ACCESSIBILITY FOR ONTARIANS WITH DISABILITIES ACT ALLIANCE UPDATE

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FIRST DAY OF PUBLIC HEARINGS SHOW RESOUNDING SUPPORT FOR OUR CALL FOR BILL 231 TO BE STRENGTHENED TO ENSURE FULLY ACCESSIBLE ELECTIONS FOR ONTARIANS WITH DISABILITIES

March 28, 2010

SUMMARY

On March 24, 2010, the Legislature’s Standing Committee on the Legislative Assembly’s public hearings heard a resounding, unanimous call from all community organization presenters, from the Ontario Human Rights Commission, and from several individuals with disabilities. They called for Bill 231 to be significantly strengthened to ensure fully accessible elections for persons with disabilities.

Bill 231 is the Government’s proposed new legislation to modernize elections in Ontario. The AODA Alliance has called for that bill to be strengthened to ensure that all provincial and municipal elections in Ontario are fully accessible for voters and candidates with disabilities.

Before those presenters spoke, Elections Ontario’s Chief Electoral Officer, Greg Essensa made a 30 minute presentation to the Standing Committee. He made several points that serve to reinforce the AODA Alliance’s call for Bill 231 to be strengthened. Some of his comments, apparently designed to give confidence in Elections Ontario’s efforts at making elections accessible to persons with disabilities, are questionable, or are undermined by other information coming from Elections Ontario, as detailed below.

Remember to try to attend the AODA Alliance’s presentation to the Standing Committee on the Legislative Assembly in Room 151 at the Ontario Legislature, Queen’s Park, Toronto, on Wednesday March 31, 2010 at 12:30 noon.

MORE DETAILS

Here we set out the highlights from the March 24 hearings, and some feedback on these. When the full transcript of the day is available to us, we will make it available to you. The quotations here are taken by us from the broadcast of these proceedings on the TV Legislature Channel.

A. General

The first two presenters at the March 24, 2010 public hearings were government officials, Elections Ontario’s Chief Electoral Officer, Greg Essensa, followed by Barbara Hall, Chief Commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission. After them were several excellent presenters, speaking as individuals, and in some cases, for community organizations. The issue of accessibility of elections for persons with disabilities dominated the hearings. Every presenter (apart from the Chief Electoral Officer) called for Bill 231 to be substantially strengthened to ensure full accessibility of elections for persons with disabilities. No one claimed that Bill 231, as now written, would ensure fully accessible elections in Ontario now or ever. Several presenters explicitly endorsed the proposed amendments that the AODA Alliance has presented in its brief. This included, for example, endorsements from the Ontario Federation of Labour, Citizens with Disabilities Ontario and the Canadian Paraplegic Association. That brief is available at: http://www.aodaalliance.org/strong-effective-aoda/03172010.asp

We commend and congratulate all individuals and organizations who took the time to make their excellent presentations.

B. Presentation by Chief Electoral Officer of Elections Ontario, Mr. Greg Essensa

1. The Chief Electoral Officer admitted that Election agencies have been told for some years that voters with disabilities find paper ballots are inaccessible. A year earlier, back on March 24, 2009, when appearing before the Legislature’s Select Committee on Elections, Chief Electoral Officer Greg Essensa stated: “…one of the basic principles of democracy is that each individual elector is entitled to vote completely independently, in secret. It's a founding principle of democracy. Certainly, since I have become Chief Electoral Officer, I've been made aware of many, many correspondences through the Chief Electoral Officer's office from various disabled groups indicating their very strong desire to see a change in the electoral process that would allow them to vote completely independently. Thus the existence of this barrier is recognized by Elections Ontario, and not disputed.

2. The Chief Electoral Officer acknowledged before the Standing Committee that if a voter faces a barrier, Elections Ontario has not done its job properly.

