ACCESSIBILITY FOR ONTARIANS WITH DISABILITIES ACT ALLIANCE UPDATE

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TEXT OF THE AODA ALLIANCE’S MARCH 31, 2010 PRESENTATION ON BILL 231 TO THE ONTARIO LEGISLATURE’S STANDING COMMITTEE ON THE LEGISLATIVE ASSEMBLY

April 8, 2010

SUMMARY

Below we set out the text of the AODA Alliance’s March 31, 2010 presentation on Bill 231 to the Legislature’s Standing Committee on the Legislative Assembly. (About six pages.) It is preceded by a short passage from the public hearings, just before the AODA Alliance’s presentation, which the AODA Alliance addressed in its remarks.

In the two days of public hearings on Bill 231 before that Standing Committee, there were 23 presenters. The first was the Chief Electoral Officer from Elections Ontario, Greg Essensa. Of the other 22 presenters, fully 21 focused on the need for the bill to be substantially strengthened to ensure fully accessible elections for Ontarians with disabilities. The other presenter was the Liberal Party’s elections lawyer, who mainly addressed the bill’s provisions governing election campaigns, election finances, and the like.

Many of the 21 presenters who focused on the bill’s disability accessibility provisions, both individuals and organizations, endorsed the AODA Alliance’s brief. None of these 21 presenters disagreed with our proposals. You can find our brief at:
http://www.aodaalliance.org/strong-effective-aoda/03172010.asp

On Wednesday, April 14, 2010, the Standing Committee on the Legislative Assembly will vote on amendments to Bill 231. We will let you know what amendments the three political parties propose.

We encourage you to write Premier Dalton McGuinty, Opposition Leader Tim Hudak and NDP Leader Andrea Horwath to urge them to accept the recommendations in the AODA Alliance’s brief on Bill 231. You can write to them at these email addresses:
Premier Dalton McGuinty: mcguinty.mpp.co@liberal.ola.org
Conservative Leader Tim Hudak: olo@pc.ola.org
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath: ahorwath-qp@ndp.on.ca

The four important documents we submitted to the Standing Committee on the Legislative Assembly in connection with our presentation include:

  1. Our brief on Bill 231, which you can read by clicking here:
    http://www.aodaalliance.org/strong-effective-aoda/03172010.asp
  2. Our collection of examples of barriers that Elections Ontario has itself documented in the 2007 Ontario election, which you can read by clicking here:
    http://www.aodaalliance.org/strong-effective-aoda/03312010-1.asp
  3. Our chronology of events concerning barriers in the February 4, 2010 Toronto centre by-election, which you can see by clicking here:
    http://www.aodaalliance.org/strong-effective-aoda/03312010-2.asp
  4. Our analysis of the presentations at the first day of public hearings on Bill 231, on March 24, 2010, which you can read by clicking here:
    http://www.aodaalliance.org/strong-effective-aoda/03282010.asp

EXCERPTS FROM ONTARIO HANSARD MARCH 31 2010

(Note: Just before the AODA Alliance’s presentation to the Standing Committee, the presenter for the CNIB, Mr. Christopher Maclean, had an exchange with two MPPs on the Standing Committee, concerning accessible voting machines. The AODA Alliance presentation referred back to this exchange.)

The Chair (Mr. Bas Balkissoon): We’ll move to the NDP. Mr. Prue?

Mr. Michael Prue: There were some people who suggested—I’m not one of them—that this is a very expensive process. I did ask the researcher, Mr. Johnston, to give me some background information on the city of Peterborough and what they attempted to do. It cost the city about $300,000. It did accommodate 10 people: That’s the extent.

You are asking for these machines in every location. There are about 15,000 polling locations in Ontario during an election: That is a lot. Is there some way we can have one per riding and instruct people to go there? I know some ridings are way too big to do that. I’m just trying to figure out how this can be done in a way that is not cost-prohibitive, because it needs to be done.

