Rocky road for the disabled
TheStar.com – Opinion – Rocky road for the disabled: 10 years after landmark resolution in Legislature disabled Ontarians still face too many barriers
October 29, 2008. David Lepofsky
Ten years ago today, a momentous but little-known event occurred at Queen’s Park. After months of tireless grassroots advocacy, people with disabilities convinced the Legislature to unanimously pass a landmark resolution. It called for a new law’s enactment to tear down the many barriers blocking Ontarians with disabilities from fully participating in Ontario life. This resolution detailed principles that law must fulfill.
Why was this historic? People with disabilities showed what tenacious non-partisan grassroots advocacy from Kenora to Cornwall can do to build a better Ontario. More than 1.5 million Ontarians with physical, mental or sensory disabilities face physical barriers, such as steps to enter a bus when accessible vehicles can be bought; technological barriers, such as websites that lack simple features to make them compatible with adapted computers for blind and dyslexic people; and bureaucratic barriers, such as government offices not equipped with phone lines that let deaf people call in.
Removing these barriers helps everyone. Everyone gets disabilities later in life. Some years ago I won a case, forcing the TTC to announce bus and subway stops for us blind people. Announcing bus stops also helps sighted passengers.
What progress have we made in 10 years? Here’s the good news. The resolution passed a decade ago helped pressure a recalcitrant Mike Harris in 2001 to keep his promise and pass a Disabilities Act, though it was weak. Our efforts redoubled. In 2005, Premier Dalton McGuinty passed a stronger Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA). It requires Ontario to become fully disability-accessible by 2025. The resolution passed a decade ago is our yardstick for measuring progress.
Some initiatives have produced tangible increased accessibility. Voices from Ontario’s business community and municipalities have supported this agenda. Why not? Who can disagree with making Ontario disability-accessible? We’ll all need it for ourselves. Accessibility is also good for business. Businesses want more customers and a wider pool of skilled workers. Becoming disability-accessible accomplishes both.
Yet the news isn’t all good. Ontario isn’t on schedule to becoming fully accessible by 2025. The government’s faulty implementation of the AODA since 2005 is far behind schedule. It has squandered the first 3 1/2 years of the 20 mandated for this with little to show for it.
Ontario is required to develop comprehensive, strong accessibility standards for the economy’s different sectors. Yet only a grossly inadequate one on customer service has been enacted. Last year a second, on transit, was circulated for public comment. The Human Rights Commission slammed it for falling far short of the Human Rights Code’s requirements. The government ignored the advice of its own hand-picked disability advisory council on these two accessibility standards.
For example, under a Human Rights Tribunal order, within weeks TTC started announcing all bus stops to help blind passengers. The proposed transit accessibility standard had given transit authorities an outrageous 18 years to comply!
We don’t know if other accessibility standards under development look any better. It will be months or years before they’ll go into effect.
Happily, divisions between Ontario’s political parties have vanished. Harris’s Tories opposed strong, enforceable legislation. Later, in 2005, John Tory’s Tories joined the Liberals and NDP in unanimously supporting a strong AODA. In last year’s election, each party pledged to beef up the AODA’s implementation.
I believe McGuinty and his caucus want their legacy to include much more progress on this. In opposition, the Liberals hammered the Tories for insufficient action on accessibility. Ten years ago, Liberal Dwight Duncan (now finance minister) sponsored the resolution in the Legislature. Also, a decade ago today, then opposition leader McGuinty stood at my side and pledged at a news conference that, if elected, he’d fulfill Duncan’s resolution.
Since passing the AODA, McGuinty’s Liberals appear to have moved on to other issues, unintentionally dropping the ball on this one. We need some at the centre – we need the premier – to take charge of this issue. Now, it’s scattered in isolated silos around the government. That slows progress.
A few steps can put Ontario back on track. The government should recognize that more attention and action are needed. It should commit that any new AODA accessibility standard will at least meet the Human Rights Code’s requirements.
Ontario needs a comprehensive disability strategy, including a timetable for concrete action up to 2025. It should set specific targets for what it will accomplish during the government’s current mandate. It should ensure that, by the next election, Ontario will be at least one-third of the way to full accessibility.
Commendably, the government is preparing an anti-poverty strategy. This must include measures targeting poverty’s distinctive impact on persons with disabilities. People with disabilities are over-represented among the poor. The poor are over-represented among persons with disabilities. McGuinty’s laudable focus on poor kids largely leaves out persons with disabilities, since most people with disabilities are older.
I applaud Lieutenant Governor David Onley’s declaration of disability accessibility as his ceremonial office’s theme. We need new substance to match that inspiring symbolism. Tough economic times needn’t preclude progress on this multi-year project. Achieving accessibility creates employment and saves money. Moreover, preventing new barriers from being created costs little.
Ten years ago today, Dalton McGuinty showed visionary leadership when Liberals spearheaded the resolution that’s been our beacon ever since. He showed courageous leadership in 2005 by passing a promising AODA. We need him to show that leadership again, to get Ontario on schedule to the full accessibility by 2025 to which he legislatively committed.
David Lepofsky is a Toronto lawyer and activist for reforms to protect the rights of persons with disabilities.