3. The Chief Electoral Officer told the Standing Committee on the Legislative Assembly that Elections Ontario had reported that 99% of the polls in the 2007 election were accessible. However, undermining this claim:

a) Mr. Essensa did not alert the Standing Committee that contradicting this 99% accessibility claim, Elections Ontario’s own 2007 accessibility report acknowledged a much higher level of problems faced by voters with disabilities. It stated the following based on the Ipsos Reid survey of voters with disabilities in the 2007 election, commissioned by Elections Ontario:

“However, there are still challenges: a key finding of the survey is that compared to other electors, voters with disabilities report, in general, higher than average problems at voting locations. Forty-four per cent of voters with special needs said they experienced problems at their voting locations and 15 per cent said they had problems casting their ballots, a stark contrast to eight per cent and one per cent respectively for electors in general. According to the survey, the main areas of concern are physical accessibility in the voting location, signage outside the place identifying the location, the process of voting including the assistance received from poll workers, privacy and the ability to communicate with staff.”

b) When asked by MPP Greg Sorbara how many polls were accessible, the Chief Electoral Officer admitted that their figures (i.e. on the level of accessibility of polling stations) may not be fully accurate: The Chief Electoral Officer stated: “What was reported after the 2007 general election was that we were at 99% of our polls were accessible. What we need to understand better now is as we are learning more and more about accessibility features and the standards are being reviewed under the AODA, I think that, you know we are confident that some of those numbers perhaps weren’t exactly accurate given the standards that we would apply today.”

c) Later during the March 24, 2010 public hearings, another presenter, voter with a disability Ms. Sue Morgan, explained in her presentation that she had faced a six-inch curb that prevented her from entering a polling station in the Kitchener Waterloo riding. One member of the Standing Committee noted that in the accessibility report filed by the returning officer for that riding (which Elections Ontario filed with the Standing Committee), it had been claimed that all the polls in that election were accessible. This further shows that the reports from returning officers on how many polling stations were accessible cannot be fully trusted as accurate.

d) During the Chief Electoral Officer’s presentation, MPP Greg Sorbara, Liberal (Chair of the Legislature’s Select Committee on Elections) stated that the issue of polls accessibility “arises time and again.”

4. The Chief Electoral Officer conceded at these public hearings there is a significant need for improvement: “This proves in my mind that Elections Ontario needs to be doing a much better job of ensuring accessibility for electors.”

5. The Chief Electoral Officer admitted before the Standing Committee that barriers must be fixed on Election Day, and that "It is too late to learn about them after the election." We have been making this point over and over.

6. The Chief Electoral Officer tried to explain why things were this way in the past, and by implication, why things will be better. “We now know a lot more about accessibility than we have in the past.” Yet Elections Ontario knew or should have known by 2007, if not many years earlier, that a polling station is not accessible if a voter with a disability must for example, walk a far distance to reach it, open a door using his or her own strength, pass through a narrow door, and/or climb or descend stairs to reach the polling station. This is neither news nor rocket science.

7. The Chief Electoral Officer suggested that they need better accessibility guides and training for elections officials and better training. “I know that to date, returning officers have not been given adequate tools to provide for accessibility, measure accessibility and report on accessibility. Under the new standards of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, Ontario is not required to have a fully accessible built environment until 2025. Nonetheless, Elections Ontario will do what it needs to ensure accessibility at the polls. In very specific terms, this means we will give field staff a more detailed accessibility guide to use for selecting and operation voting locations. This means that if electors face an unexpected barrier, they can easily call upon our workers for help. We need to provide our workers with better resources, tools and processes to serve all electors.”

8. Yet Elections Ontario’s 2007 elections accessibility report claimed that they had all these kinds of tools in place, after improving on them from the 2003 election. For example, it states:

a) “In working to improve our program, we looked to our stakeholders’ recommendations from the previous general election. As a result, an important component of the 2007 program was to emphasize improved sensitivity training for front-line employees.”

b) “We teamed up with established stakeholder organizations to develop specific information materials emphasizing sensitivity in serving individuals with different disabilities. We then delivered this information to all front-line personnel such as poll officials and public contact centre staff.”

c) “A key challenge identified after the 2003 general election was the difficulty in providing effective sensitivity training to the approximately 75,000 temporary poll officials who join Elections Ontario for a short period of time to deliver an election.

To address this concern, we developed and delivered training for front-line personnel including poll officials and contact centre employees to ensure effective responsiveness to electors with special needs.

