockdown and revitalize the battered economy, it is imperative city planning incorporate the needs and perspectives of people with disabilities.

On every major social indicator, people with disabilities fare poorly, experiencing high levels of unemployment, deep levels of poverty and tremendous barriers in obtaining medical care, education and housing.

People with disabilities fought tenaciously for many years for the passage of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA), a pioneering statute that was adopted in 2005 to address some of these issues. The legislation is predicated on the notion of setting standards for the removal of barriers that impede people with disabilities in many aspects of daily life including work, recreation, and customer service.

The animating principle at the core of AODA is that it’s structural barriers, such as stores without ramps for people who use mobility devices or a failure to provide information in an accessible format, which prevent people with disabilities from achieving full equality.

However, enforcement of the AODA has been very weak since its inception. Too many businesses, including restaurants, pubs and stores, remain completely inaccessible to people with disabilities, rendering us second class citizens. And too often, disabled citizens are required to fix accessibility issues, such as building their own ramps, or providing out-of-pocket protective equipment for personal support workers, where the AODA or other legislation is inadequate.

With the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, policymakers must diligently ensure that contingency planning does not create new barriers that further isolate people with disabilities or risk their well-being.

Recently, it was reported that the City of Ottawa was considering expanding restaurant patios in order to facilitate physical distancing. Other cities such as Vancouver are also exploring this approach.

This is troubling because it is likely to make it extremely difficult for wheelchair and scooter users to safely navigate city sidewalks. In some cases, it would force wheelchair users into city streets. Worse, the majority of existing restaurant patios are not accessible to wheelchair users in the first place. The expansion of restaurant patios risks augmenting the significant disparities which people with disabilities already experience daily.

Other ideas which are being mooted in the media include replacing printed menus with electronic tablets to limit infection. Yet such an approach is likely to be inaccessible to people who are blind or have learning disabilities.

Unless steps are taken to ensure full accessibility is built into the design, such problems will continue. A serious approach to accessibility requires full consultation with disability rights advocates at every stage. Provincial and federal aid to businesses should be contingent on a commitment to accessibility for people with disabilities.

COVID-19 presents major challenges which require innovative solutions from businesses and governments but they must always incorporate accessibility and inclusion to ensure people with disabilities are not left behind.

Ravi Malhotra is a professor in the faculty of law at the University of Ottawa. Christina Johnson is a public servant and member of StopGap Ottawa, a volunteer organization under the StopGap Foundation that provides ramps for one-step businesses.

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