May 29, 2024

When Ontario launched the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) in 2005, it was groundbreaking legislation that was to ensure that the province became fully accessible by 2025. But as the deadline quickly approaches, it has become apparent that work around accessibility is far from over.

Hindsight is 20/20.

AODA was created in an effort to create accessibility standards for organizations in the public, private and non-profit sectors. However, the progress that AODA has made doesn’t seem to outweigh the infrastructural deficit that it created.  

The act had a timeline that many see lacked strategic planning. When it was launched 14 years ago, it hoped to knock down accessibility barriers by 2025, however, it lacked a tiered approach. Instead of implementing  small gradual goals or steps, it just stated that things such as infrastructural renovations would be completed by 2025.

AODA consists of five standards; Customer Service, Information and Communication, Employment, Transportation and Design of Public Spaces.

Businesses who fail to comply with AODA standards may be subject to the following fines; a corporation/organization that is guilty can be fined up to $100,000 per day or directors and officers of a corporation/organization who are guilty can be fined up to $50,000 per day.

In theory, this is a practical approach to ensuring compliance with AODA, but with a lack of infrastructure funding, planning and enforcement of these rules, AODA’s progression has been minimal.

Although the act had good intentions, without a proper initiative to reach their 20-year goal human nature kicked in and lead to procrastination. Instead of getting on top of things 14 years ago, organizations began to put off progression, making accessibility an issue that no one could afford.

A large infrastructural deficit exists in Ontario which causes a lot of barriers for people with disabilities. Photo by Kaitlyn Mullin/Spoke News

The term disability covers a variety of visible and invisible impairments that fit into six main categories; physical, sensory, psychiatric, neurological, cognitive and intellectual. Physical disabilities relate to disorders or injuries of the musculoskeletal, circulatory, respiratory and nervous systems. Sensory disabilities include impairment of vision or sight; psychiatric disabilities include mental impairments such as mental health; neurological disorders affect the brain’s functionality; cognitive disabilities are limitations in mental functioning; and intellectual disabilities affect an individual’s learning and intellect.

According to Stats Canada, one in every seven Ontarians lives with a disability. That is more than two million individuals who rely on accessibility standards to improve their quality of life. This number is expected to grow to one in five Canadians by 2036. By then, the aging population and people with disabilities will represent 40 per cent of the Ontario income.

Anne Marie Hagey, a resident of Cambridge, is one of the two million Ontarians who lives with a disability and is faced with the challenges that a lack of access can create.

Hagey suffers from numbing leg and foot issues that require her to use a wheelchair when she is not in the comfort of her own home. She has relied on a wheelchair for the past eight years. For Hagey, participation has been her biggest concern due to places being inaccessible.

When a building chooses not to comply with AODA’s standards, the only choice that Hagey has is to simply not participate. Her suggestion: allow those who depend on accessibility to give their feedback.

“(Have) better inclusion at concerts, sporting events and buildings that are not wheelchair accessible. Have audits done by those who depend on accessibility to participate. Twenty years is too late,” said Hagey.

“Most establishments purchase old buildings but don’t renovate with ramps or lifts. Our generation is aging but we still want to be active in our communities with our kids and grandchildren.”

James Langlois, of Kitchener, was involved in a motor vehicle accident in 1997 resulting in him becoming paraplegic, meaning that his lower extremities lack motor and sensory functionality. Due to this Langlois relies strictly on a mobility device to get around.

Going from being able-bodied to disabled, Langlois said although something may appear to be accessible from the eyes of an able-bodied person, it doesn’t mean that it is, in fact, accessible for those who need it.

Langlois’s biggest barrier is the emotional baggage that comes with struggling to overcome accessibility challenges, especially wheelchair-friendly public washrooms.

“A lot of the times the bathrooms that they say are wheelchair accessible are not,” he said. “The biggest misconception about accessibility is what a lot of able-body people think is (accessible) usually isn’t.”

Langlois said since his accident 22 years ago, he has noticed that a lot of positive changes around accessibility have been made, but he believes that there is still way more that needs to be done.

With only gradual steps being made towards accessibility, the lives of caregivers are impacted just as much as those with a disability.

For Woodstock resident Krista Redwood-Kells, she has seen first-hand the challenges with accessibility through the eyes of a caregiver.

Redwood-Kells is responsible for the care of her 25-year-old son “Big D” who has Cri Du Chat, which is the deletion of a chromosome causing both physical and mental impairments.

