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20 Chains Told to Help Disabled

Editor's Note: The following article is reprinted from the Toronto Star, July 8, 2004, courtesy of Torstar Syndication Services.

Twenty restaurant chains and the provincial government are in the crosshairs of the Ontario Human Rights Commission over concerns about lack of access for the disabled.

Chief commissioner Keith Norton has written to the restaurant chains asking them to voluntarily do more to help disabled customers use their businesses. He also called on the Ontario government to expand the three-year-old Ontarians with Disabilities Act to cover the private sector.

That would make the act--which currently sets out how local and provincial governments and their agencies must provide access to the 1.9 million Ontarians with disabilities--"an agent of real change," Norton told a news conference.

Complaints from the disabled form the bulk of the commission's complaints--57 percent in the fiscal year ended March 31--and the trend shows no sign of abating, added Norton, a cabinet minister under former premier Bill Davis.

"In recent years there's been a steady increase."

Barriers to the disabled can be as simple as a step at the front door or washrooms down a flight of stairs.

The government has held public consultations on the Disabilities Act and is planning to make it "stronger and more effective" this fall, said James Ip, a spokesperson for Citizenship and Immigration Minister Marie Bountrogianni.

"It's too early to tell what we are looking at," Ip said.

The Ontario March of Dimes said it supports the government's plans but, spokesperson Paul Raina said, reform "will obviously never move fast enough for those who need it."

The push with restaurants follows successful efforts last year with seven chains including McDonald's and Tim Hortons, which agreed to improve access where necessary.

"We are now seeking similar commitments," said Norton, whose office recently mailed letters to the 20 restaurant chains which include Red Lobster, Burger King, Taco Bell and Coffee Time Donuts.

Red Lobster spokesperson Wendy Spirduso said from her office in Orlando, Fla., that she hasn't seen the letter yet but "we want to be sure our restaurants are accessible for everybody."

Swiss Chalet, for example, has agreed to upgrade 10 percent of its restaurants annually and has already made changes such as using braille for washroom door signs and menus, said Rachel Douglas, a spokesperson for parent company Cara Operations Ltd.

While newer restaurants are generally accessible, restaurant owners realize it makes good business sense to renovate older properties to accommodate the disabled, said Terry Mundell, chief executive of the Ontario Restaurant, Hotel and Motel Association.

"As society gets older, the business case just gets better and better."

In the United States, for example, statistics show people with disabilities have more disposable income than the heavily targeted teen market, Raina said.

Voluntary agreement to improved standards is a model Norton is looking to apply to other industries in hopes that will reduce the number of complaints filed to the commission, which is feeling a budget pinch from a 38-percent rise in its business last year, to 2,450 cases.

If that growth continues, "we will have a problem," he said.