New rules aim to help Ontarians with disabilities
A new law took effect Friday in Ontario regulating how public bodies provide customer service to people with disabilities, part of a broader push to have the province be completely accessible by 2025.
But the new standards, which will eventually apply to the private sector as well, fall short of the changes that people with disabilities need to eliminate barriers in their day-to-day lives, several advocates said.
The new regulation requires all provincial agencies furnishing goods or services to the public to ensure that they generally do so on an integrated and equal basis for people with disabilities, that they permit — with some exceptions — service animals and support people on their premises, and that they have policies and training in place to guarantee as much. The measures were implemented under the Ontario Liberals' 2005 Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act.
Public bodies ranging from hospitals, universities and school boards to the Landlord and Tenant Board and the Ontario Securities Commission have to instruct their staff on how to "interact and communicate with persons with various types of disability" and how to use any special equipment to do so, which could include a telecommunication device for the deaf (TDD), for example.
Private companies will be subject to the same conditions starting Jan. 1, 2012.
"This standard will help people of every ability gain equal access to customer services across the province," Community and Social Services Minister Madeleine Meilleur said in a statement. "Many businesses and organizations in Ontario have already made great strides to ensure their doors — and their services — are open to everyone. And I applaud these efforts."
Advocates, however, said they remain concerned that the rules don't have clear enforcement terms and aren't detailed enough.
"Generally speaking, people are optimistic that it will make a real difference, that currently differences are being noted in customer service," said Terrance Green, an Ottawa human rights lawyer and chairperson of Citizens With Disabilities – Ontario, a public-education organization.
"But without enforcement these standards mean nothing … and that's why the vote is still out as to how positive the standards will actually be."
"We are concerned that the standard doesn't go far enough," said David Lepofsky, the chair of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance. "It tells them to develop a policy, to develop their staff, certain principles, but it doesn't go into the details that we would like."
The government says enforcement methods will be detailed in a separate regulation, but so far it hasn't been implemented.
Barrier-free by 2025
The customer service regulations are the first of several accessibility standards the province is aiming to implement. Others, which are in various stages of development, deal with public transit, employment, the environment and access to information and communications. The government's stated goal is to make Ontario barrier-free for people with disabilities by 2025.
What organizations can do
The Ontario government has written several manuals to guide businesses and agencies in complying with its new accessibility standards for customer service. Example of things organizations can do include:
- A clothing store that has a written 'no refunds, credit only' policy decides to include exceptions for customers with disabilities in its policy because its fitting rooms are not wheelchair accessible.
- A coffee shop has a customer with a mental health disability who finds it difficult to be around crowds. After he explains his needs, an employee offers the customer a quiet table away from the busy section of the shop. This allows the customer equal opportunity to enjoy his food and drink.
- A dance studio offers their class schedule in paper format at the front desk. When a customer with low vision asks for the schedule in braille, the manager explains that it is not available in braille, but is available in an accessible format on the studio’s website. This works for the customer because she has a screen reader at home that reads what is displayed on the website."
Source: Compliance Manual for Small Businesses and Organizations, Ontario Ministry of Community and Social Services
Lepofsky, a Toronto lawyer whose decade-long legal battle forced the city's public transit to announce subway and bus stops, said Ontarians with disabilities still face many kinds of barriers beyond the stereotype of the ramp-less restaurant or subway stop without an elevator.
"Some are informational," like websites that aren't designed to standards that allow people who are blind or have difficulties with text to access them with screen-reading software, he said. Others are communicational.
"It's been against the law to have these barriers for over a quarter of a century — it's in the Human Rights Code. But that has not led to all the barriers being removed, because the way all those rights were enforced was you had to sue all the barriers one at a time."
Lepofsky gave an example of a relatively simple accessibility measure he uses all the time: Many, but not all, bank machines have a headphone jack so blind customers can operate them.
Removing these kinds of barriers, Lepofsky said, is about fundamental human rights, but it's also ultimately good for everyone, including business.
"They're all things that make a company or an organization serve a broader customer base. And in the case of employment, it opens them up to more employees, so it's in their business interest.... Any restaurant that doesn't accommodate people with disabilities is losing a lot of customers."
The government estimates that more than 1.8 million Ontarians have a disability, and the number is growing as the population ages.
That may be why so far, according to Green, businesses have been receptive to the new customer-service standards.
"Chambers of commerce across the province have been conducting workshops on how to implement effectively the customer service standards, as a good-for-the-bottom-line type approach, and because of that, particularly in the small business sector, customer service has improved."
Ultimately, the new standards are about crafting a more just society for all, Lepofsky said.
"Disability comes with age, so it affects all of us. This helps everyone."