Over a year has passed since the last article I wrote on the progress of the AODA for StopGap. In the intervening period the provincial political dust has long since settled and a pandemic has brought increased uncertainty for many across Ontario and the country; so, where does this leave the accessibility community two years into Doug Ford’s Premiership and five years out from the objective set out in the AODA of having a fully accessible province by 2025?
The release of the ‘Report of the Third Review of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, 2005’ by the Honorable David Onley in January 2019 came at a time when Ontario’s political outcomes were having adverse effects on some of the operational components of the AODA. For example, the work of three SDC – Standards Development Committees – were suspended after the PCP’s victory in Ontario’s 2018 general election: they were health care and schools (broken into two: K – 12 and post-secondary institutions). 1 SDCs are special groups looking at how to improve accessibility in the province and reach the objective of a barrier-free province by 2025. The SDCs, when they were formed, were broken into five thematic strands – or standards – that will assess how accessible the province is in 2025, they are:
- Customer Service: Final Recommendations were made, after a public consultation period, by the Committee in December 2017.
- Information and Communications: In December 2018, the Committee agreed its Recommendations, which are now open to public consultation.
- Employment: Final Recommendations were made, after a public consultation period, by the Committee in November 2018.
- Transportation: Final Recommendations were published, after a public consultation period, by the Committee in January 2018.
- Design of Public Spaces (Built Environment): In 2018 was “phased in.” 2
In addition, two other strands were identified and added by the “government in 2017’ in “two new areas – healthcare and education [two standards development committees were created – one on kindergarten to Grade 12 and one on the post-secondary sector].” 3 These three SDCs were suspended after the election and when the Honorable David Onley released his The Third Review of the AODA in 2019 they had not resumed. After its suspension following the Ontario general election, the education SDC reconvened in October 2019 – its previous meeting was in May 2018 – and met again two months later in December. The kindergarten to Grade 12 and post-secondary education SDCs, after a break of eighteen months, reconvened in November 2019.
Following the release of The Third Review of the AODA, the Ministry set out its objectives for its period of office, “The framework, announced by Minister for Seniors and Accessibility Raymond Cho, identified four areas for reform: breaking down barriers in the built environment; government leading by example; increasing participation in the economy for people with disabilities; and improving understanding and awareness of accessibility.” 4
The Ministry may publicly commit to supporting a fully accessible province by 2025, but the behind-the-scenes political dynamics are often more complex, as Councillor Connie Leishman may attest to. She is a Sunnidale, Clearview, Community Hall Board Member and she doesn’t see the 2025 deadline being met. Her assessment followed, “A recent report to council outlined the work that will need to be done to make six of Clearview Township’s community halls compliant with the act.” 5 However, there isn’t provincial funding guaranteed to cover the costs – estimates for the six community halls run into the multi-millions – much to the frustration of Deb Bronee, chair of the township’s accessibility committee, who is worried about the impact non-compliance could have on the senior community that relies on the hall as a social space. This is likely a familiar story for communities across Ontario with inaccessible community halls requiring large capital infrastructure investments to be compliant with legislation by 2025. The provincial government is, on the one hand, publicly promoting the AODA and its vision of an accessible province, while, on the other hand, unforthcoming in making funding commitments.
In contributions from the public in The Third Review of the AODA, there were criticisms that some of the fundamental definitional architecture of the AODA are inadequate and exclusionary. One observer, for example, said “that the AODA definition of disability is grounded in a medical approach that equates disability with health impairment. She and others argued that the definition of disability should be revisited and brought in line with the definition in the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. (This reads: “Persons with disabilities include those who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments which in interaction with various barriers may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others.”) The UN approach reflects a social model of disability that puts the focus on environmental barriers rather than individual health.” Furthermore, “consultations showed that many people with non-visible disabilities feel left out of the AODA. Some believe this state of affairs could be improved by changing the definition of disability – which now includes physical, developmental, learning and mental disabilities – to cover non-visible disabilities explicitly and mention conditions like environmental sensitivities and dementia.” 6
Elsewhere in The Third Review of the AODA, communities in the public consultation shared the sentiment “that AODA seemed to have stalled in the last few years.” A community group added that, since the Moran Review (the Second Review of the AODA in 2015), accessibility hasn’t advanced, “It feels like we are on a long, never ending road with the destination moving ever further away in the distance.” There appeared to be no individual or community group that felt at the current pace that achieving a fully accessible province by 2025 was possible. The stakeholders’ groups echoed perceptions that the provincial government has deprioritized the AODA in the last couple of years, and that a renewed commitment to AODA is required, “As far as government leadership goes, little has changed. The government largely has been missing in action.”
Interestingly, some participants suggested that the structure of the AODA – i.e. having a single Ministry overseeing the tasks and objectives and committees of the AODA – is not conducive to creating good outcomes. Citing similar accessibility legislation in other countries “Australia for example” where “holistic” approaches were delivering better outcomes by mandating full cross-departmental/ministerial cooperation on accessibility. This changed with an announcement at the end of January 2020 that cross-Ministerial collaboration on AODA is set to begin. 7
Public investments will not only need to be made around psychical infrastructure over the coming years, but also towards awareness campaigns to shift negative attitudes that persist about people with disabilities. Influencing and shifting attitudes can be one of the cheaper actions that, with a little bit of imagination and buy-in, can be effective. For example, in The Third Review of the AODA, the Time in My Shoes program in Peterborough was commended, which “sends people with disabilities to visit schools, post-secondary institutions and businesses to help break down attitudinal barriers.”
Much of the praise in The Third Review of the AODA from the public consultation phase was reserved for activists, campaign groups and independent organizations who are working tirelessly to promote an accessible province, often on limited resources. Groups such as our own StopGap, along with Access Now – a Toronto-based app that rates the accessibility of restaurants, cafes and other venues. These and like-minded organizations were celebrated for the vital role that “Community Action” plays in promoting accessibility in the province, where “people with disabilities are taking matters into their own hands to address built environment barriers.” 8
Ontario is only half a decade out from the deadline set in the AODA for a fully accessible province for people with disabilities. Following the release of The Third Review of the AODA, and the resumption of all previously-suspended SDCs, there is a clearer picture of the scale of the challenge that lies ahead to have a fully accessible province by 2025. For a piece of legislation that was enacted in 2005, Ontarians, legislators, businesses, city planners, and the “53 per cent of Canadians today [that] are directly affected by disability” should be looking ahead to the home stretch. 9 Instead, communities, activists and campaigners are now beginning to ask: If not in 2025, then when will Ontario be a fully accessible province?
2 Report of the Third Review of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, 2005
3 Report of the Third Review of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, 2005
6 Report of the Third Review of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, 2005
8 Report of the Third Review of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, 2005
9 Report of the Third Review of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, 2005