ACCESSIBILITY FOR ONTARIANS WITH DISABILITIES ACT ALLIANCE UPDATE

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United for a Barrier-Free Ontario

Amazing Media Coverage of More Toronto Restaurants Refusing Blind Customers with Guide Dogs Shows Toronto Is Not Ready to Host 2015 Pan/ParaPan American Games Wynne Government Still Wont Strengthen, Not Weaken, Enforcement of Disabilities Act Even Though 2015 Toronto Games Are Fast Approaching

March 27, 2015

Summary

Over the past two weeks, Global TV’s Toronto evening news has run an amazing series of seven reports by reporter Christina Stevens, on the subject of disability accessibility. Below, we set out the text of these reports. They aired on March 17, 19, 20, 23, 24, 25 and 26.

These reports begin by documenting two more disturbing incidents of Toronto restaurants trying to bar blind customers because they have a guide dog. Such conduct flies in the face of three laws, the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) since 2005, the Ontario Human Rights Code (since 1982) and the Blind Persons Rights Act (since the mid-1970s).

In one incident, a local Tim Hortons outlet reportedly caused the problem. It later moved to rectify it. Its Customer Service Accessibility Policy obviously wasn’t effective at ensuring such conduct won’t happen.

A second incident took place at a local sushi restaurant. That establishment’s management is shown making it clear that he would do it again, even after he was told about the law. This shows that education alone is incapable of ensuring full compliance with the law, as we have tried to show the Government.

These reports highlight that Toronto is clearly not ready to assure an accessible welcome to tourists with disabilities, and to some 1,600 para-athletes, when they converge on Toronto in four months for the 2015 Toronto Pan/ParaPan American Games. The AODA Alliance is leading the campaign to get the Government to achieve a significant increase in the accessibility of restaurants, stores, hotels, public transit, taxis, and other tourism and hospitality services, in the lead-up to this summer’s 2015 Toronto Games.

When tourists with disabilities and para-athletes emerge from the small bubble of the stadiums where the 2015 Games are held, and the athletes’ villages, where will they eat? What bathrooms can they use? What other tourism opportunities can they enjoy?

When a government spends large amounts of public money on an international sporting event like the Toronto 2015 Games, it justifies this major investment by assuring us that it will leave behind a “legacy” – long-term benefits for the public. We have been trying for over one and a half years, without success, to get the Government to establish a plan for a strong legacy of improved accessibility of tourism and hospitality services for the Toronto 2015 Games.

Other communities that host such international sport events leverage those events to make a community more accessible, both for the benefit of para-athletes and tourists who attend the event and for the local community for years afterwards.

So far, the Ontario story is not a good one. In August 2013, the Government unveiled its legacy plans for the Toronto 2015 Games with much fanfare. However, it left disability accessibility out of those plans. To help out, within a few short weeks, we made public our own proposal for a comprehensive disability accessibility legacy for the 2015 Games. The Government has discussed it with us, but not shown the public that it is implementing it.

One year later, in her September 25, 2014 Mandate Letter to the minister responsible for the 2015 Toronto Games, Michael Coteau, Premier Wynne commendably directed the minister to ensure a legacy of accessible tourism and hospitality services. This was a helpful step. She directed that the minister treat as a priority “Working with stakeholders to make Ontario a more accessible and barrier-free tourist destination.”

Now, half a year after that, and under four months before the Games begin, we have seen no improvement of the accessibility of tourism and hospitality services. The Global TV news report on March 25, 2015 reveals for the first time that the Toronto 2015 Games organization has some sort of new effort in mind, coming up. The report included this:

“Organizers of the games said they are about to launch a new initiative called “R-U Ready.”

“We are asking businesses to make four small but impactful and low-cost accessibility improvements to their businesses. They include things like ensuring you have a no step entry to your business,” said Naki Osutei, Director of Public Affairs and Social Legacy for Toronto 2015.”

This is commendable. However, this is something the Government should have launched. It should have done so two years ago, to give businesses much more time to take action.

When a government knows an important international event is in the offing, it usually takes active steps to ensure that our own house is in order. This is a time when one would expect the Government to do a major AODA enforcement blitz, to try to ensure that Ontario is not internationally embarrassed this summer by our lack of disability accessibility, especially when the world has its eyes on Toronto. This is all the more important since the Government knows that fully 60% of private sector organizations with at least 20 employees are now violating the AODA.