Mr. Chris MacLean: My first response to the cost-prohibitive argument—I mean, we’re conscious of cost, but I don’t think that really has been tested properly, especially in Ontario. We know, just on the numbers for blind and partially sighted Canadians, that there are 370,000 people from the last StatsCan poll who self-identified as being blind and partially sighted: That’s a lot of people. That’s the population of Iceland.

If Elections Ontario makes people aware of the equipment, if they have the equipment available in advance so that they can take a look at it in the mall or a library or a community centre and they know how it works, that they know to ask for it, then you’re going to get much more return on your investment. More people are going to use those options. We’re also sure there are probably less expensive options out there and, once you open the market for innovation and create a market for the vendors, then the vendors will hopefully be able to produce cheaper machines.

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We certainly know that in the United States there are a lot of vendors who are getting into this area, but I would caution that I think it really needs to be tested properly to find out what the real numbers are and give people a real chance to use the machines before we get into the costing argument.

Mr. Michael Prue: In any event—

The Chair (Mr. Bas Balkissoon): Thank you very much. I’ve got to move to the government side.

Mr. Greg Sorbara: My question is along the lines of my friend Mr. Prue. Let me put it this way: In the work that we did in the select committee, we found that, currently, the voting machine of the type that Ontario is going to be using costs, with the training associated with it, about $15,000. As Mr. Prue said, there are about 15,000 locations—polling places—in the province of Ontario for a general election. If you do the math, that’s $225 million to supply all polling places with this kind of capacity. Does the CNIB realistically suggest to the government, which is looking at $20 billion in red ink, that to assist the disability community its first priority should be to spend $225 million on voting machines for the next election?

Mr. Chris McLean: I don’t want to be drawn into a budget discussion—

Mr. Greg Sorbara: It’s not a budget discussion; it’s a priorities discussion. It costs money to—

Mr. Chris McLean: If it’s a priority discussion, I can answer it that way because I can only answer for the priorities of our constituents, and not being disenfranchised is a priority for us.

Nobody is suggesting that the most expensive option has to be used and deployed. If there are cost savings in the system, certainly find those efficiencies, but it would be wrong of me to talk on behalf of blind and partially sighted Canadians to say that this is not important to them.

Mr. Greg Sorbara: I appreciate that, and it’s important to us, but amidst that community, there are a variety of issues that the community looks to government for assistance on, and let’s be fair, we’re falling behind in a lot of those areas—“


Right after this exchange came the AODA Alliance’s presentation to the Standing Committee, which we set out here in full:

ACCESSIBILITY FOR ONTARIANS WITH DISABILITIES ACT ALLIANCE

The Chair (Mr. Bas Balkissoon): The next presenter is Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance: David Lepofsky, Orville Endicott and Courtney Keystone.

Welcome. You have 15 minutes for your presentation. Please state your name for the record, and if there’s any time left at the end of your presentation, we’ll allow questions from all sides.

Mr. David Lepofsky: Good morning. With me are Orville Endicott and Courtney Keystone. My name is David Lepofsky. I’m the chair of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance.

Eleven years ago, I and others convened a press conference here to call for accessible elections for voters with disabilities in Ontario, who number over one million. Eleven years later, we still don’t have them; 11 years later, people with mobility disabilities continue to face the indignity of receiving a card from Elections Ontario saying their polling station is accessible but never knowing until they get there if it really will be. They face the indignity of possibly having to be carried down steps just to be able to vote or to have to find someone to run into an inaccessible polling station to ask the scrutineers or the staff to stop letting everybody else vote so they can go outside and, perhaps, the person can vote in a car.

People like me who are blind still face the double indignity that we cannot mark our own ballot and verify that we marked it right. We have to rely instead on someone else to mark our ballot, hope they get it right, hope they don’t spoil it and hope they don’t tell anyone—compounded by the fact that we are asked to swear an oath that the government has created this barrier in our path just to get that accommodation.

The government promised us an accessible elections action plan, as did both opposition parties. The government and both opposition parties rose in unison five years ago to provide that this province would be fully accessible by 2025. Bill 231 will not fix those barriers to accessible elections now; it will not ensure accessible elections ever.

