by Mike Robinson
It’s not just about municipalities anymore.
It seems as if the business community is the next stage for bringing about an accessible community.
Jennifer Cowan, Wellington County Accessibility Co-ordinator, came to Minto council to provide an overview of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act.
Cowan explained what is happening with accessibility issues and legislation as it exists. She also spoke about new standards that are coming and what they will mean for municipalities.
Cowan said approximately 1.85 million people in Ontario have some type of disability.
But, she added, disabilities are broadly defined under the Ontario Human Rights Code. They include physical, visual, speech, sensory, mental, learning and non-visual disabilities. Under the code, heart disease or having cancer can qualify as disabilities.
“As our population ages, the number of people with disabilities will increase,” Cowan said.
Estimates by Statistics Canada are that people with disabilities have a spending power of between $21- and $25-billion a year.
“People with disabilities are just like everyone else … They shop and do business with their friends and family,” she said. She also explained the Ontarians with Disabilities Act and the barrier identification and removal process.
“It is very much a planning legislation to public sector organizations,” Cowan said.
Under the act, every municipality with 10,000 or more people is to have an accessibility committee, although there is an option of one or more municipalities working together on one committee, “which is what we have at the county level.”
The act also requires that committees submit annual accessibility plans. Those deal with what has been done to remove barriers and what will be done in the future. In 2005, the province passed the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, which is similar to the previous legislation, but the way it is being implemented is through standards development, Cowan explained.
“The key is that the goal date for an accessible Ontario is 2025,” she said.
The standards being developed include customer service, built environment, employment, information and communication and transportation.
She said the previous legislation had limited enforcement and was basically “on paper that it was a nice thing to do.” The more recent legislation however, provides enforceable standards – and a deadline for their integration into everyday business plans.
“This is going to be a part of your everyday planning,” she said.
Cowan said the accessibility standards for customer service came into force in 2008 and is applicable to public and private sector organization.
“There are different timelines, but it will affect municipalities and private sector businesses.”
She is uncertain when the transportation standards will come into effect as a regulation. However she said it would not just affect public transportation, but accessible taxi services.
The information and communication standards will likely be in effect in January.
The deadlines for implementation of that standard could be one to five years – depending on the number of employees.
Employment standards for accessibility is still under development and considers hiring and retention practices.
The built environment standards are currently out for public review, she said.
“It looks at interior and exterior spaces … and it goes beyond just the Building Code.”
Cowan explained that right now there is nothing to deal with the issues of heritage. In considering customer standards, she outlined the requirements of the legislation. “There are fines associated with non-compliance.”
She said organizations are required to file a report by next March – however, the province estimates upwards of 60,000 organizations will be required to fill those reports.
Public sector organizations will be required to comply by Jan. 1, while private businesses, non-profit organizations or other service providers with at least one employee will be given until Jan. 1, 2012.
Cowan presented a summary of the requirements in providing accessible customer service:
- establish policies, practices, and procedures on providing goods and services to people with disabilities;
- use reasonable efforts to ensure those are consistent with the core principles of independence, dignity, integration, and equality of opportunity, and that integrated services are offered, where possible;
- set a policy on allowing people to use their personal assistive devices to access goods and use services, and about any other measures an organization offers (assistive devices, services, or methods) to give them to access goods and services;
- communicate with a person with a disability in a manner that takes into account his or her disability – that can be a broad number of things;
- allow people with disabilities to be accompanied by guide dogs or service animals in those areas of the premises open to the public, unless the animal is excluded by another law. If a service animal is excluded by law, use other measures to provide services to the person with a disability;
- permit people with disabilities who use a support person to bring that person with them while using goods or services in premises open to the public or third parties;
- where admission fees are charged, provide notice ahead of time on what admission, if any, would be charged for a support person of a person with a disability;
- provide notice when facilities or services that people with disabilities rely on to access or use goods or services are temporarily disrupted;
- train staff, volunteers, contractors, and any other people who interact with the public or other third parties on a number topics outlined in the customer service standard;
- train staff, volunteers, contractors, and any other people who are involved in developing policies, practices and procedures on the provision of goods or services on a number topics outlined in the customer service standard; and
- establish a process for people to provide feedback on how the operator provides goods or services to people with disabilities and how it will respond to any feedback and take action on any complaints. Further, it must make the information about that feedback process readily available to the public.
Mayor David Anderson said the accessibility to communications could provide challenges to smaller municipalities – especially in the provision of braille or taped correspondence.
“In the situation of rural Ontario, we don’t have a lot of demand for that.”
He asked if there is a deadline in which that information would need to be provided. He asked if municipalities could ask for a week’s notice in order to
get that information together.
Cowan was not certain municipalities could approve such requirements.
“The standards specify information be provided in a timely manner.”
As a result, she is uncertain the restriction could be put in place because there is the implication that the individual would require the same amount of time to respond.
“It could be a huge problem,” she said.
At the county level, Cowan said are trying different approaches to provide that information if an agenda is put forward 10 days before the meeting and someone requested it in an alternate format, whether it is braille, audio or other format.
“We’re trying to do is get some technology into the libraries or some of the offices, so that it is available in electronic format and the individual can take it to the library and listen to it.
“Getting braille in 10 days is … hard. It can be done, but then the person still does not have the 10 days to read and respond to the information.”
She said the county is trying different approaches.
Anderson said it will be difficult for local municipalities.
Cowan agreed, but said there is more than one way to deal with a request. She noted that in the instance of dealing with a deaf person, council may not necessarily need to bring in an ASL interpreter, if a pen and paper can get the message across.
“Or if the person was coming to a meeting and did require and ASL interpreter, then council could ask for notification in advance,” she said.
Cowan added there are different levels of priority, in which a council meeting might not be considered as high a priority as getting medical treatment.
Although the county has worked in conjunction with other agencies to develop an accessibility design manual, Cowan said it is only applicable to municipally-owned buildings.
“There is no intent to expand [the document] to the private sector.”
Heritage building renovations can be designed to incorporate those features, she said, citing the recent renovations at the Elora Public Library. Those include an elevator.
Cowan summed it up with, “It’s not public if everyone can’t use it.”
While some funds are available through the county, Anderson asked if there would be anything additional available from the province for retrofits.
“I highly doubt that,” said Cowan. “It’s hard enough getting support, just in terms of getting answers on what is happening.”
Vol 42 Issue 37