Instead, in these news reports, Global TV shows that these denials of accessible customer service take place as the Ontario Government continues its cutback of the effective enforcement of the AODA. This comes at a time when we need that weak AODA enforcement strengthened, not reduced.

The news reports show the Government denying that AODA enforcement is being reduced. This is so despite the fact that a February 19, 2015 letter from Economic Development Minister Brad Duguid to the AODA Alliance revealed that this year the Government will only audit 1,200 organizations for AODA compliance. Last year, it audited about 2,000 organizations. That is a cut of more than one-third.

These excellent reports include two other important revelations: first, Global TV tried to call the Government’s promised new toll-free number for the public to report AODA violations to the Government : 1-866-515-2025. There were very troubling results. The reporter was told that one cannot convey a complaint about an AODA violation on this number. Yet Premier Wynne promised in her May 14, 2014 letter to the AODA Alliance that this phone line would be established for the public to report AODA violations, in the context of AODA enforcement. Making this worse, the reporter had to sit on hold for 20 minutes, and so she eventually gave up and hung up.

Second, these reports show that when a blind person recently called Toronto Police to report a restaurant’s refusing service because of their guide dog, the police said they don’t deal with such complaints. Global TV News got Toronto Police Services to change its position, and recognize that it has a mandate to enforce the Blind Persons Rights Act which, for some four decades, has made it a provincial offence to deny certain public services like a restaurant to a blind person because of their guide dog. Sadly, with AODA enforcement being so ineffective, resort to the police to address this specific kind of barrier has become necessary.

We commend Global TV for giving so much attention to accessibility issues. These Global TV reports come at a time when the City of Toronto is wrongly continuing to oppose the ramp which a forward-thinking Toronto restaurant, the Signs Restaurant, installed last fall. Below we set out a January 20, 2015 article from Now Magazine on that issue, which is still under negotiation with the City of Toronto. Toronto has commendably held off on taking enforcement steps against the Signs Restaurant while a resolution to this problem is sought.

It is wrong that the City of Toronto is using public funds to try to force an accessible restaurant to become inaccessible. It is wrong for the Ontario Government to be so lax about keeping its promise to effectively enforce accessibility, just as the City of Toronto seems more active at trying to enforce inaccessibility.

In her ground-breaking final report on the Independent Review of the AODA’s implementation and enforcement that the Government appointed her to conduct, Mayo Moran recommended to the Government last November that it should strengthen AODA enforcement. It also recommended should take advantage of the 2015 Games to increase progress on accessibility. These Global News reports demonstrate to us why the Government should follow the wise advice of the final report of the Mayo Moran AODA Independent Review.

We encourage you to call or visit your MPP. Pass along these news reports. Urge them to publicly support our call for strengthened AODA enforcement and for a strong disability accessibility legacy for the Toronto 2015 Games. If you encounter barriers, bring them to your local media’s attention. Look at the kind of wonderful media coverage such individual incidents can trigger.

And of course, call the Government’s toll-free number for the public to report AODA violations, if you experience any AODA violations. Let us know what response you get.

Voice: 1-866-515-2025
TTY: 1-800-268-7095

Below you will find:

* Global TV News March 17, 2015: Tim Hortons employee orders former Paralympian to remove guide dog from restaurant

* Global TV March 19, 2015: Another Toronto business tells customer with guide dog they aren’t welcome

* Global TV March 20, 2015: Toronto Police admit it’s their job to step in when service dogs denied

* Global TV March 23, 2015: Toronto Police investigate woman’s claim of discrimination over guide dog
 
* Global TV March 24, 2015: Disability advocates question Toronto Parapan Am Games readiness

* Global TV March 25, 2015: Ontario claims to be a leader in helping people with disabilities, despite criticism

* Global TV March 26, 2015: Local entrepreneurs take unique approach to helping visually impaired

* NOW Toronto Magazine January 20, 2015: Signs Restaurant continues fight to serve all

* Some helpful links to more information on these issues.

The Ontario Government only has 9 years, 10 months and 4 days left to lead Ontario to become fully accessible to 1.8 million Ontarians with disabilities by 2025, as the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act requires.

