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STRENGTHENING BILL 118: The Accessibility for Ontarians With Disabilities Act 2004

Date: 
Tuesday, February 1, 2005

A Brief to:
The Standing Committee on Social Policy
February 1, 2005

Submitted by:
The National Federation of the Blind: Advocates for Equality

National Office:
1638 Pandosy Street, Suite 6
Kelowna, BC V1Y 1P8
Website: http://www.nfbae.ca

INTRODUCTION

Bill 118, the Accessibility for Ontarians With Disabilities Act 2004, as it currently stands, is an improvement over the current Ontarians With Disabilities Act 2001. It is a different kind of legislation in several respects. It takes a systemic, rather than a case-by-case approach. It provides for the development of a comprehensive set of accessibility standards that will require proactive measures to remove existing barriers and prevent the introduction of new ones. Bill 118 is intended to cover all sectors of the economy, including the private sector. The Bill also provides for the participation of persons with disabilities throughout the process.

However, if the Government of Ontario is truly committed to remedying the effects of historic discrimination and ensuring "full accessibility" for the 1.5 million Ontarians with a disability, then it is as much in the Government's interest as it is in ours that this Bill be amended, strengthened, and made far more specific.

WHO IS THE NFB:AE?

The National Federation of the Blind: Advocates for Equality (NFB:AE)- soon to be known as Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians/L'Alliance pour l'Égalité des Personnes Aveugles du Canada, (AEBC)--was founded in 1992. We are a democratically constituted consumer organization of blind, deaf-blind and partially sighted Canadians with the mandate of providing our community with a vehicle for self-expression and action on issues of common concern. Throughout our history, our work has focused primarily on public education and advocacy related to blindness, to increase rights and opportunities for the blind community.

The NFB:AE is currently very active in Ontario. Three of our eight chapters are located here, as are three members of our seven-member National Board of Directors.

The NFB:AE has been active in supporting the enactment of comprehensive legislation in Ontario (our Brief to the ODA Consultations, March 23, 2004, is attached as Appendix "A").

The NFB:AE has been involved with both the Ontarians With Disabilities Act Committee (ODAC), and ARCH: A Legal Resource Centre for Persons With Disabilities, and we wish to express our support and appreciation for the detailed analyses of Bill 118 that each has provided our community. As a result, we do not plan to reiterate all that they have said; rather, we plan to focus our comments on a number of procedural and substantive aspects of Bill 118 that are of particular importance to our organization, and the future participation of blind consumers in all aspects of Ontario society. To the NFB:AE, outcomes and results are key!

VAGUENESS OF BILL 118

Historically, society has tended to isolate and segregate individuals with disabilities and, despite some improvements, such forms of discrimination against individuals with disabilities continue to be a serious and pervasive social problem. Discrimination against individuals with disabilities persists in such critical areas as employment, housing, public accommodations, education, transportation, communication, recreation, institutionalization, health services, voting, and access to regular community public services.

Individuals with disabilities continually encounter various forms of discrimination, including outright intentional exclusion, the discriminatory effects of architectural, transportation, and communication barriers, overprotective rules and policies, failure to make modifications to existing facilities and practices, exclusionary qualification standards and criteria, segregation, and relegation to lesser services, programs, activities, benefits, jobs, or other opportunities.

Bill 118 must remedy this historic discrimination!

In Canada, other potentially significant initiatives have been begun, projects undertaken, and much effort expended. Some lasting progress can be identified, especially in the area of legal rights. But these legal rights are yet to be translated into tangible progress for the bulk of persons with disabilities, who continue to subsist on the margins, often in extreme poverty.

The stated goal of the International year of the Disabled Person 1981 "Full Participation and Equality" remains elusive, and here we are in 2005, again discussing the removal of barriers, the prevention of new ones, and the achievement of real accessibility to provide for full participation by persons with various disabilities in all aspects of our society.

