Handicapping The Law

We need harmonized accessibility rules, but they could prove costly.
By Don Peat, Sun Media | June 2009

Government plans to make Ontario's public places and services accessible for people with disabilities by 2025 have run into a hitch. The Liberals this week appointed Charles Beer, a former Liberal MPP and cabinet minister in the David Peterson government, to review standards being developed for disabled people that will be imposed on businesses and organizations. "Our accessibility legislation is built on a foundation of collaboration and flexibility," Beer said Friday in a release. "We have made a lot of progress over the past four years and we continue to work with our partners to make sure we're on the right track for 2025."

In fact, a lot of municipalities across the province are concerned the legislation may be off track. It may, for instance, require city councils to provide Braille or voice-tape copies of agendas and other documents. It may require heritage buildings to be outfitted with expensive retrofits to make them wheelchair accessible. There are concerns that the implications of the broad scope of the act -- impacting the supply of goods, services, access to buildings and facilities, accommodation and even employment -- are not adequately understood.


That it could carry a hefty price tag for taxpayers and municipalities already struggling to contain costs and businesses struggling to deal with the recession. "One can't argue with the principle but it's the implementation," Pat Vanini, executive director of the Association of Municipalities of Ontario, told the Sunday Sun this week. "I don't know how people expect municipal governments to manage all this without significant tax increases yet, we know the public doesn't have that tolerance level." Passed in 2005, the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act was designed to make Ontario accessible for people with disabilities through standards applied to every person or organization that provides goods or services to the public.

There are 1.85 million Ontarians with a disability and that number will grow as the baby boomer generation ages. The end goal of the legislation is a fully accessible Ontario by 2025.

The five standards focus on customer service, transportation, information/communication, employment and built environment. So far, only the customer-service standard has become law and the remaining four are making their way through the development process. As the details of all the standards emerge, municipal officials fear the worst as timelines to meet the standards and provisions hover within the next one to five years. While they stress they are more than willing to embrace the principle of accessibility, they warn about the expected costs.


"This impacts everyone, even the private sector. It's going to hit your workforce," Vanini said. "There is a sense that there isn't integration or co-ordination of definition. "At the end of the day, there could be a big 'oops.' " The specific regulations that will spell out how municipalities and businesses will be impacted haven't been finalized. However, there are concerns the unintended consequences of the legislation may be significant. Contractors who work on government projects, for example, will have to be accessible compliant.

London Transit general manager Larry Ducharme predicts the piecemeal approach the provincial government has brought to the process will cost municipalities "millions plus some." "I think millions is understated," Ducharme said. "I think it is millions teetering to the billions." In his organization in London, he knows one provision of just one of the 150 standards will add $1.3 million to his annual operating budget.

Another example is just west of Toronto. One provision of one standard bans municipalities from charging more for specialized services, like transit, and demands the hours and the fare match what's offered to a conventional transit rider. That means Peel Region's TransHelp service would have to match fares and hours of the two transit systems in Mississauga and Brampton, which all have different fare structures. Ducharme said it's estimated to cost $500,000 just to harmonize the fares.

But although the AODA calls for an accessible province by 2025, Ducharme says 93% of the provisions within just three of the standards demand municipalities comply in the next one to five years. "I think that is unreasonable," he said. "For the longest time, the AODA was one of the province's best kept secrets but as people become engaged in the process and become more and more aware of it, they're seeing the impacts. "It's a complex issue and it's a mammoth undertaking but we seem to be in a hurry." While he says municipalities can meet the challenge of the act and the noble goal of accessibility, he stressed it will take commitment, compromise, cash and time. "There has to be harmonization of all the standards," he said, adding some standards compete with each other and with other legislation. "You can break the law by breaking the law or you can break the law by complying with the law." Because the standards are being developed by different groups and in different timelines, terminology differs from standard to standard. Also, draft standards, like the built environmental standard, differed drastically from the province's building code. In the draft, 134 requirements under AODA standards were equal to the Ontario building code, 17 were below the code and 130 were greater than what the code called for. "You're building a building, what do you follow?" Ducharme asked.


Officials from the ministry of community and social services stressed the intent of each standard is to ensure that people with disabilities have access to the same services and same employment opportunities across the province. In a lengthy statement, officials stressed the goal of the act is to have an accessible province by 2025 and that the government is taking a "realistic approach." They heralded the phased-in approach -- only one standard has become law so far -- will allow organizations to adjust over time. "We are helping businesses and organizations to comply with the requirements," one official stated. "We have developed guides, videos and information to help businesses understand how to improve accessibility for people with disabilities. "This legislation is about helping people with disabilities access goods and services themselves, so they can be independent, productive Ontarians."

Brampton City Councillor Sandra Hames said the fact the government is phasing in the standards separately, in isolation of each other, is frustrating. "There is no real cohesion," Hames said. "The wording is different in each one because it's different groups that have been doing it. "There has been no attempt to harmonize all of the standards, bring them out all at once so that any literature that needs to be done can deal with all the standards." She said Brampton will have to train its staff for each standard rather than having all the standards available for one training initiative. "Every municipality wants to comply, we just want to do it in the most seamless and responsible way," Hames said. "This doesn't do that."

Source: Don Peat, Sun Media


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