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MORE DETAILS

Global TV News March 17, 2015

Originally posted at http://globalnews.ca/news/1888354/tim-hortons-employee-orders-former-paralympian-to-remove-guide-dog-from-restaurant/
 
Tim Hortons employee orders former Paralympian to remove guide dog from restaurant

By Christina Stevens  Reporter Global News          

A former Paralympian says a Tim Hortons employee ordered her to remove her guide dog from one of their restaurants. Christina Stevens reports.

TORONTO – Victoria Nolan and her husband Eamonn were at a Tim Horton’s in Toronto on Friday, when they say a staff member informed them Victoria’s service dog had to be left outside.

“I explained it was a service dog and he still didn’t seem to get it. I said it’s a guide dog, I’m blind and he told us we could leave it outside,” said Victoria.

The couple decided to remain in the restaurant, despite stares from other customers.

“It was sort of like our Tim Hortons sit in. We had our doughnuts and our coffee,” said Eamonn.

They said after about ten minutes the Tim Hortons employee came back and told them he was sorry and they could stay, but the damage was already done.

“Everyone around us heard the confrontation and I still feel embarrassed to be there and uncomfortable,” said Victoria.

Despite being an accomplished author and Paralympic rower, she said she dreads that kind of situation so much she sometimes she lacks the confidence to go somewhere new.

The Nolans don’t want other people encountering the same barrier so they contacted Tim Hortons’ head office, but did not receive a response.

Global News reached out to Tim Hortons for comment and in an emailed response they called the incident “unfortunate” and said the staff member was unaware it was a guide dog.

“This was an unfortunate incident in which a Team Member addressed another guest’s complaint before realizing the dog in question was a service animal,” said Michelle Robichaud, director of public affairs for Tim Hortons. “Once he was informed that it was a service dog he did personally apologize.”

According to Tim Hortons’ policies, posted online, every staff member who deals with the public gets training in accessibility issues and it specifically says service dogs are welcome.

The Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB) points out there are three separate pieces of legislation protecting the use of service dogs.

“We are equal citizens deserving of equal access and opportunities,” said Yin Brown, accessibility manager for CNIB.

Victoria said some people don’t seem to grasp how significant guide dogs are, like her lab Alan.

“He’s my eyes, but he does so much more than that. He’s given me independence, freedom and confidence. There was a time when I was afraid to leave my house,” said Victoria.

She said she’s encountered similar problems at other businesses and worries Toronto is not ready to host the Parapan Games this summer.

Meanwhile, she said she is most comfortable sticking with tried and true restaurants she is familiar with, like their neighbourhood hang-out Jawny Bakers, where all customers are welcome, including those with service dogs.

Global TV News Toronto March 19, 2015

Originally posted at http://globalnews.ca/news/1892885/another-toronto-business-tells-customer-with-guide-dog-they-arent-welcome/
           
Another Toronto business tells customer with guide dog they aren’t welcome

By Christina Stevens  Reporter Global News          

TORONTO – Karoline Bourdeau and her husband Richard said after a long day, they just wanted some sushi at a nearby restaurant.

But as soon as they entered, the owner of Ikki Sushi told them Karoline’s guide dog, Potter had to go.

“He doesn’t talk to me, talks to my husband and points at the door telling us to leave,” said Karoline.

“I explained, he’s a guide dog, he’s allowed in,” said Richard.

They said the restaurant owner kept insisting the dog must wait outside and it quickly became clear that he wasn’t changing his mind.

Global News tried to contact him by telephone, but he hung up. However, when we went to the Scarborough restaurant he explained his point of view.

“I say you can leave the dog outside or in the car,” said Bob Huang, the owner of Ikki Sushi.

He said he was worried that the dog fur might bother other customers, particularly if they are allergic, so he suggested the man (Richard) could be the guide.

“The man can handle this problem. I think the dog just outside waiting for him, no problem,” said Huang.

Even after acknowledging that he understood it was the law, Huang insisted service dogs would not be permitted in his restaurant.

“I understand this way but she’s just thinking of herself. Does she think of other people?” said Huang.

He said it doesn’t matter whether a dog is working, it is still an animal.

Earlier this week Global News reported on another Toronto woman who was told her guide dog was not allowed in a Tim Hortons.