Bill 118 must be different. It must achieve the lasting legacy and tangible progress that it is intended to accomplish! This is why Bill 118 requires scrutiny and strengthening.

At present, Bill 118 offers a shell of a possible framework, but its current vagueness requires a great leap of faith. The Bill needs to be more specific, and spell out far more of the process. This must not be left solely to the implementation stage, where it could get lost in the fight for priorities of future governments that may not place a similar level of priority on this crucial work.

We recognize that attaining "full accessibility" will take time. However, 20 years is a long time, and the Bill must set periodic demonstrable and meaningful benchmarks, so that progress towards the ultimate goal of "full accessibility" can be seen at stages along the 20-year road. An Annual Report should be tabled in the Legislature so that progress can be objectively measured by all Ontarians.

PURPOSE OF BILL 118

The purpose of Bill 118 is stated as:

"The purpose of this Act is to benefit all Ontarians by,

  • (a) developing, implementing and enforcing accessibility standards in order to achieve accessibility for Ontarians with disabilities with respect to goods, services, facilities, occupancy of accommodation, employment, buildings, structures and premises on or before January 1, 2025; and
  • (b) providing for the involvement of persons with disabilities, of the Government of Ontario and of representatives of industries and of various sectors of the economy in the development of the accessibility standards."

The NFB:AE agrees with the view of ARCH, as outlined in the Special issue of ARCH Alert (January 11, 2005), which describes this Bill as human rights legislation and, as such, must clearly state that it is designed to remedy the effects of long-lasting and pervasive systemic discrimination faced by persons with disabilities.

The purpose clause serves as the vision statement of a statute, and its content often impacts on future judicial interpretation of an Act's provisions. The Standards Development Committees (discussed in more detail below) are designed to take a systemic approach to the removal and prevention of barriers, and the Purpose Clause must give clear support that this Bill is intended to provide a clear and comprehensive mandate for the elimination of discrimination against individuals with various disabilities; to provide clear, strong, consistent, enforceable standards to remedy discrimination against individuals with various disabilities; to ensure that the Government of Ontario plays a central role in enforcing the standards established in this Act on behalf of individuals with disabilities to address the major areas of discrimination faced day- to- day by people with disabilities.

Accessibility Standards must reflect the Government's strongest possible commitment. Use of the word "may" in Section 6 runs contrary to the purpose of the Bill. This section should be reviewed to ensure that it confirms the government's strongest possible commitment to enacting the proposed or revised standards. Bill 118 should be amended to remove all such non-mandatory language.

In short, Bill 118 must focus on outcomes and results!

SCOPE OF THE BILL

Section 4 of the bill states:

"4. This Act applies to every person or organization in the public and private sectors of the Province of Ontario to which an accessibility standard applies."

The bill should clearly state that it covers the Ontario Crown and all public and private sector organizations within provincial jurisdiction, including manufacturers and retailers of products, developers and operators of websites, producers of information materials, etc.

The phrase "to which an accessibility standard applies" unnecessarily narrows the scope of the bill and should be deleted.

RECOGNITION OF EXISTING RIGHTS

Section 3 states:

"3. Nothing in this Act or in the regulations diminishes in any way the legal obligations of the Government of Ontario or of any person or organization with respect to persons with disabilities that are imposed under any other Act or otherwise imposed by law."

This is a significant section that is intended to ensure that the AODA does not diminish existing, hard won existing rights in any way. We wish to emphasize its importance and support its inclusion in this Bill.

THE STANDARDS DEVELOPMENT COMMITTEES

The work of the Standards Development Committees will be critical to the ultimate success of Bill 118. This work will require focused and extensive involvement by those who ultimately participate in developing these all-important standards.

While "persons with disabilities or their representatives" are to be participants on these Committees, the Bill does not set forth any criteria for the selection of committee members.

