In 2005, Ontario passed its Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA), or Bill 118. The intent of the legislation is to bring Ontario to a state of full accessibility for all persons with disabilities in Ontario by the year 2025. Accessibility and measurements toward the same are intended to be taken in five year increments, with barriers that are easier to remove to be removed immediately, while other barriers make take more time for removal. For example, it is much easier to legislate that transit operators call out all stops to assist riders with visual impairments than it would be to make all of Toronto's subway stations fully accessible and barrier-free. While both of these issues will be law either today or at some point in the future, the AODA is moving things along to make Ontario an accessible province. In order to implement the Act, the Ontario Government is setting up a number of Standards Development Committees, recently which were strengthened with an increased 50% presence of persons with disabilities to participate as voting members. Each Standards Development Committee is supported by a group of expert advisors, as well as Ministry staff and members of the main Accessibility Standards Advisory Committee that is in place to advise the Minister, who is currently Madeleine Meullieur who also holds the position of Minister of Community and Social Services.
Standards Development Committees currently exist in five social areas: customer service, information & communications, transportation, built environment and employment. Each Standards Development Committee works within its own context, as well as works with other committees to coordinate the development of accessibility standards for Ontario. This is a very interesting and consultative public process, whereas at the end of the day, ordinary people from all walks of life with a strong component of persons with disabilities will be making law for businesses, transportation services, municipalities, public services, employers and others that interact in any way with Ontarians that have any kind of disability. The definition of disability is the same definition that is currently applied by the Ontario Human Rights Commission.
In general, I feel this is something that is being done right in many ways. It is hoped by disability advocates, persons with disabilities and the organizations that serve them that at the end of the day, the new laws will be as broad and encompassing as existing court-made law and human rights law, using the same tests from leading cases and Tribunal rulings in a variety of matters. It is an exciting process, but because it is new - no government in the Western world has tried to achieve the same result as intended by the AODA ... so there will be speed bumps along the way. For me, the important thing is to maintain that key communication and consultation vehicle with persons with disabilities, not just organizations but *any* person with a disability that wants to be heard. It is also very important to ensure that input from persons with a variety of disabilities encompassing the full range of disabilities outlined by the Human Rights Code are heard. One of the issues I often encounter when dealing with municipal accessibility advisory committees (which are mandated under the Act for any community with a population of 10,000 people or more) is that the focus tends to be on physical access, but not the broader issues of accessibility that the provincial standards development committees are attempting to work on.
Niagara Region - for example - has not taken a broader approach in its definition, selection and application of setting accessibility guidelines and action plans for the municipalities affected. This is by no means a criticism, but it is something that takes considerable forethought and awareness in order to determine what the broader accessibility issues are. One of the main issues I have with respect to Niagara's determination process is that it fails to include a number of real barriers that truly hinder a significant number of persons with disabilities from fully participating and enjoying full citizenship. Transportation is believed to be only a barrier for persons with severe mobility disabilities that must be transported to medical appointments, then recently as an afterthought, trip purposes for employment and educational purposes were added. However, their eligibility criteria remains strict and tends to utilize an unworkable definition as to who is and who is not eligible. In short, if you want to become eligible for Niagara's specialized inter-municipal transit service, you have to be unable to walk so many metres (as believed to be the average distance between bus stops) or to board a regular bus (even those with a lift). When Niagara Region does not have a regular or conventional transit service to which to compare in order to determine such eligibility on this criteria, it finds itself in conflict with most accessibility and human rights standards I am aware of ... because to me, accessibility ALSO means AVAILABILITY.