“I tried to think of an analogy. If someone is in a wheel chair you know you don’t tell them to leave it outside with the bicycles,” said Victoria Nolan.

After she and her husband refused to leave, staff relented. Legally, they didn’t have a choice.

“The law says that a person that is blind or partially sighted, accompanied by her guide dog must be allowed into places open to the public,” said Yin Brown, Advocacy Manager for CNIB.

Even though they knew they were in the legal right, the Bourdeaus said that as they were unable to sit down or order they left. They also called both Toronto Police and the City of Toronto, with neither taking any action so far.

“This is really humiliating. I could write, not just one book, but ten of them about the different incidents that just keep happening,” said Karoline.

Global TV News Toronto March 20 2015

Toronto police admit it’s their job to step in when service dogs denied

Originally posted at http://globalnews.ca/news/1895102/toronto-police-admit-its-their-job-to-step-in-when-service-dogs-denied/?hootPostID=a3883f405b4ab40405f10cce1ce467d8

By Christina Stevens  Reporter Global News          

After being pushed by Global News, Toronto Police admit they should be investigating allegations of blind people being denied service because of their guide dogs. At first police insisted that it was not their job. Christina Stevens reports.

TORONTO — Imagine being kicked out of a business for having a service dog. Who do you call to intervene? Well, not the police, according to the Toronto Police Service.

Multiple times, over two days, Toronto police told Global News they do not have the authority to investigate.

Now the TPS is backtracking, and have confirmed they have the authority to investigate allegations that business owners are denying service to customers with service dogs.

The admission comes after Global News proved to police they have this responsibility.

Tuesday evening, Karoline Bourdeau called the police non-emergency line. She had been prevented from bringing her guide dog inside a local sushi restaurant.

She said the call taker’s response left her stunned.

“She (the call taker) said it’s a private establishment, they have a right to choose who to serve and not serve. Big myth,” explained Bourdeau. “The second thing she said is it is not the police’s job.”

A photo of Diane Bergeron and her dog Lucy seen here on her Ministry of the Attorney general approved card.
PHOTO: Christina Stevens / Global News
The back of Diane Bergeron’s card explaining that police are supposed to investigate when she is denied service.

However, identification cards for people with guide dogs, issued by the Ontario Attorney General, instruct, “alleged violates of the Act should be referred to your local police service.”

“The police have the authority to investigate alleged violations under the Blind Persons’ Rights Act and determine whether to lay charges,” wrote spokesperson Brendan Crawley in an email to Global News. “Crown counsel prosecute cases after the police lay charges.”

After Global News sent police a copy of the act and the statement, they checked with their legal department and confirmed that in fact they should investigate such cases.

They claimed that they get so few calls on the issue that they were not aware of their responsibility to do anything. However, when asked if there was any way to determine the actual number of calls, they admitted there was not.

“I wouldn’t say all police don’t know,” said Const. Victor Kwong, spokesperson for the Toronto Police Service. “When you contacted me, it is something that none of my office knew about because simply it’s not something that we deal with.”

“Once you had something real to put forward to me to investigate, I did. We were wrong in this.”

Toronto police have promised they will be making sure all staff are informed of their part in protecting the rights of people with service dogs.

However, as of Friday, they still hadn’t talked to the call taker about why she told Bourdeau that a private establishment could refuse to serve her.

In addition to police, the city and province have roles to play in this situation. The city can address it through licensing and the province through a human rights complaint.

Toronto police said they will be offering an apology to Bourdeau.

“It was a very alarming experience because police being ignorant is scary,” said Bourdeau.

Global TV Toronto News March 23, 2015

Originally posted at: http://globalnews.ca/news/1899131/toronto-police-investigate-womans-claim-of-discrimination-over-guide-dog/

Toronto police investigate woman’s claim of discrimination over guide dog

By Christina Stevens  Reporter Global News          

Global News stories have pushed the City of Toronto to educate staff on their role in protecting the rights of people turned away from businesses because of their service dog. Christina Stevens reports.

TORONTO — A friendly face from the police officer behind the counter at 41 Division was a relief to Karoline Bourdeau and her husband.

Almost a week after they were denied service at a Scarborough sushi restaurant because of Karoline’s guide dog Potter, the Toronto Police Service finally agreed to take a report.