As a consumer organization "of" persons who are blind, deaf-blind and partially sighted, we believe strongly in the axiom "nothing about us without us". As a result, we believe the bulk of participation from the disabled community should be made up of representatives from consumer organizations. In order to ensure each Committee has the needed expertise, it must include persons with a variety of disabilities, as no one participant can be expected to be fully familiar with the accessibility needs of each disability group. In addition, training for the members of each Committee should be provided, so their work will begin with some common understandings and awareness, and consumer organizations should play a major part in this activity.

CAPACITY BUILDING OF CONSUMER ORGANIZATIONS

Many consumer organizations operate on shoestring budgets, and are already pushed to the limit with current activities. In addition, the Government of Ontario should not expect community organizations to provide free advice for their work. Thus, in order to enable representatives from consumer organizations to play their rightful role, the Government of Ontario must make available some funding to enable these representatives to do the research that will be required, and to take time away from their current activities to focus on the critical on-going and in-depth work of these Committees.

COMPOSITION OF STANDARDS DEVELOPMENT COMMITTEES

Section 6 (4) currently provides: (4) The Minister shall invite the following persons or entities to participate as members of a standards development committee:

  1. Persons with disabilities or their representatives.
  2. Representatives of the industries, sectors of the economy or classes of persons or organizations to which the accessibility standard is intended to apply.
  3. Representatives of ministries that have responsibilities relating to the industries, sectors of the economy or classes of persons or organizations to which the accessibility standard is intended to apply.

Participation of Council members

(5) The Minister may invite members of the Accessibility Standards Advisory Council to participate as members of a standards development committee.

The NFB:AE believes consideration should be given to expanding the composition of Standards Development Committees to also include labour participation, especially in the development of Standards covering sectors where significant unionization is present.

COMPLAINT PROCESS NONEXISTENT

The Bill does not provide any avenue for a member of the public to file a complaint about the implementation or enforcement of the AODA. Bill 118 must be amended to create an independent review mechanism that will enable persons with disabilities to file complaints about failures to comply with the AODA or the accessibility standards.

DEFINING FULLY ACCESSIBLE

The NFB:AE believes that "fully accessible" needs to be defined in the Bill, so that future staff and adjudicators will have a clear definition to work from. We believe Accessibility is the ability to fully access and make use of goods and services, premises, programs, and products independently and with dignity.

POSSIBLE EXEMPTIONS

Section 40 currently provides:

"40. (1) The Lieutenant Governor in Council may make regulations, (r) exempting any person or organization or class thereof or any building, structure or premises or class thereof from the application of any provision of this Act or the regulations."

Since this Act is intended to provide for the removal of barriers in all sectors and in all areas of life, the NFB:AE recommends this Section be deleted.

PROGRESS TOWARDS FULL ACCESSIBILITY

The term "accessibility" remains greatly misunderstood! Due in part to the use of a stylized wheelchair as the International Symbol of Access, most individuals, when considering "accessibility" think first of wheelchair users and their need for ramps and accessible washrooms.

While these are critical "accessibility" issues, "full accessibility" must be considered and dealt with in far broader terms an cover the barriers facing persons with all disabilities, including architectural, physical, programmatic and attitudinal barriers. This is yet another reason why members with expertise in the needs of persons with various disabilities must participate on the Standards Development Committees.

Bill 118 reserves to Cabinet the right to define "accessibility" by regulation pursuant to section 40(1)(q). Accessibility is a fundamental concept of the statute, and all accessibility standards committees should have the same understanding of "accessibility," and what their task entails.

We recommend that a definition of "accessibility," as outlined elsewhere in this Brief, be added to section 2. We also recommend that section 40(1)(q) be deleted.

SERVICES

Bill 118 reserves to Cabinet the right to define "services" by regulation pursuant to section 40(1)(q). This subject has been hotly debated and litigated in other jurisdictions, and is a key Section in this statute. It is essential that the term "services" be broadly defined and as inclusive as possible.