Sensitivity training was delivered during the general training provided to returning officers in the spring of 2007. In turn, this information was provided to poll staff through their training to increase their effectiveness in providing assistance at the polls.

In addition, Elections Ontario’s training video for poll officials incorporated information on ways to better serve voters with disabilities. Working with actors who have a disability and other actors, we used information gathered in our consultations with stakeholder organizations to demonstrate best practices in serving electors with disabilities at the polls.

All Elections Ontario poll official manuals also included instructions on how to assist electors with special needs. We emphasized that the deputy returning officer’s role includes providing assistance to an elector with a disability at the poll if required.

Our poll kits, which are distributed to all deputy returning officers and contain information they and their colleagues need to do their work on Election Day, included specific details on assisting voters who have disabilities.”

9. The Chief Electoral Officer’s presentation made it sound as if the solution to the past accessibility problems would be found once Elections Ontario consults on accessibility with the disability community, as if this was some new innovation. He said: “Elections Ontario will be consulting with persons with disabilities and others on our detailed accessibility guide. In this process, we expect to be working closely with Elections Canada and the Association of Municipal Clerks and Treasurers of Ontario as they also have an interest in this area. We cannot and will not do this alone. We are committed to building effective partnerships with other service providers, parties, candidates, and the communities we serve to get this job done.” He also stated: “One of the things that we are doing at Elections Ontario now is we are embarking on a fairly aggressive consultation process where we will be working with focus groups to assess what the quality standards and accessibility standards need to be, what are the barriers that we need to remove to ensure that we can comply and become as fully accessible as possible given the current restraints that perhaps pertain in some of the locations that may be utilized for voting locations. We fully intend to fully engage the disability community on those consultations to in fact ensure the standards that we put in place, that we got them right.”

10. Yet the 2007 Elections Ontario accessibility report states that Elections Ontario has been extensively researching and consulting on accessibility with the disability community on this very issue since before the 2003 election, and then between the 2003 and 2007 election. For example:

a) “Leading up to the 2007 Provincial General Election and Referendum, Elections Ontario examined the results achieved through measures implemented in the 2003 general election and reviewed the input from our consultations with stakeholder groups serving Ontarians with special needs as well as related provisions in the Election Act to respond to them, including adapting to new legislation introduced in that interim period. In addition, we continued to research and share best practices with other jurisdictions and to monitor new tools being developed and applied elsewhere.”

b) “Our Outreach Program is a core element of Elections Ontario’s commitment to ensure a fair and accessible election process for all Ontarians. It is intended to identify and respond, within our legislated framework, to the electoral needs of Ontarians who have a disability. A review of our initiatives in the 2003 general election showed that we were headed in the right direction with our core products and services for electors with special needs. Consultations with stakeholder groups conducted after that election helped identify key issues and provided recommendations for enhancements to the program. This formed the basis for Elections Ontario’s outreach plan for 2007.”

c) “Elections Ontario emerged from the 2003 general election with a strong Outreach Program. The results achieved in 2003 in serving electors with special needs indicated to us that our approach was sound and should be maintained as the foundation for the 2007 program.

At the same time, we resolved to continue looking for ways to improve our strategies by collaborating closely with stakeholder organizations and reviewing best practices with other election agencies.”

d)”Elections Ontario’s worked with organizations serving people with disabilities to encourage them to provide in their publications and communications with their clients information on election accommodations available to them and continue to serve electors with special needs through established products and services. An additional objective was to ensure all eligible electors were able to register and vote in the 2007 Provincial General Election and Referendum.

In developing our materials, we carried out ongoing consultation with the Accessibility Directorate to further ensure that we at Elections Ontario are doing everything we can to support the spirit of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act.”

11. Although the Chief Electoral Officer gave the Standing Committee a copy of Elections Ontario’s 2007 accessibility report, he did not bring to the Committee’s attention these troubling findings in that report:

a) “As for products and services, CNIB indicated that there have been improvements, including a successful new ballot template and larger print materials. Users reported mostly positive comments about the ballot, with a majority saying it worked well and they were pleased to be able to mark their ballot unaided. In addition, voters with low vision expressed general satisfaction with the larger print ballots.

