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Presentation to the Standing Committee on Social Policy, Toronto, concerning the Accessibility for Ontarians With Disabilities Act, 2004

Date: 
Tuesday, February 1, 2005

NATIONAL FEDERATION OF THE BLIND: ADVOCATES FOR EQUALITY

The Chair: We will move on to the next presentation, the National Federation of the Blind: Advocates for Equality. There is someone there to assist you, sir. Whenever you are ready and feel comfortable, you can start. You will have 15 minutes to make your presentation and potentially answer some questions.

Mr. John Rae: Could we have some assistance in distributing these, please?

The Chair: Yes, and someone will adjust the microphone closer to you so that we can hear.

Mr. Rae: Good afternoon, members of the committee. Thank you for this opportunity to be here. My name is John Rae. I'm the national president of the National Federation of the Blind: Advocates for Equality.

Ms. Marcia Cummings: I'm Marcia Cummings. I'm the national secretary. Can everyone hear me?

The Chair: Somebody will move your microphone for you.

Ms. Cummings: Can we have another one?

The Chair: There are two microphones there.

Ms. Cummings: Thank you. Are both of these on?

The Chair: Yes, both of them are in the right location.

Ms. Cummings: I'm the national secretary. My name is Marcia Cummings.

Mr. Rae: For the benefit of the people who are in the room and those who are still watching this across the province, we have asked that a summary of our brief be distributed to members of the committee. What they will quickly discover is that we are providing them with a synopsis in our preferred format, namely Braille.

Ms. Cummings: But John, they can't read it.

Mr. Rae: None of them?

Ms. Cummings: No, not as far as I know.

Mr. Rae: Not in 2005?

Ms. Cummings: That's right. They can't read it. It's useless. It's like it's firewood.

Mr. Rae: But it was the best we could do in this short time. It was the easiest way we could produce it.

Ms. Cummings: Yes, but it's useless.

Mr. Rae: I hope it's not useless.

For members of the committee who are wondering where we are going with this, or are starting to feel a bit of discomfort or even a bit of annoyance at us, those reactions are all fine from my standpoint. In case you're wondering what the point of this was, so far this exercise has covered two elements.

One is the framework of the bill, and secondly, the results that we, the disabled community, expect.

What we tried to do by this little skit was not only to give you something a little different at 4:30 in the afternoon on the second day of hearings, but also to try and put a bit more of a human face on the results of the kind of exclusion and depravation that we constantly live with.

I've got good news for you. If you had a few negative feelings during what we presented, the good news for you is that they will go away, and they will go away quickly. But those sorts of things are what we have to live with. We go and meet with governments, municipalities and other service providers, and very often we get to a meeting and we're provided with reams and reams of this stuff -- print, material that we can't read -- at a meeting we are expected to participate in and want to participate in. And I must tell you the result of that, the effect of that, and this is what's important; this is why this bill must be amended and strengthened. The effect of that is demeaning, a feeling of being discriminated against and directly excluded from processes we should be a part of. That's got to stop. That was the point of that exercise.

The NFBAE is a consumer organization. We are an organization of persons who are blind, partially sighted and deaf-blind. I emphasize that one little word "of" because it's important. We are a consumer group. We are an organization of people who live our lives as people who have disabilities. We believe very succinctly that we are our own best spokespersons, and as a consumer organization, we believe we are the legitimate spokespersons for our part of our community.

Consumer groups like ours must be an integral part of the standards development committees. In fact, we believe that consumer groups should form the bulk of the disabilities portion of those committees. So far, of course, the committees are to consist of government, a large sector of disabled people, we think, and the business sector. We think there's one sector missing: In sectors where there's significant unionization, a role for labour should also be considered.

To make those committees work, government is going to have to provide some funding, especially to organizations like ours. Many of us are small and our organizations are already very busy. To make it possible to devote the time that will be needed to do the research and to participate in those communities, some funding has to be provided.

Ms. Cummings: We are here discussing making Ontario fully accessible, and yet no one so far, that I know of, has given a definition of "accessibility." So we thought we'd try and craft one to give you something to work from, because we believe that it needs to be spelled out as an integral part of the act for those of us who don't know what it is. We believe that accessibility is full access and the ability to access and make use of products, services, programs, premises, all of that. The important thing is that we be able to do it independently and with dignity.