The Ontario Human Rights Commission has provided a discussion of the word "services" in its 1999 Plain Language Guide to the Human Rights Code. This discussion notes that services can be private or public and includes the following as examples of services:

  • -stores, restaurants and bars
  • -hospitals and health services
  • -schools, universities and colleges
  • -public places, amenities and utilities such as recreation centres, public washrooms, malls and parks
  • - services and programs provided by municipal and provincial governments, including social assistance and benefits, and public transit
  • - community services
  • - services such as those provided by employment agencies or insurance companies
  • - classified advertisement space in a newspaper.

This list is not intended to be comprehensive, but it indicates that the current understanding of the meaning of "services" is broad. These examples should be widened, and should include manufacturers of products and websites.

We recommend that a definition of "services" be added to section 2 at this time. Broad and all-inclusive language should be used in order to avoid loopholes. Again, we recommend that section 40(1)(q) be deleted.

INSPECTIONS

Section 18. (1) of the Bill states:

"The Minister may appoint inspectors for the purposes of this Act."

This provision should be mandatory, rather than permissive, as the Bill should be definitive about the minimum governmental obligations that the enforcement process covers. When inspectors are recruited, an extensive outreach strategy should be developed, to ensure that persons with disabilities are encouraged to apply for such positions, that those who choose to apply are given every consideration, and that the selection criteria include extensive experience in promoting the rights of persons with disabilities.

We also recommend that the provision be amended to provide that the Minister shall appoint inspectors beginning at the time the initial accessibility standards are enacted.

TRIBUNAL AND ADJUDICATION

Section 26. (1) of the Bill states: "The Lieutenant Governor in Council shall, by regulation, designate one or more tribunals for the purposes of this Act. (2) Each tribunal designated under subsection (1) shall be responsible for hearing such matters arising under this Act as are specified in the designation."

This is a very unusual provision, which if left in its current form, could lead to various interpretations of this statute by different tribunals. We recommend that Bill 118 provide for the establishment and composition of a single tribunal, and set the date by which it should be operating. We further recommend the tribunal include persons with disabilities and/or persons who have a clearly recognized expertise in disability issues.

LIMITED APPLICATION OF APPEAL PROCESS

Section 27. (1) of the Bill states:

"A person or organization that is the subject of an order made by a director under section 21, 25 or subsection 33 (8) may appeal the order to the Tribunal within the time period specified in the order."

Bill 118 provides a very limited role for the tribunal. It does not provide the tribunal with a general power to interpret the statute, or consider issues that arise under it, other than in the context of reviewing appeals from orders.

At present, a person with a disability or a disability organization can neither challenge an order, nor can they bring a case asserting that the accessibility standard or agreement has not been implemented. As well, there is no apparent route by which the substance of an agreement can be challenged. Thus, the disabled community will have to rely on the good faith efforts of organizations that are covered by a Standard or the work of the bureaucracy.

Unfortunately, we are all too familiar with the effects of cutbacks that have been imposed on other bodies, such as the Ontario Human Rights Commission and, as a result, we recommend, at the very minimum, that both individuals and organizations have the right to file complaints.

RESULTS ARE KEY

For persons with disabilities, the promise of Bill 118 is that Ontario will become progressively "fully accessible" over the next 20 years. It is critical to our quality of life that this elusive goal be fully achieved in this admittedly lengthy time frame. Thus, the Bill must focus on outcomes that are incremental, demonstrable and measurable.

For persons who are blind, deaf-blind or partially sighted, a "fully accessible" Ontario must include, but is not limited to:

Fully Accessible Workplaces

The Ontario Public Service must become a model employer, and set the example for workplaces throughout Ontario. Programs must be put in place to overcome the egregious level of unemployment and under-employment that leaves the bulk of Ontarians with disabilities unemployed, on the sidelines, subsisting on social assistance.

Full access to self-employment

The Ontario Government must help make this employment alternative more achievable for persons with disabilities, including developing partnerships with financial institutions to make available start up capital, and to develop programs to provide access to needed accommodations, including full access to adaptive equipment, that would be provided by an employer.

