Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance Update United for a Barrier-Free Society for All People with Disabilities Web: https://www.aodaalliance.org
March 22, 2022
The Ontario Government spends billions of public dollars on new infrastructure. It needs to substantially reform and improve how it deals with the accessibility needs of people with disabilities, when it funds or designs building and infrastructure construction projects around Ontario. We have been trying for many years to address this. We encounter impediment after obstacle.
In our latest effort on this agenda, we have just written the very top public servant in the entire Ontario Public Service, to seek her leadership. You can find that letter below.
We will keep you posted on our progress on this front. If you want to see what we’ve been up to on this issue, we invite you to visit the AODA Alliance website’s built environment page and its page that addresses the use of public money to create new disability barriers.
It was 1,146 days ago that the Ford Government received the final report of the last Independent Review of the implementation and enforcement of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act that was conducted by former Lieutenant Governor David Onley. The Onley Report emphasized the importance of fixing the many barriers that people with disabilities face in Ontario, including in the built environment. Yet, the Ford Government still has not announced a comprehensive plan of new actions to implement the Onley Report.
On December 20, 2021, the Ford Government announced that it had appointed a person to serve as chair of a Standards Development Committee under the AODA, to review the 2012 Design of Public Spaces Accessibility Standard and other built environment barriers. It held no competition for that position, nor had it advertised any avenue for people to apply for that important position.
At that time, the Ford Government said:
“The Design of Public Spaces Standards Development Committee is expected to begin work in early 2022 and continue into 2023.”
We have not heard a word from the Government on this since then. For example, it has not announced any process for members of the public to serve on that Standards Development Committee. Knowing how slowly the Government works at the best of times, this means that it is very unlikely that this Standards Development Committee will be appointed and starting to meet before the June 2, 2022 provincial election. People with disabilities deserve better than that.
On December 23, 2021, we wrote the Ford Government’s Accessibility Minister to raise serious concerns about its inactions in that regard. We urgently asked that he hold a proper, fair, open merit-based competition for the position of Chair of the Design of Public Spaces Standards Development Committee and for the membership of that committee. We asked for a meeting with the Minister. None of these requests have been fulfilled.
Text of the March 21, 2022 Letter from the AODA Alliance to Ontario’s Secretary to Cabinet
Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance
United for a Barrier-Free Society for All People with Disabilities
Web: www.aodaalliance.org Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @aodaalliance Facebook: www.facebook.com/aodaalliance/
March 21, 2022
To: Michelle DiEmanuele, Secretary of Cabinet
Via email: email@example.com
Re: Ensuring Public Money Is Never Used to Create New Disability Barriers or Perpetuate Existing Barriers
We seek your intervention as Secretary of Cabinet to fix a deep-rooted recurring problem within the Ontario Public Service.
The Ontario Public Service needs to substantially reform how it designs and approves infrastructure projects, to ensure that these are fully accessible to people with disabilities. The Government needs to ensure that public money is never used to create new disability barriers, or to perpetuate or exacerbate existing disability barriers.
For over a decade, we have raised serious concerns about this with successive Governments, successive ministers, successive senior officials within the Ontario Public Service, and successive Secretaries of Cabinet. They unite in proclaiming their commitments to ensuring accessibility for people with disabilities. Despite this, they have left in place a process for designing, approving, building and finalizing infrastructure projects which is seriously deficient. It produces project after project with disability barriers barriers that easily could have been prevented.
Making this worse, this all takes place behind closed doors, shrouded in secrecy, with no one needing to worry about being held accountable for authorizing or approving creation or perpetuation of disability barriers.
Senior officials including cabinet ministers point to great public Government statements, committing to ensuring that these projects will be accessible. Over a decade ago, the Ontario Government unveiled a Ten year Infrastructure Plan, one we applauded, which promised to embed accessibility in the new infrastructure to be built over the next decade. Public servants write speeches for ministers, deputy ministers and assistant deputy ministers to give, lauding their own conduct, claiming that the Ontario Public Service is leading Ontario by its example in the area of disability accessibility.
But this all masks serious problems. It is deeply-rooted in the way Ontario public agencies such as Infrastructure Ontario, Metrolinx and Facilities Branches across the Ontario Public Service deal with this issue on the front lines. We fear that those higher up in the Government may well not be alive to the existence of this problem, much less its severity.
As just three examples, we point to:
* Serious accessibility barriers in new and substantially renovated public transit stations around Ontario, like those we depicted four years ago in a widely-watched online video on this topic.
* The New Toronto Courthouse, now under construction, has major accessibility problems that we have pointed out, and that are documented on the AODA Alliance website courts accessibility page.
* In the 2020 summer, the Ministry of Education announced at least a half billion new public dollars to build new schools and major additions on existing schools. There is no effective measure in place to ensure that these will be accessible to people with disabilities. The K-12 Education Standards Development Committee’s final report found that the Government needs to do more than that.
The latest illustration of this recurring issue concerns the major renovation of the MacDonald Block, the central complex where key parts of the Ontario Public Service are situated.
