ACCESSIBILITY FOR ONTARIANS WITH DISABILITIES ACT ALLIANCE UPDATE
UNITED FOR A BARRIER-FREE ONTARIO

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ACCESSIBILITY FOR ONTARIANS WITH DISABILITIES ACT ALLIANCE
BRIEF TO SELECT COMMITTEE ON ELECTIONS

April 27, 2009

1. Introduction

In September, 2007 Premier McGuinty made an election promise to the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance, to:

“Develop an action plan to make provincial and municipal elections fully accessible to voters."

The Conservatives and NDP made similar election pledges. This Select Committee provides a much needed opportunity to kick-start overdue action to keep those pledges.

Within the Ontario Government, work to keep this promise appears to be at a relatively preliminary stage, even though the next provincial election is only two and a half years away. As of now, there is no minister or ministry with lead responsibility for fulfilling this promise. We also understand that whatever limited activity was started within the Government on this front (apart from work on new accessible voting technology) appears to have now slowed or stopped, pending directions from the Select Committee on Elections.

This summary details our core recommendations. These preliminary recommendations are made with respect to both provincial and municipal elections in Ontario. In summary, it is our strong recommendation that an omnibus bill be developed and brought to the Legislature to address the recurring, foreseeable accessibility needs of voters and candidates with disabilities when participating in the democratic electoral process, in both provincial and municipal elections.

The pressing need for legislative action on this front was recently reinforced by the Information and Communication Standards Development Committee, appointed by the Government under the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, 2005. It too recommended that legislative reforms are needed to address barriers to full participation in elections that confront persons with disabilities.

The need for this new legislative initiative is also reinforced by the Premier’s 2007 election pledge to review all provincial legislation for accessibility barriers. This Select Committee should, among other things, now review all elections legislation for that purpose. We would welcome the opportunity to assist with this.

2. The Goal

The AODA Alliance recommends that an Accessible Elections Plan should achieve the following;

3. What the Ontario Government Should Do

To achieve these goals the Ontario Government should:

4. Government’s Own Data Shows Elections Inaccessibility a Serious Problem

The landing page on the internet for Elections Ontario states "Voting Everyday it Matters" and it does; however, access to exercise this right sadly still can depend on whether or not you have a disability.

Voting in the 2007 provincial election has brought to light continued barriers for persons with disabilities. This is revealed in the 2008 Report on Accessibility completed by Elections Ontario, and available to the public on the Government’s website. This report includes independent survey results gathered by Ipsos Reid. These indicate that fully 44% of electors with special needs encountered a problem on Election Day in 2007. The majority involved challenges related to physical barriers. Deeply troubling is the fact that 15% of complaints specifically outlined challenges related to the ability of electors with disabilities to cast their ballots.

In stark contrast, the Appendix of the same report indicated that 100% of returning offices and 99% of poll locations were deemed accessible by returning officers. There thus appears to be a dramatic and unacceptable disconnect between the troubling actual experience of voters with disabilities, and the reported optimistic perceptions of elections officials who are charged with ensuring elections accessibility.

The Elections Act and Elections Ontario Policy related to sourcing "accessible” returning offices and poll locations make elections voting accessibility a part of the Returning Officer’s duties. Currently Returning Officers and Poll Officials receive limited "Special Needs Training." In the last Ontario election this training was provided just prior to the Election. From our understanding, it does not include information regarding how to determine the accessibility of temporary voting locations.

5. Recommendations

We ask the Select Committee on Elections to include the following in its report to the Legislature:

1. It should recommend that for the electoral process in provincial and municipal elections to be responsive to the needs of the growing number of voters with disabilities, an omnibus provincial/municipal elections accessibility bill be developed and enacted before the next municipal and general provincial elections, to ensure that accessibility features of municipal and provincial elections meet the requirements of the AODA 2005, the Human Rights Code and the Charter of Rights. Such legislation should detail key measures that must be taken to ensure elections accessibility, and should put in place a sufficient process for monitoring compliance so that corrective action, where needed, can be taken before Election Day. The development of that legislation should include the steps listed above.

2. Although municipal elections may not be within this Select Committee’s mandate, its report to the Legislature can still encourage that any such legislation cover both provincial and municipal elections. The same accessibility requirements arise in both. To do so reduces the cost to the taxpayer of achieving accessible elections.

3. It is not sufficient in this regard to rely on commitments from elections officials, such as those at Elections Ontario, to the goal of elections accessibility for persons with disabilities. We have consistently received such commitments from such elections officials over the past decade. Yet too many barriers to the elections process persist. Strong, effective and mandatory legislation is needed to ensure elections accessibility into the future, well after current elections officials have retired or moved on to other jobs. Ontarians with disabilities should not have to repeat their efforts on this issue in election after election.

4. It is also not sufficient to leave this issue to be resolved by solely reforming elections policies and practices. Some of the needed corrective action can take place at the non-legislative level. However, voluntary policy and practice changes can easily be undone in the future, with little or no public visibility or accountability. In contrast, legislation cannot be changed without full public debate and public accountability.