Niagara Region is the only incorporated regional municipality in Ontario that does not have its own inter-municipal transit service. I have copies of over twenty reports written over the past thirty-five years that indicate that such an inter-municipal transit service is not only a good idea, but a necessity for the Region. But let's look at access for persons with disabilities first, which also affects other kinds of access as well which are also important. Most persons with disabilities are NOT eligible for the specialized service. From my last read, there were just over 700 regular users of the service, when during the 2005 AODA or Bill 118 Hearings, we learnt that over 50,000 to 60,000 persons in the region live with at least one disabling condition. In addition to the reports, I also have anecdotal proposals and initial evaluation reports of what has become known as the Niagara Job Bus. While certainly not a long-term solution by any stretch of the imagination, the Job Bus has led to significant enough numbers of people being removed from the welfare rolls ... it more than paid for itself. These evaluations were only based on the results of service to two communities, Fort Erie and Port Colborne. I don't know which vehicles are being used for the Job Bus and if such vehicles are accessible, i. e. have a lift and space within to secure a wheelchair or scooter. This is certainly an important consideration, but the long term goal should be a fully accessible, available, convenient and affordable inter-municipal transit service that serves all of Niagara's twelve municipalities, perhaps starting with its biggest four, then expanding west until all communities are involved.
The problem with Niagara's specialized transit service is that although they are now permitting trips for employment or educational purposes, I don't sense there will be a lot of uptake with its current clients. There may be a few, but an expansion of the eligibility criteria or better yet - a conventional service that serves everybody, augmented by the specialized service for those that cannot use the broader conventional system, will benefit almost all people with disabilities (and others). The definitions for employment and education for those reliant on the specialized service are also relatively stringent, leaving it difficult for somebody who works out of more than one location or may only need to travel out of town once or twice a week, for example, to be eligible for those trips. People with disabilities do not fit any mold, despite our broader society trying to impose the same.
What happens to persons with disabilities that are not eligible for the specialized transit service? It has actually been stated that they were supposed to rely on the mythical "family and friends" that are always supposed to step in to help, or use taxis. If the person is on Ontario Disability Support Program assistance, they can use a taxi and direct bill it to O.D.S.P. if the trip is a pre-approved medical trip. However, those same people cannot direct bill O.D.S.P. or anybody else if the trip is for any other purpose, such as school or employment. It is even more difficult for people who are self-employed and have a disability in Niagara. Because most businesses involve some commute from one part of the region to another, it is difficult for the disabled entrepreneur to function without having a driver's license and a vehicle. It is true that some businesses can be designed so that clients and customers come to them or the person can telecommute and work online, but this is not the majority. It assumes that ALL of the disabled entrepreneur's customers are mobile themselves and can get to the disabled person's home or work site to receive service or that all work can be done online. In my practice, about 80% of my clients can probably come to my office, but I have to visit them about 10 - 20% of the time in order to deliver service and without a vehicle, this is very costly for me. Also, because Niagara Region has implored itself to divide into north and south, we serve two judicial districts meaning there is no transportation available for myself or any of my clients to travel from one judicial district to the other unless they had a vehicle.
There are thousands of people in the Niagara Region who for disability reasons alone cannot drive a vehicle. The reasons may be temporary or permanent and they vary from person to person as to what the condition is and why the license has been suspended. Thousands more have been advised or cautioned by their physicians not to drive due to disability or medical conditions or have self-excluded as a result of a variety of issues, such as side effects of medication or chronic pain. Most of these individuals who have been suspended or cautioned do not have mobility impairments that would make them eligible for the Niagara Specialized Transit service. Many are blind which in itself does not make one eligible. Others are simply aged and experiencing the first stages of a dementia whereby they may not be able to navigate transportation services, even if they were available. These people are also not eligible. Others may have mental health or chronic pain difficulties that result in the need for sedating medications that interfere with sleep and can make it hazardous to drive. Some are suspended and some are simply cautioned. Niagara's physicians tend to prefer cautioning as opposed to outright suspension because they are well aware of Niagara's poor transportation system and are only likely to report if the health condition deems the patient a safety risk, although many of my clients will argue with that one ;-)
Add to this the obvious barrier that many persons with disabilities face with poverty, even if they have no driving restrictions. According to CAA, it costs over $7,800 a year on average to own and maintain a vehicle. Low-income people often drive vehicles that are in poor condition that require expensive repairs and may be off the road for lengthy periods. If they seek financing at all, they are unlikely to find financing at favourable rates and many are stuck into high short-term leases. Many low-income drivers that I know do not have insurance and many of them are driving under suspension for unpaid fines. These circumstances are for the "lucky" ones that can afford to keep a vehicle at all. Most people on O.D.S.P. or Ontario Works cannot afford to own a vehicle at all. Many can't even afford bus fare to get around in their own communities, although some employment programs (but not all) do cover bus fare for short periods of time. Therefore, accessibility concerns must also include availability as a key requirement.