Fully Accessible Education System

Ontario's education system must ensure that curriculum materials are available in the student's preferred alternative format when classes begin. Instructors must be required to determine their reading lists at an earlier time, and colleges and universities should only use texts from publishers that agree to sell texts electronically, which will facilitate the production of alternative format versions. A "fully accessible" education system must also ensure access to Distance learning, a growing aspect of life-long learning.

Fully Accessible Websites

Under the current ODA, all Ontario Government websites were to be made fully accessible. However, sites such as the Ontario Realty Corporation still make extensive use of PDF files, which many screen readers cannot read. This is a barrier which should already have been removed, and steps put in place to ensure that all Ontario Government websites be fully usable by all Ontarians, including persons with disabilities. All organizations must be required to follow web accessibility standards and make their websites usable by all.

Fully Accessible Information

Print materials, including shopping flyers, product manuals, newspapers, election platforms, and books must be readily available in the individual's preferred format, and for the same price when a charge is regularly imposed.

Fully Accessible Voting

The Act should guarantee the right to accessible and dignified voting at both the provincial and municipal levels for all citizens.

Fully Inclusive and Accessible Hospitality Industry

All restaurants and Hotels should be required to provide menus and other information in accessible formats to all patrons and guests.

Full Acceptance of Service Animals

All service animals must be guaranteed entrance with their owners into any public or private building, premises, or vehicle. Failure to allow any service animal into an establishment or vehicle must result in steep penalties so as to support the importance of these animals in the lives of their owners and to send a clear message that they are to be allowed full access throughout the province. Note: The Coalition of Assistance Dog Organizations (CADO) defines a "Service animal as an assistance dog, and may include other animals specifically trained to perform physical tasks to mitigate an individual's disability. Assistance dogs include: guide dogs that guide individuals who are legally blind; hearing dogs that alert individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing to specific sounds; and, service dogs for individuals with disabilities other than blindness or deafness. Service dogs are trained to perform a variety of physical tasks including but not limited to pulling a wheelchair, lending balance support, picking up dropped objects or providing assistance in a medical crisis. The presence of an animal for comfort, protection or personal defense does not qualify an animal as being trained to mitigate an individual's disability and therefore does not qualify said animal as a service animal.

Fully Inclusive Community Facilities

All community facilities, including recreation centres, theatres, libraries, shopping malls, employment centres, etc. must be fully accessible and ready to provide their full range of products or services to persons with various disabilities in an integrated setting.

Fully Accessible Transportation

Accessible public transportation must be more widely available in communities throughout Ontario. These systems must provide regular announcements of subway, streetcar and bus stops, and feature tactile warnings at the edge of all subway and LRT platforms.

Fully Accessible communities

Audible pedestrian signals (APS) must be installed at major street crossings to increase safety. Sidewalks should contain far fewer obstructions, including removal of sandwich boards, planters, etc.

Fully Accessible Television

TV Ontario should become a leader in providing access to its programming. Audio and video description should be available on all programs. The gaps in audio during a program should receive video description, while content including weather, sports scores, and phone numbers advertising products that are currently often only written across the screen must be verbalized.

Full Access to Literacy

Braille is our gateway to literacy, increased opportunities and independence. It must be taught throughout school years and to adults. While adaptive technology now provides us with access to an ever-widening range of information, technology should never be seen as a substitute to braille.

CONCLUSION

Throughout this Brief, we have focused on both the process and expected outcomes, but the key is results! Bill 118 provides for proactive measures, and that Ontario will become "fully accessible" over the next 20 years.

Programs of attitudinal change will also be key to achieving the changes that will be required to make Ontario a truly fully accessible province. Persons with disabilities are our own best spokespersons, and consumer organizations, such as ours, look forward to participating fully and actively in making the dream of a "fully accessible" Ontario come true.