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Unlocking Doors For The Disabled: a Year After Tories Passed Disability Law, Progress Has Been Spotty At Best

Editor's Note: Editor's Note: David Lepofsky is chair of the Ontarians with Disabilities Act Committee, a coalition advocating for a strong and enforceable Ontarians with Disabilities Act. The following article is re-printed from the Toronto Star, December 13, 2002

A year ago today, the provincial Tories passed their long-overdue Ontarians with Disabilities Act (ODA). Those with physical, mental and sensory disabilities had fought for years for a strong, effective law to achieve a barrier-free province in which we can participate fully.

In 1995, then-premier Mike Harris promised to pass it in his first term. Seven years later, legislators passed the Ontarians with Disabilities Act. But it was a big disappointment; the Conservatives rejected most of the disability community's recommendations.

This issue touches everyone. There are 1.9 million people with disabilities. Either you have a disability, or you will in the future. We want you to be able to ride public transit, shop in stores, get an education, use our health-care system and pursue competitive employment based on your abilities, without facing barriers.

The Ontarians with Disabilities Act, the final sections of which were proclaimed into law in October, spells out accessibility requirements for government offices and other public sector organizations such as public transit, school boards, hospitals, colleges and universities. The law also requires municipalities with 10,000 or more people to establish municipal accessibility advisory committees that will develop annual accessibility plans.

Last year the Tories made sweeping promises on what their ODA would achieve. They promised:

  • The province would become barrier-free for persons with disabilities as soon as reasonably possible- far ahead of the United States, at a pace designated by the disability community, making Ontario Canada's most inclusive region. Yet Americans are 12 years ahead of Ontarians thanks to their legislation passed way back in 1990.

  • No new barriers would be created against persons with disabilities. The government would bring in regulations imposing mandatory access requirements, covering all sectors, including the private sector.

  • Ontario's disability community would promote reforms and play a pivotal role in setting accessibility standards.

  • Government would enforce compliance with the ODA< take a leadership role and set high standards.

  • Specific accessibility results would be achieved in government, the broader public sector, municipalities and the private sector, e.g. more accessible services and opportunities, significant improvement in community accessibility, enhanced access to schools, hospitals and universities, greater ease in moving around communities safely, a significantly enhanced ability to participate in community life, greater accessibility in the private sector, and increased retail job opportunities.

What progress has been made so far?

The Tories established a new office, the Accessibility Directorate. It is developing tools and advice for those wanting to act.

The province is still consulting on accessibility guidelines for government buildings. After 11 months, the government named appointees to the Accessibility Advisory Council. It abolished a similar body in 1995, weeks after the Tories took office.

Our coalition, leading the fight for the ODA, is still awaiting an answer to our three letters to that council sent over the past six months. In it we offered our help and asked when it would consult the disability community.

A year later, there are no regulations under the ODA setting accessibility standards. There are no accessibility plans from the public sector bodies, which by law still have nine months to tell us what they will do, and no government commitment on when, or if, it will enforce provisions of the ODA.

The ODA requires many municipalities to establish accessibility advisory committees. But it's unclear how much clout the committees will have.

This year, new barriers were erected against persons with disabilities. For example, the government took over Ottawa's school board and eliminated over 40 special education staff, creating a barrier to education for kids with disabilities. Hopefully, this week's new special education funding will remove this new barrier. Our disability education crisis is so great that Ontario's Human Rights Commission last summer launched province-wide hearings on the issue.

Many barriers remain that could easily have been removed this year at little or no cost.

This year the government undertook the biggest reform to Ontario's Building Code in decades, after consulting the disability community. But it failed to fulfill a 1998 commitment on improving Building Code disability accessibility standards.

Despite enormous frustrations, Ontarians with disabilities and community organizations remain eager to offer government, the public and private sectors their help in achieving our goal of a barrier-free Ontario.

Our coalition continues to offer expertise. We proposed a work plan to the Ontario government, developed action kits to get everyone involved, and urged Ontarians with disabilities to keep advocating.

We have a long way to go. Voters with disabilities will be watching for real improvements in their lives, and will decide if we are making enough progress.

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