5. In addition, there is a pressing need for an all-party accord on elections accessibility to address issues that legislation may not be able to comprehensibly address. (e.g. accessible all-candidates’ debates)

6. Conclusion

All three parties in the Legislature unanimously voted for the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act and for the October 29, 1998 resolution that adopted the 11 principles that this legislation was to embody. Under these, there is no reason why the next Ontario general election and the next province-wide municipal elections cannot be barrier-free for voters and candidates with disabilities, if the proper action is implemented now.

APPENDIX 1 AODA ALLIANCE CORRESPONDENCE REGARDING CURRENT ONTARIO GOVERNMENT ACTION ON 2007 ELECTION COMMITMENTS RE ACCESSIBLE ELECTIONS

ACCESSIBILITY FOR ONTARIANS WITH DISABILITIES ACT ALLIANCE
1929 Bayview Avenue,
Toronto, Ontario M4G 3E8
(Fax) 416-480-7014

December 8, 2008

Via facsimile (416) 325-9620

Ms. Ellen Waxman, Assistant Deputy Minister
Accessibility Directorate of Ontario
777 Bay Street
Suite 601A
Toronto, Ontario
M7A 2J4

Dear Ms. Waxman,

Re: McGuinty Government’s 2007 Election Promise of an Action Plan on Accessible Elections

I want to thank you and your colleagues from Cabinet Office’s Democratic Institutions Policy branch, the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing, the Ministry of Education, and Elections Ontario for meeting with our AODA Alliance delegation on November 24, 2008. We welcomed the opportunity to discuss the steps the Government has taken to fulfil its election commitment to develop an action plan for accessible provincial and municipal elections. We remain eager to learn what specific plans the Government has to keep this promise. For ten years, the AODA Alliance and its predecessor, the Ontarians with Disabilities Act Committee, have called for strong action to remove the barriers persons with disabilities face when exercising their fundamental democratic rights to take part in elections.

At this meeting we learned that your Accessible Elections Steering Committee has been assigned the task of dealing with this important election commitment. To date, you have had some meetings at six- to eight-week intervals. To date, you have been gathering information on what Ontario now does regarding elections accessibility. We shared with you our ideas on the key goals for an accessible elections action plan, and outlined steps the Government needs to take to develop this plan. We enclose a copy of the key points we presented.

We learned that no individual or ministry has been assigned responsibility for leading this initiative. We appreciate your agreeing to let us know who is ultimately assigned as lead on this initiative, if someone is so designated. We are certain that many in the disability community will also want to know who that will be.

We are concerned that if no lead is assigned with ultimate responsibility to ensure that this election commitment is fulfilled, the chances for effective progress are reduced. This issue is spread out across various silos in the Ontario Public Service.

We are eager to learn if the Government plans to develop and come forward with amending legislation. We indicated that there is a clear need for elections legislation to be amended, to address accessibility issues for voters and candidates with disabilities. This should be put in place before the next municipal elections in 2010, and the next provincial elections in 2011. This need is reinforced in recent recommendations of the Information and Communication Standards Development Committee, under the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act. The amendments needed go further than the specifics suggested by that Standards Development Committee.

It would make most sense for a single omnibus bill to be presented to the Legislature covering both provincial and municipal elections. This is far better than preparing and presenting separate bills to address provincial elections and municipal/school board elections. It is tough enough to get scarce time on the Legislature’s agenda for a single bill. To get time at the Legislature for two or more bills could be twice as difficult.

We emphasized that it is especially important for the Government to hold open, accessible consultations with the broad disability community on our accessibility needs in the elections context. This meeting with us, while welcomed, is of course no substitute for that full community consultation.

We were told that you hope the current public consultations on the initial proposal for the Information and Communication Accessibility Standard, under the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, would provide a first means to get public input on this topic. We welcome any chance for public input. However, we cautioned that there is a serious need for a proper, separate public consultation on elections accessibility. There are short time lines on the consultation on the proposed Information and Communication Accessibility Standard. We were concerned that because accessible elections are a minor part of that proposed accessibility standard, many within the disability community will be focused on other aspects of that standard when formulating their input.

We learned that your Accessible Elections Steering Committee is now developing a work plan. You didn’t know when the development of that plan would be completed. We asked you to let us know when that work plan is finalized. We also asked if you might share with us what you have gathered on what Ontario now does regarding elections accessibility for persons with disabilities. This would assist us and the disability community in providing further helpful input.

We discussed the fact that a Select Committee of the Legislature under Chair Greg Sorbara is looking into the topic of elections. Your colleagues told us that the Select Committee effort is not a Government initiative. It is separate from your activities on this election pledge. To us, it would seem sensible for all initiatives regarding these elections considerations to be dealt with together.

We discussed that in our view, it is not just important to have new policies prepared in this area: it is also necessary for the Government to put in place an effective system for monitoring and making sure any policies in this area are actually carried out.