“Hopefully the restaurant owner will learn something, but my goal is to have better awareness from the people that are supposed to be enforcing it,” said Bourdeau.

Bourdeau had called police and the City of Toronto after the owner of Ikki Sushi told them that Potter could not accompany them into the restaurant last Tuesday.

Police told her they did not have the authority to investigate. City staff told her they didn’t know whether they could do anything and that they would call her later with an answer. They did not.

Police also repeatedly told Global News they couldn’t do a thing. After they were shown a copy of the Blind Persons’ Rights Act and proof from the Ministry of the Attorney General, they reversed their position.

Even though police now admit they were wrong and agreed to take Bourdeau’s report, she doesn’t feel like they are taking the issue, or her, seriously.

“Not surprised, just sad,” said Bourdeau.

She said she still has not had an apology from the police force.

When the City of Toronto failed to act, Global News also called 311 and was told that protecting the rights of people using service dogs was not “a city issue.”

In fact, the city can investigate any business they license that has allegedly denied service to a person with a guide dog. Bylaw officers can issue a $500 fine on the spot if they deem it appropriate.

“As a result of your story we actually had a look at what information we provided 311 and I do believe there is a gap there,” said Tracey Cook, the executive director of Municipal Licensing and Standards for the city.

She also told Global News 311 operators will receive the proper information and training right away.

Last week, Global News spoke to the sushi restaurant owner. Cook said because of that interview an officer went to the restaurant to advise the owner of his responsibility.

Bourdeau said the city’s response is reassuring, but that her larger concern remains the police. She wants the police chief to implement compulsory training on their responsibilities under the Act.

Global TV News March 24, 2015

Originally posted at: http://globalnews.ca/news/1901972/disability-advocates-question-toronto-parapan-am-games-readiness/

Disability advocates question Toronto Parapan Am Games readiness

By Christina Stevens  Reporter Global News          

In light of Global News stories, advocates for people with disabilities question whether Toronto is ready to host the Parapan Am Games. The mayor also weighs in. Christina Stevens reports.

Canadian athletes gearing up for the Parapan Am Games said they are looking forward to the prospect of competing on home turf.

“Potentially winning a gold medal right here at home, that’s the ultimate dream,” said Tracey Ferguson who plays wheelchair basketball.

But she is also well aware that the city could be doing better when it comes to accessibility. For example, despite living on a streetcar line, Ferguson can’t board the streetcar when it stops in front of her condo, but has to find other transportation.

“I think awareness is key,” said Ferguson.

Global News has pointed to that need for awareness with stories highlighting restaurants which told customers with guide dogs they were not welcome, and the challenges getting police and the city to act. Both women impacted have questioned whether the city is truly ready to host 1,600 para-athletes.

Such concerns have also been raised by advocates for people with disabilities.

“We are not ready to ensure that these folks will have a place to eat, or even go to the washroom, or assured public transit to get around,” said David Lepofsky, Chair of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance.

He acknowledges that it is great that the new facilities will be accessible and volunteers trained.

“But what about the para-athletes who want to venture outside that bubble and see Toronto?”

Global News took that question straight to Mayor John Tory, who said more needs to be done to get the word out to make sure businesses aware of their responsibilities.

“I think the biggest job that’s not being done, and it is something I want to turn myself to with our own disability issues committee, is public education,” said Tory.

He also said he felt that the stories Global News has been doing have helped increase awareness.

Tory said while information can be provided before the Parapan Am Games, structural issues with older buildings and access to transit will be a longer fix. He added that all levels of government have to do better.

Organizers of the games said they are about to launch a new initiative called “R-U Ready”.

“We are asking businesses to make four small but impactful and low-cost accessibility improvements to their businesses. They include things like ensuring you have a no step entry to your business,” said Naki Osutei, Director of Public Affairs and Social Legacy for Toronto 2015.

Meanwhile, Ferguson is hopeful that seeing para-athletes at their best, will also change people’s perspective.

“They see the disability disappear and see the potential in people and everyone has potential.”

Global TV Toronto News March 25, 2015

Originally posted at: http://globalnews.ca/news/1904016/ontario-claims-to-be-a-leader-in-helping-people-with-disabilities/

Ontario claims to be a leader in helping people with disabilities, despite criticism

By Christina Stevens  Reporter Global News          

TORONTO – Being rejected from local businesses can be hard to take and after years with a guide dog, Cambridge resident Helen Kitchen has list of places she has been told the dog is not welcome.