For Redwood-Kells, every public excursion with her son can pose challenges. Big D requires assistance changing his diaper, which can put both her son as well as others around her in an awkward position.

“When we go out it can be a bit challenging because not every place has a family bathroom,” said Redwood-Kells. “But because he is an adult if I have to take him into the women’s washroom then it seems embarrassing for him and for people around too. But he can’t go into the restroom alone.”

Using public washrooms wasn’t nearly as challenging for Redwood-Kells when Big D was young, but she said that more needs to be done to help dependent adults.

“I remember when he was younger and having to take him into washrooms and having to put him on the floor because he was too big. Things need to be more accessible for adults,” she said.

“When I take him into the women’s washroom now, I am obviously not going to stand in the middle and change his diaper. So I am sitting in a crowded stall trying to get him out of his pull up and put another one on.”

Sherri Roberts of Cambridge was involved in a motor vehicle accident that has left her relying on a wheelchair to get around. But instead of accepting the many issues with accessibility she became involved with the accessibility council for the city eight years ago.

“So basically in that role we work with the municipality to make sure that we’re being compliant with AODA. So just looking over site plans. Making sure they are being compliant with the physical structures. The programming is done in an adaptive and inclusive way,” said Roberts.

“Anything you can think of that the city would be responsible for. We kind of give our insight and our advice on how to do that in an inclusive and accessible way.”

Being a mother as well as being in a wheelchair gave Roberts insight into the things that need to be fixed not only for adults, but also for children.

“Having accessible play structures for a child with disabilities and for parents like myself. When Ben was little and I would take him to a playground a lot of the times I would be stuck outside that little wooden barrier and I wouldn’t actually be able to participate with him,” Roberts said.

With the help of Roberts, the city has introduced one of its first inclusive playgrounds that includes a wheelchair friendly swing set, ramps to the different levels of the play structure, as well as sensory boards and braille for children with vision impairments or those on the autism spectrum.

“When people think about disabilities they often think of someone like myself who uses a wheelchair but on our committee we really need to think about what disability is. It can be a large umbrella and it can be anyone from someone with low vision to hearing issues to someone like myself in a wheelchair,” said Roberts.

“You need to take it all into account when building these play structures because a child could have a whole variety of different things going on.”

Although Roberts and the work she does on the accessibility council has seen its share of success, Roberts believes there is still a lot of work to do, especially when it comes to buildings and infrastructure.

With change being implemented slowly throughout Ontario, it is up to individuals to find innovative and affordable ways to accommodate those with disabilities and that is exactly what Roberts and thousands of others have started with the Stop Gap project.

Across the province the project’s staff hit the streets to help curb the gap in accessibility. The group creates custom wooden ramps to fit in the doorways of buildings whose owners might not have been able to afford a large and expensive renovation.

The program first launched in Toronto when a group of volunteer woodworkers noticed that one-step-up store fronts in the city were posing issues for those with mobility devices, so they began making custom ramps.

The ramp building project has since been implemented throughout Canada including in Cambridge where Roberts oversees the project.

Although Stop Gap offers only a temporary Band-Aid solution to a much larger problem, it does sends a clear message that there is still a lot of work that needs to be done to knock down barriers.

Where Band-Aid solutions don’t work, it is up to the people who are affected by accessibility to raise their voices in order to see a change.

Redwood-Kells had to fight her local grocery store to help introduce the “Caroline Cart,” which offers caregivers of those with disabilities a more comfortable way to shop.

The cart allows an individual to sit inside of it, that way the caregiver isn’t stuck pushing both a mobility device as well as a shopping cart.

It took a lot of persuasion from Redwood-Kells before the store introduced the carts.

“Our biggest challenge would be going to stores. Our Walmart in town now has the Caroline Cart which is good for us but for me to have him in a wheelchair and to push a cart at the same time is almost impossible. That’s probably our biggest challenge is finding somewhere that is accessible,” said Redwood-Kells.

“The Caroline Cart is a cart where he can sit on the end facing me. There is a big seat and then a cart on the back. That way he is safe, he’s not bothering people. He doesn’t have to walk around the store while I shop. They are not in that many stores though, I had to fight to get it into the store here.”

Patiently waiting for AODA to progress, creating temporary Band-Aid solutions and having to fight for basic accommodations might soon be a thing of the past for Canadians.

The Government of Canada is introducing Bill C-81, the Accessible Canada Act: An Act to Ensure a Barrier-free Canada. If passed, the act will be the first national framework around accessibility.

