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Ontario Should Move Faster on Tearing Down Barriers

By Star Editorial Board
Tues., Aug. 6, 2019

As accessibility advocates constantly warn, we’re all just one illness or accident away from becoming disabled.

And with 1,000 Ontario baby boomers turning 65 every day, more of us will be dealing with aging vision, hearing, hips and knees that will impact our quality of life and make our physical environment more difficult to navigate.

Ontario’s former lieutenant-governor, David Onley, reported that the province is nowhere near meeting its stated goal of full accessibility by 2025.

So it’s disappointing that six months after former lieutenant governor David Onley delivered a scathing report on the “soul crushing” barriers that 2.6 million Ontarians with disabilities face on a daily basis, the Ford government has yet to develop a clear way forward.

In March, Raymond Cho, Ontario’s minister for seniors and accessibility, finally authorized work to resume on three committees developing accessibility standards in the education and health care systems. But, so far, none of the committees have met and no dates have been set.

When NDP MPP Joel Harden introduced a motion in the legislature in May urging the government to implement Onley’s report, starting with the development of new accessibility standards for the built environment, Cho dismissed the idea as “red tape.”

Instead, Cho and the Ford government are trumpeting a two-year $1.3-million investment in a new accessibility certification program developed by the Rick Hansen Foundation. By certifying 250 public and private buildings, the government says it will raise awareness and encourage the development industry to make accessibility a priority.

We have no quarrel with the foundation’s quest to make the world more accessible for people with disabilities and to fund research into spinal cord injury and care.

But we are concerned about a program that relies on building professionals who have completed just two weeks of accessibility training to conduct the certifications. And we question why certifications will be given to entire buildings at a time when most accessibility advocates and seasoned consultants say few buildings are fully accessible.

For example, the foundation was recently criticized for awarding a “gold” rating to the Vancouver airport in 2018, even though the building includes so-called “hangout steps” for socializing, which are inaccessible to people using wheelchairs and are difficult to navigate for those with vision loss or difficulty with balance.

Far better for the foundation to give its stamp of approval on accessible design elements that are truly remarkable and worth highlighting as examples for others to follow.

But for the province to be financially backing such a scheme particularly when it was not among Onley’s 15 recommendations is questionable.

Shouldn’t scarce public funds be spent on implementing Onley’s detailed blueprint to ensure that Ontario meets its 2025 deadline for becoming fully accessible under the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA)?

As Onley rightly recommends, the province should be developing better provincial accessibility standards for public and private buildings and boosting enforcement of the few rules that currently exist.

And it should make accessibility courses mandatory in colleges and universities to ensure future architects and other design professionals get the training they need. Just as physicians are trained to “do no harm,” architects and design professionals should be educated to create no barriers.

It’s hard to believe that during one of the biggest building booms in the history of Ontario, there are so few accessibility requirements in the Ontario Building Code. Nothing prevents a developer from building acres of single family homes inaccessible to people with disabilities. And just 15 per cent of units in multi-residential buildings condominiums and apartments are required to be accessible.

Ottawa’s national housing strategy aims to ensure 20 per cent of homes created under the plan are accessible. And yet, according to the latest 2017 federal statistics, 22 per cent of Canadians report having a disability, a percentage that will only grow as the population ages.

Clearly, we are not addressing current need, let alone future demand. The Ford government must do better.

Correction – August 6, 2019: This article was edited from a previous version that misstated Joel Harden’s given name.

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