“When I call a taxi they don’t want to take her, even going into the mall, restaurants, all kinds of places,” said Kitchen.

She’s lost count of the number of times she has been discriminated against because of her guide dog, Corolla. She has developed a new tactic to deal with it, she refuses to budge and that’s what she did when an airport shuttle driver insisted the dog had to get out.

“I just told them we are going to sit here and I will call the police,” said Kitchen.

Global News has already reported on other people with guide dogs facing similar battles.

At the same time, advocates for people with disabilities said the provincial government is cutting back on enforcement of laws aimed at accessibility.

“That’s the wrong way to go, it’s backwards,” said David Lepofsky, chair of the accessibility for Ontarians with disabilities act alliance.

The government disagreed, saying they are making sure businesses comply with accessibility legislation.

“We’re not backing away from enforcement. We’re doing 1200 audits this year alone,” said Economic Development Minister Brad Duguid.

However, last year the number of audits was closer to 2000 representing a drop this year by more than a third in the number of audits.

The government’s own numbers also say that 60 per cent of organizations haven’t filed records showing their compliance.

“We’re ahead of most other jurisdictions, if not all other jurisdictions,” said Duguid.

The government has a phone line that it said is to “submit feedback and lodge complaints.”

When Global News called the number, there was a two and half minute speech on what the government is doing.

Then Service Ontario answered, and said the line was not for lodging complaints.

“If you were looking for a complaint, you’d have to talk to human rights,” said the operator. She then transferred the call to someone she said could “take feedback” and provide the right phone number.

After more than twenty minutes on hold, we followed the prompts to leave a voice mail so that someone could call back.

That didn’t work, we could not access the voice mail, nor a living person, so hung up after a total time of about half an hour.

The Premier echoed the minister’s statements.

“We are leaders in terms of our legislation standards that we have in place,” said Kathleen Wynne.

She insisted education, not enforcement is key.

Yet, despite all of the government’s claims of success, Kitchen said she is still running into hurdles. After travelling across much of Canada she was able to compare her experiences.

“I’ve only been challenged on my access in Ontario.”

Global TV News March 26, 2015

Originally posted at http://globalnews.ca/news/1908244/local-entrepreneurs-take-unique-approach-to-helping-visually-impaired/

Local entrepreneurs take unique approach to helping visually impaired

By Christina Stevens  Reporter Global News          

TORONTO – The Cultural Café is tucked away in a Markham community centre and is known for its good coffee. That makes founder Danny Leung proud.

The staff behind the counter are not only good at their jobs, they are all visually impaired.

“We want to demonstrate to the community that we are still able to do something,” said Leung.

Leung has found that some people pity those who are blind and seem to think they should stay at home and have someone else take care of them.

So he launched the café not just to help staff develop skills and confidence, but to show off their skills and confidence to customers.

“They see us. They see blind people doing things here,” said Leung.

One of his employees, Windy Ho, has been losing her vision gradually. She feels sharing her story with customers helps them understand what it is like to be visually impaired.

“Even with the vision I have now, even if it is limited, I still make great food,” said Ho.

Customer Peter Chu is a regular at the café and when he first went there, he wasn’t sure what to expect, but seeing how well it was being run, made him realize that there are no limits.

“Everybody deserves an opportunity,” said Chu.

Leung also hopes the café helps educate other business owners about the importance of accepting guide dogs.

Another entrepreneur changing attitudes and helping people who are visually impaired is Chris Chamberlin. His company, Frontier Computing, converts all kinds of publications and documents, including menus, into braille.

He said a growing number of companies are seeing the value in making what they do more accessible to everyone. He added that while it is just one of many things they can do, it is an important one.

“It is certainly welcome, for us to live independently, and to make our own choices based on access to information,” said Chamberlin.

Leung pointed out his customers walk away with more than a good coffee, and those going through their own struggles are inspired.

“They come and see us and say they say wow if you can do this there is hope for me.”

NOW Toronto Magazine January 20, 2015

Signs Restaurant continues fight to serve all

Originally posted at https://nowtoronto.com/news/signs-restaurant-ramp/

City's accessibility future could depend on one controversial downtown ramp
by Aaron Broverman
January 20, 2015
 
The fight to keep Signs Restaurant accessible continues.