On March 9, 2020, those leading this project invited a range of disability organizations, including the AODA Alliance, to take part in a virtual consultation meeting, to get feedback on the plans for such things as bench seating. This meeting provided a snapshot of these problems. For example:
1. The meeting began with attendees being told that this meeting was to address whether the elements of the design plans for the Macdonald Block, to be reviewed, complied with the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act and the Design of Public Spaces Accessibility Standard, enacted under the AODA. I there told the presenters at the outset that they should also be asking if these plans fulfilled the accessibility requirements in the Ontario Human Rights Code and the Charter of Rights. I explained that those laws set higher accessibility requirements than the AODA and the Design of Public Spaces Accessibility Standard. I also explained that the AODA provides that if another law provides for a higher level of accessibility, the higher requirement prevails.
In response, those conducting this consultation declined my proposal, without reasons, and said that they will only be seeking input from us at this virtual meeting on compliance with the AODA and Design of Public Spaces Accessibility Standard.
This is a recurring problem in the Ontario Public Service and outside it as well. We have shared with senior Government officials time and again that they must not simply aim to comply with the Ontario Building Code and the AODA in a building project. They must comply with the Ontario Human Rights Code and the Charter of Rights as well. There is an inexplicable but entrenched resistance to this within key agencies of the Ontario Government.
2. During this virtual meeting, the presenters began by saying they would first make a presentation to describe the project’s proposed outdoor features, such as rest seating areas. They would then open it up to questions from us.
I Intervened to explain that this is supposed to be a consultation where we actually give feedback. It is not just for us to ask questions. I regret I have encountered this treatment before, where what is supposed to be a consultation provides little opportunity to give actual feedback.
3. There were serious, obvious accessibility problems with the presentation we were given. The presenters were talking about slides as if we all could see them. Two of us at this meeting self-identified as blind, and explained that we really could not follow such things as statements that: “The green line here is to show you where ”
Moreover, a sighted attendee said that the narrative from the speakers did not accord with the slides we were being shown, making it hard for them too to follow.
Nevertheless, the presenters wanted to keep going through their slide deck. We offered some ideas for how to make this accessible. However, it should have been obvious in advance, given the attendees invited, that an inaccessible presentation was inappropriate, to say the least. I felt it necessary to state that the Government could not thereafter claim they had consulted us, when the presentation had these accessibility barriers.
4. Those organizing this event repeatedly refused to reveal what advice they had been given on the design features in issue by Human Space, the accessibility consultant that they had engaged (at taxpayers’ expense). I asked several times in advance by email, and again during the meeting, for us to be told, for example, whether the design on which we were to comment did not include specific advice and input that the project team had received from Human Space. At this meeting, I reiterated that if they did not follow that expert advice on an issue, we need to be told this, and why, so we can give feedback on such design issues.
This is certainly not the first time that we have encountered Government secrecy about the expert accessibility advice it gets on an infrastructure project. For example, I have been trying for years without success to get the Government to reveal the recommendations it obtained from expert accessibility consultants on the design of the New Toronto Courthouse, referred to above. This is the antithesis of public accountability and transparency in the use of public money.
Moreover, if the Government wants to ask us and other community organizations to volunteer our time to give feedback here, it is wasteful and unfair to conceal that accessibility advice. By their approach, the project team could have earlier rejected some item of accessibility advice by Human Space, thereafter concealing this, while turning to us to offer feedback on the same issue. If our volunteer time is sought, we deserve to know such information. I should add that the answers to my inquiries were frankly evasive. If they are not going to provide this information, at the very least, we desire a straight answer, preferably with an explanation why.
5. I could not give much feedback on the actual project here at that meeting because of the accessibility problems described earlier. However, I did learn about one design feature that is a major concern. I asked where the accessible drop-off location for the MacDonald Block would be, e.g. for Wheeltrans vehicles. We were told that it will be on Grosvenor Street, by the entrance to the Hepburn Block.
This is very far from the front entry to the Macdonald Block. This reflects a serious disregard of accessibility needs. This drop-off spot should be on Bay Street, as near as possible to the MacDonald Block’s main entrance. I myself have used taxis and Ubers to drop me off by that main entrance for years. Why should people with disabilities have to make the very long walk from the Hepburn Block entrance to the main foyer, when people without disabilities do not? This creates a serious barrier for people with fatiguing conditions or chronic pain, among others.
Who made such an inappropriate decision, and why? This leads us to wonder what accountability and safeguards are in place to avoid such poor decisions from being made. They are much harder to undo after the fact.
We would welcome the opportunity to help you with this. However, this cannot simply be left to one memo from the top, or to one or two deputy ministers to fix. The fix needs to be far more systemic, with accountability, openness and strong safeguards built in to it. Otherwise, the longstanding practices within the Ontario Public Service will not be reversed.
Please stay safe.
David Lepofsky CM, O. Ont
Chair Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance Twitter: @davidlepofsky