Disability advocates criticize lack of teeth in new Manitoba accessibility regulations
New standards for businesses come into effect Nov. 1
A new law is now in force for Manitoba businesses, but don't expect a bylaw officer to show up at your door any time soon.
As of Nov 1, businesses and organizations in Manitoba should be following the letter of the law when it comes to providing accessibility for Manitobans with disabilities.
The Customer Service Standard Regulation is the first of five areas to come into force under the Accessibility for Manitobans Act, which passed in December 2013, but at this point, officials are more interested in educating the public than imposing penalties on businesses.
"We would take concerns and educate and support those organizations into complying with legislation. Turning to the stiffer penalties would be more of a last resort for us," said Jay Rodgers, deputy minister for the Department of Families.
'Never a ramp'
That means that it could be a while before Megan Clarke can roll into one of her favourite restaurants in Winnipeg's Exchange District.
When the restaurant first showed up a few years ago, she was excited about trying it out, only to find that a small lip in the sidewalk created a barrier for her wheelchair. Clarke waited outside while her friend went into the restaurant to order and bring the matter to the owner's attention.
"[The owner] said 'We'll get a ramp made,' so for the course of the summer, we went back and there was never a ramp, never a ramp, and then one day my friend went in to talk to him and his response was, 'Well, we don't have the ramp made yet, but she can have free dessert any time she comes,' and I was like, well, that's the last time I'm going to come to your place," said Clarke.
Under the Customer Service Standard Regulation, any business or organization with one or more employees in Manitoba must provide its goods and services in a barrier-free way.
The regulations cover everything from training staff to the built environment, but don't prescribe specific measures, such as the installation of ramps at doors with raised entryways.
"Our expectation, I think, would be that if the building is physically inaccessible that there might be other ways of offering the service to the customer, whether it means coming out and meeting someone at the front or doing business over the phone. Our point would be that the alternative ways of accessing the service need to be communicated broadly to the public," said Rodgers.
The regulations also require every business with 20 or more employees to document customer service policies and procedures, and either post them publicly or provide them on request, so those living with disabilities understand how the business is working toward eliminating barriers.
However, there are no clear guidelines for enforcing the standards, so businesses will be unlikely to comply, advocates say.
"Without effective enforcement, a law is a voluntary law, and a voluntary law is really not very much of a law at all," said David Lepofsky, a lawyer and disability rights advocate who was highly influential in the creation of Ontario's accessibility laws.
Legislators in Manitoba looked at the Ontarians with Disabilities Act while creating Manitoba's legislation, but Lepofsky warns poor enforcement means Ontario's law has failed in many areas.
"We revealed through Freedom of Information Act applications and otherwise that [officials] were aware of rampant violations and yet deployed a paltry number of enforcement staff and a paltry number of audits and therefore did a really ineffective job of enforcing [the act]," Lepofsky said.
Manitoba is considering using its existing bylaw enforcement officers, such as those operating under Workplace Safety and Health, to enforce the act, Rodgers said.
It's a step above what Ontario is doing, Lepofsky said, but he is critical of the lack of a solid plan for enforcement.
"This law was passed half a decade ago in Manitoba and half a decade is more than enough time to plan to get something like this set up," he said.
"The Manitoba government has had ample opportunity to contact Ontario, find out what they've learned, get this designed, get it up and running. They shouldn't just be looking at it now."
Complaints and concerns
Bringing businesses into compliance with the act will take time, despite the Nov. 1 deadline, Rodgers said.
Complaints and concerns about business compliance should be directed to the Disabilities Issues Office, he said. It is up to him as director to determine whether a complaint is reasonable or not.
Despite the slow rollout, Clarke remains optimistic about what the act could mean for her.
Already she is seeing small changes in her neighbourhood, such as the addition of accessible buttons on an automatic door at her local Starbucks.
"Whether it's coffee or groceries or clothing or getting my hair cut, whatever service I'm going to, I'm going to be able to just go in and live my life. That's what it's all about. It's just access," she said.