There is a difference between being able to get into a building and being able to get into one accessibly. It can be as simple as having to be carried up a flight of stairs versus going up a ramp, or in terms of a restaurant, say, having to get someone to read me the menu versus being handed a Braille menu with up-to-date pricing and item information and being able to read it for myself. There's a difference there.

We want to put a face on what accessibility is and what a good Bill 118 should mean to blind, deaf-blind and partially sighted people in Ontario. It's certain things like Braille and large-print menus in restaurants, and that on public transit you don't have to go through a memorization process to make sure you get where you're going, because the subway drivers don't call the stops 50% of the time. It's things as simple as that: being able to get on a really crowded streetcar and not have to work my way to the front door so I can ask the driver to let me off at a stop that's a half-hour away; he should be calling those stops for everyone, for the person at the back who can't see out the window and then sees the sign of the place as they pass and for us who can't see the signs at all. Those are some of the things.

Education: If we can't get our textbooks on time, we can't go through the course material at the same rate as everyone else, so we're not going to be able to achieve the same high marks. Perhaps it would be good to note that textbook publishers should be considered a service, so that service could be made accessible and regulated to be accessible.

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Workplaces: Accessibility in the workplace to someone who is blind or visually impaired, partially sighted or deaf-blind means that your technology is not allowed to change so that it all of a sudden becomes inaccessible to you for business reasons. Believe me, that is happening on a widespread basis. Companies are going to solutions that make great business sense but put us back in the Stone Age in terms of equality.

Voting: Voting's good. I can't vote by myself yet. I'd like to be able to. I'd like to be able to vote independently and privately like you can, but they haven't come up with a system that works.

I'll just hand it over to John and let him wrap it up.

Mr. Rae: To make some of these things come about -- after all, this is not the first attempt to improve the lives of people with disabilities. We've gone through amending the Human Rights Code, we fought and achieved coverage in the Charter of Rights, and so on and so forth. We had employment equity; we lost employment equity. Way back in 1981, the international year talked about full participation and equality. That is some 23 long years ago. Old-timers like me still remember that time, remember the promise and remember how discouraged and disillusioned we were when that promise remained unfulfilled. This bill must not do that again to us. This bill has brought us new encouragement, and it must be strengthened and made more specific.

A couple of things happened this morning. There was talk about business, talk about costs. If we expected this work to be done overnight, I think the issue of cost would be a more legitimate issue, but we're talking about 20 long years, a long time. Certainly there must be benchmarks along the way, clear ways for the community to see and measure progress. There must be annual reports tabled in the Legislature so that the public can see these benchmarks.

There must be a way for the disabled community to bring complaints. The bill does not currently provide for that. There must be one tribunal. After all, we don't want different adjudication bodies handing down different rulings. That's not useful. After all, the business community keeps telling us that it wants to know what's expected of it. That's reasonable. We agree with them on that one. So it's important that one tribunal be established, one that understands disability issues, one that has a good number of persons with disabilities as part of it.

The same goes for the inspectors: When the positions are eventually created, extensive outreach to our community must be done and real efforts must be made to hire a reasonable number of us in those jobs. In short, the kind of participation that we're likely to see on the standards development process must continue throughout the whole process.

Another critical part is education. Everybody in this province must know about this bill, must know what is expected of them. Although we're talking about changing behaviours -- that's important -- changing attitudes is also part of it, focusing on kids, on new professionals, on the education system. I just wish that when I went to school, there were more teachers that looked like Marcia or me in the education system. That would have provided us with more role models, more inspiration and of course more jobs.

If ever our community needed a push, it's in the area of more dollars in our pocket. That involves jobs. The Ontario public service must become more of a model employer. It must set the standard. Also, I think it's incumbent upon politicians like the Premier, like ministers, to bring together the business community, to make it clear that the government is committed to change and that part of that change involves bringing more of us into all segments of the community, whether that be the classroom, the community or, especially, the workplace.

The Chair: Thank you, Mr. Rae and Ms. Cummings, for your presentation.

Ms. Cummings: Can I just make one final comment? Please remember: Nothing about us without us.

Mr. Rae: And one final comment: We haven't forgotten your preferred alternative format. We have a few copies of our brief for you, which I would ask be distributed and examined. Thank you very much for the opportunity to appear.

The Chair: Thank you again. They will be distributed to all of us.

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