In terms of employment, people with disabilities do not do very well either. As a whole, twice as many persons with disabilities are not working than persons without disabilities. About half of the persons with disabilities recently surveyed for the PALS Survey are "out of the labour force". While there was not a lot of detail provided as to why there are a substantial number of persons with disabilities who are "out of the labour force" specifically in the PALS survey, other parts to this survey and other unrelated studies possibly give an indication as to reasons. While some are simply unable to work due to their disabilities or health conditions, others report barriers, such as inadequate transportation, impact of employment on income support benefits, impact of employment on subsidized housing, lack of training for what employers are expecting, perception of discrimination against people with disabilities (while many have also actually experienced discrimination), caregiving responsibilities and so forth. There are also twice as many disabled persons who identify as being in the labour force but who are unemployed than those without disabilities. Among those who are working, some surveys have suggested that up to a third or more feel they are overqualified for the jobs they are doing.
These statistics are well-known in policy circles. Another study sponsored by the Abilities Foundation (and available in my office) that was also completed online and with focus groups asked persons with disabilities who were working or were in the labour force to any extent a number of questions. It was learnt from that survey that those that had jobs tended not to find them with the assistance of employment agencies. This also appears to be true through my own informal discussions among my clients with disabilities. One fellow in particular recently told me how many agencies he tried to work with in order to find a job, but none were successful in placing him. He did however find a job when a friend of his told him a particular employer was hiring, then he applied directly to that employer and was hired. He later lost that job only to be hired at another firm where he is currently working and providing the same type of service. However, for the majority of persons with disabilities, there is not a lot of help out there. This is not a condemnation of the folks that try to support people to return to work, but a reflection of how little their work has influenced the workings of the labour market, which is why making all these accessibility regulations are essential. This has to come from employers themselves.
Employers put up a range of barriers, often times without being aware of it. I have read job ads that were progressive in nature, high paying but when required qualifications were spelled out, several items stood out that would exclude rather than include a lot of people, including people with disabilities. In that same ad, ironically, is a statement at the bottom of it stating how they are an "equal opportunity employer". When I speak with people with disabilities, they generally do not apply for these jobs, because they fear if they raise the issue of access or accommodations (such as the possibility of job sharing, task switching, minor job modifications, etc.), they feel they would not get the job at all. In Niagara Region, we have a disproportionate number of people on Ontario Works (many with disabilities that are for some reason unable to get on to other programs), as well as Ontario Disability Support Program. It is also stated in Niagara Region's most recent statistical report that the rate of growth (or the rate of increases in the number of persons) receiving or getting approved for O.D.S.P. is also disproportionately high in Niagara Region. Our overall unemployment rate tends to be higher than average, as well, our average annual income is among the lowest in Ontario.
There are many reasons for this that people like me raise again and again to what seems to be deaf ears among Niagara employers and even to some extent, political leaders. When a company moves to Niagara-on-the-Lake, for example, where there is no transit service going to and from it, only people who drive can access these jobs. Other employers unequivocally require all candidates to agree to work all shifts, which for some people with disabilities (and others with care-giving responsibilities) is a barrier. Call centres for example have day shift and afternoon shifts. I have spoken to a number of students that would love to work the afternoon shifts as they have classes during the day, but these employers appeared to be reluctant to hire them on the real or imagined necessity of every last employee having to work all shifts. Others can only work days as it fits with their daycare arrangements. To me, something as simple as allowing some shift accommodations would open the jobs to more people, many of whom are likely self-excluding now when they read "must work all shifts". For other jobs, most of which are the better paying jobs, require all candidates to have a driver's license and their own vehicle. In a dual income family, this would involve a household owning two vehicles, which according to CAA's last survey, the cost of vehicle ownership tends to exceed $7,800 a year. This leaves out: most people on social assistance, many people with disabilities and most people who recently graduated from a university or college and are carrying an exceptional debt load. Employers need to *carefully* consider this requirement. These qualifications are not just for taxi, courier and delivery companies. I've seen these qualifications stated for a very broad range of jobs, from education, social services, public relations, business management, administrative assistant, legal secretary and many more. While some of this also means Niagara Region needs to improve its transportation services, employers *also* have the responsibility to ensure their jobs are accessible as possible to the broadest range of qualified persons. Bona fide occupational requirement is in part settled by the Supreme Court in several of its decisions, as well as some Tribunal decisions impacting on gender, disability and age. As a result of vehicle requirements, I know many people in this region who are severely under-employed or who spend significant periods of time out of work. They again may hold all of the qualifications for the job, but will self-exclude because they feel the employer will not even consider them.