What will it do? At first, it provides that Elections Ontario can do research and hold conferences. Great. We don’t need legislation for them to do research. They say they’ve been doing it for over seven years. And conferences—that’s great. We won’t be able to vote and they’ll have conferences.

It says they may use accessible voting machines, but they don’t have to. What is thrown at us is what Mr. Sorbara just said: It’s going to cost tens of millions. It’s going to cost hundreds of millions. Mr. Sorbara, that’s because your legislation is drafted to lock the government into the most expensive option. It forbids the use of technology that the banks have used for years to enable people like me and people like you to do our banking securely, safely and in private from any telephone we pick up.

Telephone voting would be cheaper, easier, more appealing to everybody. It can be done with security, safety and privacy, and it would cost way less. But not only doesn’t this bill require it, not only doesn’t this bill permit it, it forbids it. Your section 23 includes a provision that forbids technology that is connected to a network for voting accessibly.

So this bill creates a legal barrier to the cheaper solution, and then what we hear is what we heard just a few minutes ago presented to CNIB. Blind people should be faced with the cruel choice of a very expensive option or forgoing their basic democratic rights. It’s a cruel choice. It’s not the choice we should be forced to face. It is not a choice that accessibility requires, but this bill locks us into that.

What this bill doesn’t do is require polling stations to be accessible. What it doesn’t do is put in place a system to make sure that happens—because once a person with a disability gets to a polling station and finds that they can’t get in, they can’t come back the day after the election and vote then. The election is over.

Now, what are the real guts of this bill? What did the Select Committee on Elections present us with and what has the government put before us? It’s a very simple message: Trust Elections Ontario. Let’s let them have their research and conferences and so on, and let’s hope they’ll get it right.

The bill does one more thing, in fairness. It allows for mail-in ballots and home visits by Elections Ontario, but it doesn’t require those mail-in ballots to be accessible. It doesn’t require Elections Ontario to do the home visits; they’ve got a discretion whether they’ll do it or not. No doubt, if hundreds of thousands of voters with disabilities insist on home visits because they won’t know until election day whether they can get in the polling station, we’ll be faced with an argument like we just heard a few minutes ago, “Oh, my God. That will cost thousands and thousands and millions of dollars. We can’t have that.”

The cheaper option is just making the polling stations accessible, but that’s not required here in this legislation. Nor is there a measure to make it effective.

Now, if you want to talk about cost, in fairness you’ve got to talk about the cost of doing accessibility versus the cost of not doing accessibility. What is the taxpayer exposed to if this bill passes as is and if it’s not fixed to make elections accessible?

I’m relying on the presentation you heard last week by the chief commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, Barbara Hall. What did she tell you? She told you that the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ordered that one single voter who faced one single inaccessible federal polling station was awarded $10,000 in damages. I invite you to take the numbers that Mr. Sorbara just added up—I’m picking on you just because we were classmates.

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Mr. Greg Sorbara: You were always smarter than me, David. Let’s put that on the record.

Mr. David Lepofsky: I encourage you, therefore, to accept our advice.

Laughter.

Mr. David Lepofsky: Mr. Chair, may I ask that his heckles come out of my time?

But what does that mean? If every voter who faces one of these barriers invokes the rights that Barbara Hall talked about, what does that mean that the cost of inaccessibility will be to the taxpayer? Let’s not solve this by litigation; let’s solve it by strong and effective legislation.

