In the third review of the AODA, the Honourable David Onley recommends needed improvements to the Act. One of these improvements is the need to remove many barriers in buildings throughout Ontario. Currently, the barrier-free requirements in the Ontario Building Code only apply to new or renovated buildings. Similarly, the Aoda’s Design of Public Spaces Standards apply only to spaces that are new or being redeveloped. As a result, these legal limitations mean that older buildings and spaces are closed or unwelcoming to people with certain disabilities. However, incentives for retrofitting buildings can encourage accessibility by making retrofitting buildings more affordable.
Incentives for Retrofitting Buildings are Needed
During the public meetings Onley held while preparing his review, attendees outlined the many barriers they have encountered in buildings. For example, some of these barriers are:
- Steps without ramps, elevators, or lifts
- Lack of automatic or push-button doors
- Low lighting or weak colour contrast
- Narrow sidewalks, doorways, or aisles
- No accessible Line areas, waiting areas, or service counters
- Lack of accessible Parking or washrooms
In addition, some cities have bylaws forbidding businesses from installing ramps that stick out onto sidewalks. All these barriers send the message that these building owners do not want people with disabilities to use their spaces. Many business owners may not intend to send this message. On the contrary, they may wish to welcome workers, customers, clients, or visitors with disabilities. However, they may find that retrofitting is more costly or complicated than making a new building accessible. Nonetheless, inaccessibility is just as time-consuming and inconvenient for people with disabilities. Furthermore, the growing number of people who have disabilities will choose to work or do business in a place where they feel welcome. Therefore, Onley’s review recommends that the Ontario Building Code must create rules and incentives for retrofitting buildings.
Rules for Retrofitting Buildings
Under the AODA, businesses must comply with standards unless complying would create “undue hardship”. In other words, businesses must remove barriers unless the cost is high enough to put the company out of business. If the company has enough money to stay in business after removing a barrier, the company must remove it. Onley’s review states that the undue hardship rule may not be suitable for barriers in buildings. For instance, the government would need a process to determine what “financial hardship” means for every organization. Moreover, the process would also need to include rules about granting businesses more time to remove barriers. Therefore, Onley’s review recommends that the revised Building Code use a different measure for requiring businesses to retrofit buildings.
For instance, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires that businesses remove building barriers when doing so is “readily achievable”. In other words, when American businesses can remove barriers with little cost or difficulty, they must remove them. In addition, the ADA includes a list of ways to remove barriers that most businesses can afford, such as:
- Curb cuts
- Raised markings on elevator buttons
- Widened doors and washroom stalls
- Accessible parking
Therefore, Onley’s review recommends that when the Ontario government mandates building retrofits, it should use the “readily achievable” limit. Moreover, the previous review of the AODA, in 2014, made a similar recommendation. In other words, Ontarians with disabilities have waited at least six years for a way to retrofit buildings affordably.
Tax Incentives for Retrofitting Buildings
In addition, Onley’s review also recommends tax incentives for retrofitting buildings. Again, the review recommends that Ontario base these incentives on a system of business tax credits and tax deductions that the United States has implemented. In this system, businesses can receive tax credits to fund part of the cost of removing barriers in buildings. Furthermore, businesses can receive tax deductions every year when they remove barriers.
Furthermore, Onley’s review also notes that other provinces have systems in place to fund barrier removal in buildings. For example, British Columbia provides grants of twenty thousand dollars ($20,000) or less to businesses retrofitting their buildings for accessibility. Similarly, Nova Scotia will fund two-thirds of the cost of a renovation project under fifty thousand dollars ($50,000). Onley’s review recommends that Ontario government departments work together to create a system of tax incentives as soon as possible. Moreover, both previous reviews of the AODA, in 2010 and 2014, have made a similar recommendation. In other words, Ontarians with disabilities have waited at least ten years for tax incentives to remove building barriers.
Finally, Onley’s review recommends offering similar tax incentives to entrepreneurs who develop ways to remove barriers. For example, the Stop Gap Foundation provides ramps for businesses with one step leading to their front doors. Tax incentives could encourage further entrepreneurship and offset costs for more barrier removal.