Ten years ago this week, Ontario’s 1.8 million people with disabilities won a huge victory. After years of tireless grassroots advocacy, we convinced Queen’s Park to unanimously pass a landmark law requiring the government to lead Ontario to become fully accessible by 2025.
It gave 20 years to tear down the many barriers blocking Ontarians with disabilities from fully participating in jobs, schools, transit, public services, restaurants and stores. Ontarians with physical, mental or sensory disabilities faced physical barriers (such as steps to enter a school), technological barriers (such as websites lacking simple features to make them compatible with adapted computers for blind and dyslexic people); and bureaucratic barriers (such as municipal officials ordering a restaurant to rip out its front door’s accessibility ramp).
The Wynne government has organized parties to celebrate this law’s 10th anniversary, calling itself a world leader on disability accessibility. But how are we really doing?
The government got off to a good start in the first years after this promising law was passed. We’ve made more progress than would have been the case without it.
However, Brad Duguid, the minister responsible for the implementation of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, rightly conceded last week that government efforts flagged in recent years. A government-appointed independent review reported last year that after a decade, this law hasn’t made nearly the promised impact on Ontarians with disabilities. Its report showed that we are not on schedule for full accessibility by 2025.
Ontario has fallen short on several fronts.
As former lieutenant governor David Onley has declared, massive disability unemployment isn’t just a national crisis. It’s a national shame.
Many if not most public buildings remain physically inaccessible. Blind people with guide dogs are still too often denied access to restaurants or taxis. In 2010 the government launched its new Presto smart card for paying public transit, replete with accessibility problems.
Ontario’s public service claims to lead by example on accessibility. Too often it leads by the wrong example, as it did in 2011 when it wrongly tried to abolish a legally mandatory fund that finances workplace accommodations for Ontario public servants with disabilities.
The government failed to act on our repeated urging to get more tourism and hospitality providers to become more accessible for the 2015 Pan/Parapan Am Games. Of a billion potential tourists with disabilities worldwide, many will be watching to see if we’re an accessible destination worth a future visit. When you see that torch crossing Ontario, imagine the trail of increased tourism accessibility it could have blazed, had the government listened to us.
Why are we doing so poorly? Ontario hasn’t created all the accessibility standards needed to ensure the province reaches full accessibility by 2025. Nor has it effectively enforced the accessibility standards we have. The government knows of years of rampant private-sector violations of this law. Yet it too often sat on its hands, leaving unspent millions of dollars dedicated to the act’s implementation.
Still, there is hope. Queen’s Park announced some helpful new measures last week (though not enough to ensure full accessibility by 2025). There remains enough time to reach our goal, if the government goes substantially further.
We need Premier Kathleen Wynne to keep her pledge to direct all ministers to fulfil all unkept government accessibility promises. We need new accessibility standards created; for example, one to tear down barriers in our education system that contribute to massive disability unemployment. The revitalized leadership on accessibility that last year’s independent review urged Wynne to show could build on her government’s first steps announced last week.
Our non-partisan grassroots accessibility movement is more determined than ever, now energized with powerful social media. People who see accessibility barriers to stores, restaurants, tourism sites, or transit during the 2015 Games, can video them and broadcast them online. The hashtag “#accessibility” reaches a huge audience.
Inaccessibility for us is or will be inaccessibility for you. If you don’t have a disability now, you’ll almost certainly get one as you age.
A majority of MPPs who voted for the Disabilities Act in 2005 and their staff have since left Queen’s Park. We aim to get their replacements as fired up about this issue as were their predecessors.
An impossible uphill challenge? We’re used to it. We live those every day. Grassroots tenacity won this law in 2005. It can work again.
– David Lepofsky
David Lepofsky is a blind Toronto lawyer and activist for reforms for the rights of persons with disabilities. aodaalliance.org Twitter: @davidlepofsky