Known for its sign language menus and deaf waitstaff, the owners of the Yonge and Wellesley eatery want to keep its entryway ramp. The city ordered it removed unless they apply for a temporary encroachment permit.

“This should not be a big deal," says owner Anjan Manikumar. "Of all the problems the city has, why would they devote their energy to squashing our attempt to make Signs accessible to all?”

A temporary ramp, deployed as-needed, would mean no need for a permit. So on Jan. 16, Manikumar met with City Councilor Kristyn Wong-Tam to discuss how city officials could help make his ramp more portable.

“Ordinarily, we don't devote Toronto tax dollars and city resources to bring private businesses into compliance with city bylaws,” said Wong-Tam. “The city is making a huge exception in this one case because we believe the resulting design can be applied to other businesses with similar challenges.”

The Disability Issues Committee chair also indicated the city's accessibility guidelines are currently under review and hinted the encroachment bylaw may change as a result.

That's good news for diners like Zoe Hennessy, a 12-year-old with Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, who enjoyed a relaxing dinner out with her family thanks to Signs' ramp.

“For the most part, we boycott businesses that aren't accessible,” said Zoe's mother Heather. “If you can't provide an accessible option, then you don't deserve our business.”

Manikumar says Signs is seeing more guests with disabilities, thanks to the ramp controversy, but that's not their only inclusion effort.

“Signs is a great opportunity for people with disabilities because normally you can't just go work somewhere if you're deaf,” said Zoe.

Before Signs, bartender Tristan Kong experienced multi-year gaps in his work history as he struggled to find a job.

“Some employers call you and when they find out that you're deaf they're like, 'No, sorry.'”

It's a trend Manikumar wanted to reverse after learning sign language to assist a deaf patron at a Boston Pizza he managed six years ago.

“I had a great interaction with him and thought, wouldn't it be fun to have a restaurant staffed by deaf people?'”

As he got to know the deaf community on a deeper level, members confided in him.

“They told me things like, 'I was a dishwasher for two years until the restaurant closed down and then I was jobless for five years,'” said Manikumar. “This is my way of giving back to the community and this is why I went ahead with my idea, playing to the deaf community's strength in American Sign Language.”

But Manikumar doesn't want ordering in Sign Language to be a gimmick. To him, Signs is a restaurant that just happens to employ deaf servers, but should be judged on its food and service alone.

“We try to provide the best service and food possible.”

The Hennessy family noticed. Signs was able to accommodate not just Zoe's disability, but her diet as well.

“Zoe has been on a gluten-free diet, by doctor's orders, for a while now, so it's really nice that Signs actually put some thought into their vegetarian options,” said her mom. “We even learned how to say vegetarian in sign language.”

Helpful Links

To read the AODA Alliance’s January 21, 2015 letter to Economic Development Minister Duguid, seeking current information on the AODA’s enforcement.

To read Economic Development Minister Brad Duguid’s February 19, 2015 letter to the AODA Alliance.

To read Premier Wynne’s May 14, 2014 letter to the AODA Alliance.

To read our November 18, 2013 revelation that the Government was failing to effectively enforce the Disabilities Act despite knowing of rampant private sector violations, and funds on hand for enforcement.

To read the Government's February 20, 2014 pledge to publish in "short order" its plan for enforcing the Disabilities Act.

To read the Government’s May 14, 2014 election promise to establish a toll-free line to report disability accessibility barriers.

To read the AODA Alliance’s February 13, 2015 news release, responding to the final report of the Mayo Moran AODA Independent Review.

To read the AODA Alliance’s February 13, 2015 brief summary of key findings in the final report of the Mayo Moran AODA Independent Review.

To download the final report of the Mayo Moran AODA Independent Review in MS Word format, posted on our website.

To read our analysis of the Government’s paltry November 7, 2014 web posting on the AODA’s enforcement.

To read the AODA Alliance's August 28, 2014 letter to 2015 Toronto Games Minister Coteau.

Our October 1, 2013 Proposal for a Strong and Lasting Disability Accessibility Legacy.

To read what was said at the August 28, 2013 Government news conference on the 2015 Toronto Games, and our reaction to it.