Some of the challenges reported to our partners were difficulty fitting the ballot form into the Braille template and therefore having to receive assistance marking the ballot, as well as concerns that there was no way for users to independently confirm that they marked the ballot correctly without asking another person.

Twenty-nine per cent of the voters who are blind or visually impaired who responded to our survey said they had difficulties with the readability of the ballot and 18 per cent said they had difficulty casting the ballot.”

b) “In terms of service on polling day, among the voters who are blind who contacted Elections Ontario during the campaign period, 75 per cent were happy with the way the issue they raised was resolved, while 25 per cent said the issue was handled poorly.”

c) “In terms of service on election day, our post-event survey results show that among the electors who are deaf who contacted Elections Ontario, 60 per cent say the way their issue was handled was excellent or good while 20 per cent thought it was handled poorly. However, a key election issue identified by respondents who are deaf or hard of hearing is the difficulty in communicating with staff at the polls.”

C. Presentation by Barbara Hall, Chief Commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission

1. Barbara Hall, Chief Commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights commission, strongly supported the call for Bill 231 to be substantially strengthened. She told the Standing Committee that the bill does not require the use of accessible voting equipment and procedures nor does it require polling stations to be set up in accessible locations as a right. She said that barrier-free participation is a right and not only for voters with disabilities. The bill contains no provisions to address accessible electoral processes for candidates with disabilities, such as requiring accessible locations for campaign offices, nomination and campaign meetings, debates, and related events. There is no requirement that campaign and other election materials be made available in electronic and other accessible formats. The bill does not address disadvantage faced by candidates with disabilities or potential candidates who may be discouraged from running because of disability-related expenses. Sign language interpretation and captioning may be necessary for deaf or hard of hearing candidates to participate at meetings and events. There are no provisions to have disability-related expenses be exempted from contributions or spending limits nor be included for full reimbursement by Ontarians with Disabilities Act. Doing so would help meet the human rights standard that the cost of accommodation should not be borne by the person with a disability but shared broadly in society.

2. Barbara Hall told the Standing Committee that polling station and voting accessibility is required under the Human Rights Commission and the Charter of Rights. We note that this is the same position that the AODA Alliance has voiced. As for the cost of accessible voting machines for voters with disabilities, the Chief Commissioner of the Human Rights Commission said that these are costs our society needs to bear.

3. Ms. Hall also told the Standing Committee: "So going back to 2000, the Commission settled two complaints that required the City of Ottawa to ensure voters with visual disabilities could cast their vote independently and in secret, and just last month, the decision of the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal in the Hughes case now compels Elections Canada to change its leasing policies, signage, and training and ensure its polling stations are accessible, as well as implement a public complaints and reporting process, and with respect to that case I would also note that an award of damages was made to Mr. Hughes, I think in the area of $10,000 but also showing that not moving forward has a cost also. We think it would be better to put the resources into upgrading as opposed to being paid when people are denied access.”

4. In this regard, the AODA Alliance notes that Elections Ontario appears to misunderstand its obligations regarding accessibility of polling stations. Elections Ontario’s 2007 report on election accessibility stated that polling stations are not legally required to be barrier-free – a view which Ms. Hall’s presentation shows to be incorrect. The Elections Ontario 2007 report stated:

“Although polling-day locations are not required by law to be barrier-free, we endeavour to find accessible voting locations where possible. Returning officers reported that a full 99 per cent of polling-day locations in their electoral district were barrier-free.” Elsewhere the 2007 accessibility report by Elections Ontario states: “Under the Election Act, returning officers are required to ensure all advance poll locations provide access to wheelchairs and as many election day poll locations as possible are wheelchair accessible.”

5. Barbara Hall told the Standing Committee: “Relying on Ontario’s human rights system should be a last resort. Legislative reform should match, or better yet, exceed these gains. The best way to eliminate accessibility barriers and avoid complaints is to make sure that legislation and policy prevents them in the first place. This would demonstrate Ontario is serious about its commitment to barrier-free access.”

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