Politicians delivering on promises

TheStar.com – living – Politicians delivering on promises
January 26, 2008
Helen Henderson

Like a contractor who sticks to the estimate, a politician who keeps an election promise dwells somewhere in the realm of disbelief for most of us.

So it is with some trepidation that we are watching what could be a small miracle unfolding around the new law designed to help level the playing field for people with disabilities in Ontario.

One of the keys to the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act is the establishment of barrier-free standards for various sectors of the economy, including transportation.

No one said it was going to be easy to make wheelchairs welcome on buses, subways and other forms of municipal and provincial transit. But the committee charged with developing standards for making Ontario transportation accessible appears to have been completely off track – until recently.

The draft standard it released last year played to such scathing reviews that it seemed proof positive the Accessibility Act itself was nothing more than a weak, ineffectual document designed as window dressing by a government only too happy to stick to the status quo.

Among the harshest critics was the Ontario Human Rights Commission, which said the proposal “falls far short of human rights standards, not only failing to make progress towards equality for persons with disabilities, but regressing on gains previously made.”

This was no news to David Lepofsky, the lawyer credited as the driving force behind Ontario’s Accessibility Act. Lepofsky, who recently won a significant victory forcing Toronto transit drivers to call out all stops as an aid to passengers who are blind, blamed the composition of the committee for its attitude.

“Disability representatives have been clearly outnumbered and overpowered by others, including government and private sector representatives,” he wrote in a public statement. “This seriously stacked the deck against the disability community. It has led to serious problems with weak proposals for accessibility standards.”

Prior to the Oct. 10, 2007 provincial election, Premier Dalton McGuinty pledged that, if elected, his party would make sure representatives of the disability community made up 50 per cent of any committee developing accessibility standards. But two months after McGuinty’s victory, Al Cormier, chair of the transportation standards committee, wrote Social Services Minister Madeleine Meilleur asking the government to set aside that promise.

“In discussing the Liberal party promise with my committee members, I found…many are very opposed to such moves, citing the fact that our committee is nearing the end of its assignment,” Cormier wrote. He added: “A major restructuring of the committee…would result in significant delays….”

More ominously, he said: “While adding more persons with disabilities to the committee may well result in more committee members supporting shorter implementation time frames, such measures will not likely be supported by the carrier representatives on the committee.”

So, does the pre-election promise stand? Amazingly, it seems so.

In a letter to Cormier, Meilleur responded: “We are proceeding on our election promise,” including “the commitment to ensure 50 per cent membership from the disability community on all (standards development committees).”

In a telephone interview, Cormier told the Star that while “it will be challenging” to restructure, he will abide by the decision.

“I am very sympathetic to disability issues; I have two daughters with disabilities,” he said. “It was simply a matter of proceeding as quickly as we can.”

Says Mark Brose, chair of Transportation Action Now and one of the previously disillusioned members of the committee: “It’s a very big victory.”

It is indeed. Let’s hope the resolve continues.

Email living@thestar.ca. Helen Henderson’s column appears every other week.

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