Let’s take a minute to look at the option that the Select Committee on Elections offered us and Bill 231 provides: Trust Elections Ontario. They’re hard-working and they mean well. They’ve been telling us for a decade that they really treat this as a priority. But what’s their track record? A week ago, the Chief Electoral Officer, Mr. Essensa, told you that they reported that 99% of the polls in Ontario in the 2007 election were accessible, but let’s penetrate a little further. What he didn’t tell you and what was in his own Elections Ontario accessibility report that he tabled with you is that they surveyed voters with disabilities and fully 44% reported difficulties voting, with polling locations and so on. What else did we learn? Mr. Essensa openly conceded that Elections Ontario has got to do substantially better on accessibility. He acknowledged that the reports that his own returning officers submit aren’t necessarily accurate. Those are his representations to you. What did we learn? We learned that in Toronto Centre, in the last by-election, they had an inaccessible poll because a principal decided that a volleyball game was more important than basic democratic rights for voters with disabilities. We suggest that “Trust Elections Ontario,” no matter how hard-working and sincere they are, is not enough.

It’s also not enough because you’ve got to look at what Mr. Essensa told you were the reasons why he thinks things will be okay now. He said, “We at Elections Ontario are still learning about accessibility.” I ask members of the committee: How many of you think there is more to learn about the fact that people in wheelchairs can’t go down stairs to vote? Is that a tough one? How about this: How much do we have to learn about the fact that if you can’t get through the door, you can’t get in? These are pretty basic things. It’s not rocket science. But they say they’re still learning.

With respect, they told us that the future is bright because they’re going to do more consultations, but if you look at their 2007 report, they’ve been doing consultations with the disability community back to 2003 and before. We’re delighted they consulted, we’re delighted they want to consult, but we suggest, respectfully, that that’s not the solution.

Finally, they say they want to do more research and develop better kits to give their staff. Again, in their own report, they have boasted about all the research they did before 2007 and the great kits they’ve given out. We’ve provided you documentation on this. For anybody watching this on TV, all of the documentation we placed before the committee is in accessible format on aodaalliance.org for them to see.

So what do you do about it? Let me summarize what we say you should do about it. You need to strengthen this bill to keep all your parties’ election commitments for an accessible elections action plan. You need to extend it to apply to provincial and municipal elections, because both have the same barriers, the solutions are the same and you cut the cost by avoiding requiring two levels of government to reinvent the same wheel. We say that you need to require accessible polling stations, but also put in details, legislated standards of what that means, not just window-dressing statements—“All elections must be accessible”—but details. And there has to be enforcement and monitoring. Require Elections Ontario to post their proposed polling sites nine months or whatever in advance. Let us go out and check them out, make submissions, and if Elections Ontario doesn’t fix their plans to ensure accessibility, give us an expeditious, cheap right of appeal. There are ways to fix this.

Provide for accessible voting machines. If you can’t do it by this election, do it by 2015. Require that it has to be instituted, but more than that, take away Bill 231’s current legislative barrier to ensuring that that kind of machinery is low-cost and the most widely available.

We have 23 recommendations and we don’t have time to go through them all, but we respectfully suggest that it’s important to make these provisions mandatory and put in timelines. We’re quite open to the idea of two stages. Certain things will have to be accomplished by the 2011 election and other things deferred to, perhaps, 2015, to make sure they really happen.

Let me conclude with just a couple of observations. You folks bemoan the low voter turnout at elections. We’re here for voters who want to vote but face barriers that are eminently preventable. You’re wringing your hands over possible solutions. You want to solve the problem of snow? You want to provide for cheaper access to more accessible polling stations? Here’s one for you: Why not require this fixed-date election to be at the end of June? The snow will have melted—in most places—and if you’ve got a problem with indoor accessible locations, pitch a tent in the parking lot in front of the inaccessible church or school and let people vote outside. It’s the end of June: It won’t be such a big deal. This is not rocket science. It is not hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars. It is not a question of challenging a deficit that should be wisely spent elsewhere. It’s a matter of doing what the Americans have been figuring out and what we should be figuring out.

We respectfully request that you amend this bill, that you strengthen this bill and that you ensure that provincial and municipal elections are fully accessible to voters and candidates with disabilities, not only on voting day but throughout the campaign process. Thank you very much for this opportunity to present.

The Chair (Mr. Bas Balkissoon): Thank you, David, and thank you for coming. There’s no time left, so we’ll move to the next deputant.