By Sue Tiffin
Published Feb. 26, 2019
When Anna Froebe, an independent HR consultant who works with business owners in this community, is asked how many businesses are likely not compliant with the rules and deadlines they must follow to meet provincial accessibility standards under the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, she doesn’t hesitate to offer a guess.
“Ninety-nine per cent,” she estimates. “Or even more. Ninety-nine point nine. It’s one thing being aware of the act, there’s another thing having the policies in place, the training, and then the other aspect is now acting on that.”
According to Access Ontario, the AODA became law in June 2005, and aims to identify, remove, and prevent barriers for people with disabilities. It applies to all levels of government, non-profits and private sector businesses in Ontario that have one or more employees, regardless of whether they be working full-time, part-time, seasonally or on contract.
Although many businesses and organizations are aware they need to be compliant with the accessibility standards by 2025, Froebe said many don’t realize the deadlines for compliance began years ago, in 2010, depending on the size and scope of the business.
She carries with her what she calls her AODA “bible,” documents which outline what public sector organizations municipalities, education and library or businesses and non-profits must do to meet the standards, depending on whether they have one to 19 employees, 20 to 49 employees or upwards of 50 employees. This includes creating accessibility policies, training staff on Ontario’s accessibility laws, making public information including emergency and public safety information accessible when asked, making websites accessible and filing accessibility compliance reports. The deadlines for changes leading up to 2025 occur almost annually.
“They have to have had this done,” she said of some points listed in her documents. “They don’t even have until 2025.”
And besides missed deadlines causing organizations and businesses to be inaccessible for employees or customers, the financial penalties for not being AODA-compliant can be steep.
“The penalty is that an auditor could come out … and assess your business based on a complaint,” she said. “In Toronto, auditors I think do more random checks, but I think a community like this it would be more so because someone has filed a complaint.”
Froebe has read of corporations and organizations, or directors and officers of a corporation or organization, receiving an auditor’s order to meet accessibility standards with a deadline of 10 days, or two weeks or a month, with failure to become compliant in that time resulting in fines of $50,000 per day, $100,000 per day, or even jail time. Froebe notes this is case law and won’t always be the result of an auditor’s assessment, but that it’s important to at least have a plan in place.
“Part of the act also stipulates that you should be doing this, or have a plan in place, so to have a policy in place that you’re working on it,” she said.
Improved accessibility through the removal of barriers in five key areas of life customer service, information and communication, employment, transportation and design of public spaces is expected.
The customer service standard states that organizations must provide customer service that allows people with disabilities to access goods, services, information, and facilities, with trained staff and an option for a support person at all times.
The public transportation standard notes specialized transit services should be available at the same time as other public transit, rates must be the same as for people without disabilities, vehicle registration and driver identification must appear in an accessible format and guide dogs or service animals must be allowed to ride alongside a user.
In the employment standard, candidates for jobs must be able to access application forms in a variety of formats, of their choice, and have accommodations for interviews, tests, and during the period of employment.
The Ontario Building Code covers most requirements for making new buildings accessible, and Ontario’s Design of Public Spaces Standards detail accessibility requirements for service counters, waiting areas with fixed seating and outdoor spaces, such as sidewalks and parking lots while municipalities and businesses must consult with the public prior to building or rebuilding outdoor public spaces like recreational trails, new or redeveloped outdoor public eating areas, playgrounds and outdoor play spaces, service counters, and parking lots.
The AODA standards are part of the Integrated Accessibility Standards Regulation, which require that businesses and organizations provide training to staff and volunteers, develop an accessibility policy, create a multi-year accessibility plan and update it every five years, and consider accessibility in procurement and when designing or purchasing self-service kiosks.
Making changes and understanding policy doesn’t have to be overwhelming, according to Froebe. She said she has worked with local business owners to determine what their priorities are and what their policies and procedures already look like, so she can assess if something is missing or outdated based on new legislation in order to help businesses meet AODA requirements and be fully accessible.
“There’s different steps: understanding this, working with me or whomever to start putting in policies that are specific to their business and their business size, having the staff training and then implementing the changes that need to be made, even little ones,” said Froebe. “Like, how much does it take to put on the bottom of your website, a small disclaimer, if you need this website information in a different format.”
Froebe said she has noticed employment ads in the newspaper that don’t make note of different formats of the advertisement available, and how potential candidates might access information about the job offered.
“You need to do this … every time, any catalogues you produce, any brochures, any flyers, any pamphlets, your websites you need to say somewhere, even if it’s at the very back in small letters, on the ads you produce, you have to put, if you want this in a different format, please contact [us],” she said.
In many cases, Froebe has said business owners might understand the basics of accessibility but don’t have all the other parts, including updated training of new employees.
Froebe said that almost two million people with disabilities live in Ontario.
“That’s huge in terms of customer base, or lost customer base, or lost employee base,” she said. “[It could be] $536 billion in income that’s lost from people who have disabilities. That’s huge. This could be huge for a town like this … there’s potential there for employment, business productivity, business profit, if [people] look at some of these issues.”