One needs to ask why 1 out of 6 Ontario O.S.D.P. households have a university education, while at the same time, a politically incorrect but necessary examination of existing senior employees of the public service, non-profit agencies and regulated industries needs to be done to learn of actual qualifications held by all of them. We learnt from the high profile Walkerton tainted water affair that the top guys that were looking after the water supply for that community had no qualifications. We learnt of several privately run retirement homes hiring people with little or no qualifications to provide health care to residents. We learnt of some mental health organizations that hold the ideology that all that is important is one's personal contact with the mental health system as a means to qualify for a job in working with vulnerable persons. My own profession has recently been regulated because of a few 'bad apples' that knew little of the law and seriously harmed their clients. Yet, 1 in 6 household heads on O.D.S.P. have university education that is either not being utilized or substantially under-utilized. Politicians talk about critical skills shortages in almost every sector, yet very little is being done to: (a) ensure people who get jobs that entail responsibility involving money, people or policies that affect people are qualified; and (b) to ensure that qualified persons who are under-utilized in the labour force for reasons of disability, age or country of origin access these positions. Some of this has to do with the inner workings of some of these organizations, or what some refer to as 'organizational culture'. Some of it has to do with barriers that are presented and prevent qualified persons from accessing the position or opportunity. Some of it may also involve the need to change some policies, such as how earned income affects O.D.S.P. and C.P.P. supports. Regardless of the source of this "disconnect", it needs to be corrected YESTERDAY!
I don't have all the answers. However, I do believe that moving toward the regulation of various social sectors to improve access to all Ontarians is the right move. I don't feel it is happening fast enough to satisfy me, or many of the people I work with; however, I also know how important the educational and consultative component is when imposing these regulations. Most of these regulations will cost an employer nothing, other than taking a little forethought and planning their workforce more inclusively. Some accommodations may cost something (though most studies show the majority of accommodations that cost money are under $500), and hopefully - to be fair - if there *is* a significant cost incurred or significant expenses become necessary in order to comply with any of these regulations, that those who comply are consequently rewarded or given some kind of break or financial assistance in order to assist them in meeting their requirements.
This is not rocket science. Ontario is trying to move beyond the 21st Century. It is hoping we will be there by 2025, a long ways away -- but it hopes to make incremental changes that will be noticeable as we reach that stage. Niagara has to move beyond the nineteenth century and open its eyes to opportunities that are here within the region already ... or risk the very people who are currently feeling excluded moving away and leaving it in the dust for years to come. The time is NOW for progress. The time is NOW to act. The time for defining accessibility beyond the obvious physical barriers in all aspects of its operations and sphere of influence is NOW. I speak for many of those who 'self-exclude'. Because for most of them, they feel if they approach an employer to ask if accommodations can be made regarding a listed requirement, they will NOT get the job. That's why they don't ask. That's why more and more people are relying on O.D.S.P. or staying on Ontario Works or switching between Ontario Works and low-wage temporary employment. The issue is that because more and more people -- up to one third of the labour force are involved in precarious arrangements (and becoming more common every year) - means there are less taxes being paid and less money will be around in a short period of time when we will need it to finance our future and ageing population. The time is NOW to think ahead. The time is NOW to include, accommodate and facilitate ... because our future is NOW.