Spotting accessibility issues in public spaces often requires a trained eye Thursday, March 2, 2017
By Jane E. Sleeth
With 2017 underway, Ontario-based companies must now enact specific requirements to ensure accessibility for employees and customers. The Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) previously rolled out a number of policies under the Integrated Accessibility Standards Regulation (IASR), and many facilities have yet to comply. But as of January 1, certain organizations must implement another round of requirements related to public spaces, public information and employment practices.
With all this in mind, it’s important to consider how changes affect facilities, as well as the maintenance and cleaning companies who service them. AODA legislation passed in 2005, along with the Ontario Building Code (OBC), has pushed more facilities to accommodate disabilities; however, such achievements are meaningless if the environment is obstructed. Functionality can become lost if there is little training and maintenance supervision.
New requirements effective January 2017
Smaller organizations in the province with fewer than 50 employees, including those who provide goods and services or facilities, must now comply with specific standards under the IASR. These include a number of employment practices, such as making public information accessible when asked and making public employment practices accessible, including how companies hire, retain and provide career development opportunities to workers. This includes adding notifications on job postings. Individual accommodation plans and updated workplace emergency response information must also be available.
Second, large private and non-profit organizations (50 or more employees) must now follow policies to make new or redeveloped public spaces accessible. Organizations with less than 50 employees are omitted from certain requirements, but have until January 2018 to do the same. Yet they should already be working towards this goal. The Design for Public Spaces Standard applies to seven areas: parking lots, outdoor public areas, outdoor play spaces, exterior paths of travel, service counters, fixed waiting lines and waiting areas with fixed seating and maintenance. Maintenance of such spaces, therefore, is directly connected to ensuring Ontario reaches its goal of becoming fully accessible by 2025.
Lastly, organizations with 50 or more employees are reminded that they must submit an online compliance report by December 31, 2017, affirming continued compliance with the AODA including your Multi-Year Planning document. Failure to file could result in forced inspections, penalties, prosecutions or fines. This applies to the public sector every two years and a not-for-profit or private business every three years.
Tactile strips outside a facility must be easily accessible and clear of seasonal elements.
Design for public spaces standard heightens maintenance needs
As of January 1, 2017, large non-profit and private organizations of 50 or more employees must adhere to policies for building new public spaces or making planned significant alterations to existing ones. This deadline has already passed for smaller organizations. Along with this, actions to keep spaces in working order, including painting, minor repairs, environmental mitigation and even snow removal, should not interfere with accessibility for any parts of a facility.
Building audits in Toronto during the winter have revealed that snow removal procedures at some facilities with limited exterior space resulted in snow being dumped near accessible entrances and exits. In addition, notification signs, such as disruption of service, should not be placed in walkable areas, as they create obstacles for individuals who are blind or have low vision. In regards to the interior of a building, we often discover that the built environment is fine, but the actual maintenance renders it inaccessible. Patio furniture placed in a Toronto cafe restroom during the winter is just one recent example, and maintenance workers should be mindful of such oversights in exterior public spaces, as well.
There are several requirements within this standard that directly affect facility maintenance workers, including outdoor eating areas and exterior pathways.
Outdoor eating areas
Outdoor public use eating areas could include outdoor food courts or picnic tables on hospital grounds and university campuses. Large organizations that plan to build or renovate these areas need to ensure that 20 per cent of new tables added are accessible and that the ground surface leading to and under the tables is level, firm and stable to accommodate mobility aids. There should also be enough clear space so people can smoothly approach the tables.
Yet another section refers to exterior walkways that aren’t regulated by the OBC. Again, large organizations and the public sector are targeted here, as they must ensure that paths of travel which are new, updated or maintained are in compliance. Among the many minimum requirements, clear contrast markings and tactile walking surface indicators on stairs, curb ramps and depressed curbs should be incorporated; visible and preserved, surfaces of ramps and stairs must be firm, stable and slip-resistant; and hand rails and guards must be provided to prevent accidents.
There are also new requirements for maintaining public spaces that apply only to large private organizations and public sector organizations of any size. Multi-year accessibility plans to be submitted by December 31, must include the following:
Preventative and emergency maintenance procedures for all accessible parts of their public spaces, such as planning when regular maintenance occurs. For instance, the frequency of inspecting sidewalks for cracks. Procedures for handling temporary disruptions in service when an accessible part of their public space is not usable. For example, putting up a sign to explain the disruption and outlining an alternative.
Training and the new Integrated Accessibility Standards Regulation
It’s the facility manager’s job to make sure maintenance staff is trained. Companies were trying to save money by training only employees who come face to face with customers; however, changes to the AODA’s Customer Service Standard, which were enforced July 1, 2016 and apply to all organizations providing goods and services or facilities, now require that all employees undergo accessibility training.
When writing an RFP or contract, facility managers should make sure vendors and contractors submit proof that everyone coming on site has been trained in the AODA. They should also ensure vendors have policies and procedures in place for AODA.
If a cleaning company does not have such training, facility managers could be held liable for not checking. Not only is training now mandatory, but contractors would be wise to have proof readily available for competitive purposes. About 37 per cent of companies in Ontario are in compliance, a low rate, especially since the AODA was launched 11 years ago. Companies need to play catch up or face a human rights complaintand potentially a tribunal.
Where to find AODA training
Basic training can be found on the AODA website. Facilities whose workers have a great impact on people might also consider securing extra training through e-learning or from outside experts. Overall maintenance and cleaning contractors or staff need to understand how to spot specific issues and understand why it matters where equipment or supplies are placed or why certain cleaning products should be selected or evaluated to protect individuals with environmental sensitivitiesa disability under the Human Rights Code.
Accessibility across Canada
Many people may not be aware that there is a significant political interest in having a national standard for accessibility, rather than taking the current piecemeal provincial approach.
Starting in July 2016 and wrapping up in February 2017, Sport and Disability Minister Carla Qualtrough has jumpstarted public discussions across Canada about the proposed Canadians with Disabilities Act (CDA). This was a campaign promise by Prime Minster Justin Trudeau and is now in full swing. Once all the public meetings and consultations wrap up at the end of February, all this information will be reviewed, summarized and available to the public and businesses.
Our best predication as a specialized accessibility firm is that we will see the roll out of national legislation most likely mirroring the unique AODA in Ontario. We will provide further updates about the progress of the CDA as it will impact companies who have a national presence across Canada.
Jane E Sleeth is Principal and Human Factors/Accessibility expert with Optimal Performance Consultants, a national ergonomic and accessibility firm with over 27 years’ experience. OPC Inc provides policy writing, training and e learning as well as human factors and accessible design expertise for property management and CRE companies across Canada. You can reach Jane at firstname.lastname@example.org