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An Ontarians With Disabilities Act: a Recipe For a Barrier-Free Ontario

Part I: Introduction

The National Federation of the Blind: Advocates for Equality (NFB:AE) is pleased to participate in the consultation process sponsored by the Ontario Liberal Party regarding an Ontarians with Disabilities Act. The NFB:AE was founded in 1992 in Kelowna, British Columbia. Its membership base now extends into eight Canadian provinces and one territory.

Its Toronto chapter is one of the most active chapters in the country. activities since its inception have dealt with various advocacy issues including special education reform, guide dog access legislation, copyright reform and other matters.

The NFB:AE has been a member of the Ontarians with Disabilities Act Committee for approximately one year. The group consists of blind and vision-impaired consumers and other interested members of the public who aim to enhance and promote opportunities for blind and vision-impaired people.

The NFB:AE agrees that an Ontarians with Disabilities Act must remove barriers for all Ontarians with disabilities which may arise in all aspects of their day-to-day life. However, this brief will necessarily focus on the needs and interests of blind and vision-impaired people since NFB:AE does not have the mandate to propose suggestions that may relate to other disability groups.

On October 29, 1998, the Ontario legislature passed a series of principles that should be included within a strong and effective Ontarians with Disabilities Act. The following sections of this brief will deal with many of those principles.

Part II: Purpose of the Act

NFB:AE agrees that the purpose for an Ontarians with Disabilities Act should be to remove existing barriers for blind and vision-impaired people to participate fully and equally within all aspects of day-to-day life in Ontario. In addition, the legislation should provide a mechanism whereby the creation of new barriers to such access is prevented. While the NFB:AE does not believe it is appropriate to request that all barriers to access be removed overnight, this process should be undertaken within a reasonable time after the legislation is proclaimed insofar as existing barriers are concerned.

The prevention of new barriers being erected should be addressed as soon as the legislation is proclaimed.

Part III: Effectiveness of the Legislation

The Ontarians with Disabilities Act, as a new piece of legislation which would be groundbreaking in Canada, should contain provisions that would cause this Act to supersede any other legislation that affects the rights, benefits and obligations imposed upon people with disabilities. This would ensure that the Ontarians with Disabilities Act provisions which provide additional accommodations to people with disabilities are not weakened because other pieces of legislation conflict with the Ontarians with Disabilities Act or contain weaker provisions.

Part IV: Barrier Removal

People who are blind or vision-impaired face a number of barriers within Ontario. One of the most significant barriers is that blind and vision-impaired people do not have the same access to information that is provided to the rest of Ontario in a printed form. It is not uncommon for blind and vision-impaired people not to be able to access government publications because they are posted on inaccessible web sites. It is equally not uncommon for blind and vision-impaired people not to be able to access documentation that is made available to the public on cassette tape, in Braille or in large print. Without these accommodations, blind and vision impaired people are denied the opportunity to access information at the same time as other Ontarians. This is just one example of the many barriers which should be addressed in the context of this legislation.

The Ontarians with Disabilities Act should apply equally to governments, public and private businesses, and other entities carrying on business in Ontario. All public premises and access to services that are provided by various governmental and business entities should be provided in such a manner that all Ontarians, including those who are blind or vision- impaired, have equal access to the same kinds of goods, services and facilities as anyone else and at the same time as anyone else. In addition, the legislation should prescribe a mechanism to ensure that all goods, services and facilities currently being provided by any business entities in Ontario are usable by people who are blind or vision impaired to the extent that that is practical. For example, it would not be reasonable to require a business who builds telescopes to ensure that their devices are accessible to people who are totally blind.

Part V: Removal of Barriers in Employment and Education

Some of the biggest barriers that blind and vision-impaired people face in Ontario relate to access to employment and education. In many instances blind and vision-impaired employees are denied access to equipment and course materials that are required for them to participate equally in employment and educational settings with other Ontarians. Specific steps should be taken to achieve barrier-free workplaces both in the private and public sectors to ensure that blind and vision-impaired people have the same access to employment as others. Similarly, the Education Act and all of those statutes applicable to post secondary education should be amended to provide that elementary and secondary schools, colleges and universities are required to ensure that all of the equipment, textbooks and other services that blind and vision-impaired students may need during their educational years are provided to them in the format of their choice.

Part VI: Enforcement Process

It is critical that an Ontarians with Disabilities Act has an effective enforcement mechanism. While one suggestion is to have the Act enforced by the Ontario Human Rights Commission, this solution is not currently practical given the budget cuts that this tribunal has experienced over the past number of years. If the Ontario Human Rights Commission will be given this additional mandate, it must also be given the appropriate increase in resources to manage these new responsibilities.

Another alternative would be to develop a separate enforcement agency to enforce this legislation. While this option may appear to be unattractive at first glance, such a new enforcement body would develop additional expertise over time in relation to persons with disabilities. This would not likely happen if the Ontario Human Rights Commission was used, since the Commission itself has other mandates in relation to other disadvantaged groups within society. If there was one body that was designed solely to protect and enhance the rights of persons with disabilities, the appropriate expertise could be developed regarding necessary accommodations, undue hardship and the like, such that the new agency could make more educated decisions about what cases it should or should not pursue than could the Ontario Human Rights Commission, which historically has been less than sympathetic to many disability-based claims of discrimination. NFB:AE would support the creation of a separate agency to enforce this legislation.

Part VII: Regulations

The Ontarians with Disabilities Act should specifically provide for the power for cabinet to make regulations setting out the steps that various groups must satisfy to comply with the legislation. Before any of these regulations are implemented, people with disabilities who may be affected by them should be consulted. Their input should also be incorporated into the regulations before they are proclaimed in force. The regulation-making powers should be such that different regulations may apply to different industries or other sectors of the Ontario economy.

Part VIII: Public Education

As with any piece of new legislation, there will be a need to educate the public, industry and other entities within Ontario regarding its provisions and the steps that must be taken to comply with the Act. Accordingly, there must be sufficient resources made available to allow for public education so that Ontarians are made aware of the steps they must take to comply with the Act.

Part IX: Program Delivery

The Ontarians with Disabilities Act should impose on the provincial government and all municipal governments a requirement that all programs which they fund are accessible to people with disabilities. In the past, many programs and services which have been funded have been totally inaccessible. In addition, the Ontario government in this legislation should take meaningful steps to promote and enhance the availability of adaptive equipment to allow blind and vision-impaired people to participate fully and effectively in all aspects of their daily living.