Promises for transparency failing the disabled
TheStar.com – opinion/editorials – The government is refusing to give details on the success or failure of accessibility standards for the disabled.
Oct 30 2013. Editor
Premier Kathleen Wynne has promised an “open and transparent” government more times than it’s possible to count.
So it’s particularly perplexing that Ontario’s Ministry of Economic Development has refused to give a volunteer group for the disabled important information on hard-won rights for equality. They’re looking for details on the compliance and enforcement of the province’s standards for accessibility in private businesses and organizations.
In other words, the very information that would prove whether the Accessibility for Ontarians With Disabilities Act is actually working — or not.
The government’s response so far isn’t anywhere close to “open and transparent.” That’s a shame. Wynne must prove her promises of accountability are principled and not just empty words.
The information should be provided as soon as possible, for the benefit of all Ontarians who are disabled. The public should not be kept in the dark about the successes or failures of the law. Since the roll-out of the new rules won’t be completed until 2025, it’s especially important to keep a close watch on the system.
Problems — like lack of compliance and enforcement — should be fixed as soon as possible. If the act fails to embrace the needs of the disabled in everyday life — something as simple reaching an office in a wheelchair — then what’s the point of moving forward with new rules that don’t work?
The obfuscation began in January when David Lepofsky, chair of the volunteer group Accessibility for Ontarians With Disabilities Act Alliance, asked the ministry for information that would determine if the new standards were having any effect.
Lepofsky, who is blind, wanted to know how businesses had to file the new online compliance reports; how many actually did file; and what, if any, enforcement action, including hefty fines, was taken against those not following the new rules.
“They made a fundamental commitment to us and we want to know what they’re doing about it,” Lepofsky says. It’s a reasonable request for accountability.
Companies with 20 or more employees are among those that are now supposed to fill out these online reports. They must state whether they comply with the act’s accessibility standards, which focus on areas like employment, transportation and customer service. One question, for example, asks if service dogs are allowed on the premises.
The ministry’s response was unfortunate. Lepofsky said he received no response despite months of requests for the electronic data. He gave up in August and filed a freedom of information request. Instead of getting the files, he received a letter informing him of a $2,325 charge to process his request — an impossible amount for his small volunteer group to pay.
On Tuesday, NDP MPP Cheri DiNovo asked about the request in the legislature and received a similarly opaque answer from Economic Development Minister Eric Hoskins, who said a five-year routine review of the act is underway. Unfortunately, that response doesn’t meet the premier’s new transparency standards.
As DiNovo says, “It’s egregious that no one knows whether the law is being enforced.” She’s right.
Since DiNovo raised the issue, the government has offered to lower the freedom of information processing fee. That may be well-intentioned but it’s an insignificant development, to say the least. Ontarians have a right to scrutinize the implementation of important standards that — on paper — support the basic rights of so many.
It’s a sad statement that a government that uses transparency as a slogan won’t allow disabled citizens to see whether there’s any truth to the act’s promise for change.
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