The act hopes to achieve a barrier-free country through identification, removal and prevention of barriers to accessibility within areas under federal jurisdiction. It would also continue to build on individual provinces’ and territories’ significant consultations that have already happened around accessibility. This would include working to strengthen AODA.

Unlike the provinces’ current policies around accessibility, Bill C-81 would not have a cutoff deadline of 20 years, but would rather leave the work open-ended to allow for more strategic planning.

Some advocates argue that accessibility cannot be ensured unless a clear timeline is set out. Gabrielle Peters, a wheelchair user in Vancouver, said during an interview with the Canadian Press that she was disappointed in the proposed act and was worried about its possible repercussions due to a lack of a clear timeline.

“They want to be able to say that they have an accessible act, but they don’t really want to play an active role in creating an accessible country,” said Peters.

However, Bryan May, Cambridge MP as well as the Chair of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills and Social Development, and Status of Persons with Disabilities, said that not implementing a deadline will help ensure that it isn’t pushed off until the last minute.

“We haven’t seen the growth and progression that we need to get to where you would think we would be at this point in 2019 with only six years left. Do we have only six more years of work to do? No, we have almost the entire 20 years of work to still do,” said May.

“They set this really long deadline for reasons but they didn’t anticipate the challenges that were going to result from that.”

Although not perfect, May highlights the work that AODA has done thus far and how Bill C-81 will help push initiatives such as AODA forward.

“It really comes down to resources and political will to say that we’re going to invest and provide these opportunities.  There have been some over the course of the last 20 years, there have been accessibility grants by every government but it’s really a drop in the bucket,” said May. “When you look at this federal framework that’s going to exist now, it’s really going to push the provinces to get in line as well.”

The proposed bill will focus on federal government-related industries as well as any other infrastructure that may be regulated by the federal government. This will include services such as transportation, banking and telecommunications.

Some of the federal industries such as banking, without forced regulation, have already begun creating accommodations for those with disabilities in the attempt to compete with other companies.

“The governments can actually learn a lot from them (industries). Banking for example, without regulation, went ahead and created ATMs that can be used by those with visually or hearing disabilities,” said May. “They understand the business model behind it. If someone can’t access your bank, they’ll just go to another bank. It’s a competitive issue as well.”

Although progress has been made at some industries, May believes that other industries will have a harder time creating accommodations.

“I think transportation is going to be the one that will have the biggest challenge. It’s going to be up to current politicians and future politicians to be vigilant and to make sure that they are following the rules,” said May. “Airlines are going to have a lot of work to do. I have a friend who has a real hard time travelling anywhere by plane. She basically cannot use a washroom on a plane, not with dignity. ”

During the planning of the Accessible Canada Act, from July 2016 to February 2017, the Government of Canada consulted with individuals who are affected by accessibility issues in more than 18 communities to get their feedback. These consultations allowed for the government to plan around the core issues that were expressed to optimize the ramifications of the bill.

Despite intensive research, planning and consultations, if passed, knocking down barriers will still be challenging, but May said it is something that is crucial for the dignity of those with disabilities.

“That’s what we need to be focused on. It’s not just about access. It’s about access with dignity. Imagine not being able to actually access services,” said May. “Every time we renovate one of these old buildings there should be these kind of upgrades. What I think you’ll start seeing is construction requirements. At the surface it’s not accessible but it could easily be converted to be accessible.”

If Bill C-81 is based, the government has planned to appoint an accessibility commissioner who will oversee the tasks at hand, as well as providing $290 million in the first six years to help get the bill up and running.

For people like James Langlois, Anne Marie Hagey, Sheri Roberts and Krista Redwood-Kells, and all other individuals who are faced accessibility challenges, the future of greater accessibility not only in the province, but in the country is looking up.

As AODA creeps closer to its 2025 benchmark and as politicians plan for the introduction of Bill C-81, accessibility and inclusion in Ontario may start to progress at a faster rate.

But as society continues to advance, accessibility is something that will constantly need to be reassessed May said.

“The challenge with this legislation is we’re going to hit something such as a barrier-free Canada, which is essentially the goal, but if we had developed this legislation 20 years ago would it have included the internet? I’m certain in 20 years there are going to be things that we have to address accessibility issues around,” said May.

The work around accessibility is far from being over and will continue to be at the forefront of political conversation for years to come. But as May said, it comes down to more than just establishing policy, it’s about establishing community.

“Without accessibility, you can’t have community. You can’t achieve community if people can’t access it.”

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