For example, we understand that in a provincial election, the local Returning Officer in each riding is responsible for choosing the location of polling stations, and for making sure each polling station is situated in a disability-accessible venue. Returning officers may not have good knowledge of the accessibility needs of voters with disabilities. It is not enough just to have a policy for returning officers. It is important to make sure that they actually ensure that polling stations comply with that policy. It isn’t realistic just to give a returning officer a thick manual and hope they absorb it and follow it. Problems cannot be fixed on or after Election Day.

We shared our view that much of the work needed to make provincial and municipal elections fully accessible to persons with disabilities is neither complicated nor costly. It largely takes more commitment, leadership, good management and planning. We recommended that your staff research efforts try elsewhere, including in the U.S., to address these issues. There should be no need to re-invent the wheel to address many of our concerns.

We would be delighted to give you any further assistance that you may require. We would welcome the chance to meet again to discuss this topic.

Yours sincerely,

Catherine Dunphy Tardik,
Chair, AODA Alliance

cc: Premier Dalton McGuinty
via facsimile (416) 325-3745
Madeleine Meilleur, Minister, Community & Social Services
via facsimile (416) 325-1498
Ms Lucille Roch, Deputy Minister of Community & Social Services
via facsimile (416) 325-5240
Laura Bradford, Accessibility Directorate of Ontario
via facsimile (416) 325-9620
Loren Wells, Elections Ontario
via facsimile (416) 326-6201
Tim Lewis, Cabinet Office, Democratic Institutions Policy
via facsimile (416) 325-4773
Ralph Walton, Local Government & Policy Planning Branch, Ministry of Municipal Affairs & Housing
via facsimile (416) 585-7638
Derek Eng, French Language Education & Educational Operations
Ministry of Education
via facsimile (416) 325-7247

ACCESSIBILITY FOR ONTARIANS WITH DISABILITIES ACT ALLIANCE

PRELIMINARY PROPOSALS FOR DEVELOPING AN ACTION PLAN FOR DISABILITY-ACCESSIBLE PROVINCIAL AND MUNICIPAL ELECTIONS

*Government’s Promise to Establish Action Plan for Achieving Barrier-free Elections

Premier McGuinty’s September 14, 2007 election promises to the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance included:

“Develop an action plan to make provincial and municipal elections fully accessible to voters.

We have just released guides on how to make election communications materials accessible and how to make all candidates meetings accessible. A third guide will be released in October on how to make constituency offices and campaign offices accessible. In addition, we will commit to developing an action plan to make elections fully accessible to voters with disabilities.”

*What An Accessible Election Plan Should Achieve

(This is not an exhaustive list.)

1. Persons with disabilities are able to independently and privately mark their ballot, and verify their selection.

2. Persons with disabilities have full and equal access to all information on where and when to vote, and on choices of candidates.

3. Persons with disabilities have full access to polling stations, or accessible alternative means to vote when access to a polling station isn’t possible.

4. Persons with disabilities have full access to election platforms and other public information from candidates.

5. Persons with disabilities can fully participate in all-candidates’ debates.

6. Persons with disabilities can fully participate in elections as candidates, on a footing of equality.

*Developing The Promised Accessible Elections Action Plan

1. Establish central, accountable lead on the project, to oversee all work and bring forward legislation.

2. Who within the Government needs to be at the table?

a) Elections Ontario (re Ontario elections)

b) Ministry of Municipal Affairs (re municipal elections)

c) Possibly Ministry of Education (re school board elections, if managed separately from municipal elections)

d) Accessibility Directorate of Ontario ComSoc (advisory role)

e) Democratic Renewal

f) Establish a community-based Disability-Accessible Elections Advisory Committee

g) Representatives from three major Ontario political parties.

3. Steps needed in elections action plan:

a) Identify list of disability election barriers now experienced, in consultation with disability community.

b) Identify range of “fixes,” including researching strategies attempted in other jurisdictions, in consultation with disability community.

c) Determine which “fixes” require legislative amendments and develop legislative package.

d) Identify which “fixes” require all-party agreement, as opposed to legislative or other fixes.

e) Test pilot options in upcoming municipal elections or provincial by-elections, in consultation with disability community.

*Key Pointers for Consulting with Disability Community

1. All consultations should be open, accessible, and not “invitation-only.”

2. Consultations should include persons with physical, mental and/or sensory disabilities.

3. Consultations should reach outside Toronto to urban and rural communities.

4. The public should be given specific questions for input, plus options to consider.

*****

The November 17, 2008 initial proposed Information and Communications Accessibility Standard includes:
7.0 Accessible Municipal and Provincial Elections

7.1 Voting

Secure voting methods (such as online and/or telephone) shall be implemented to allow persons with disabilities to vote privately and independently.

7.2 Municipal Candidates in Municipal Elections and Political Parties in Provincial Elections

Municipal candidates in municipal elections and provincial parties in provincial elections shall provide their election and candidate material in a manner consistent with Section 5 and Schedule 1.

7.3 Candidates Meetings

Political parties in provincial elections shall hold at least one meeting in a manner consistent with Section 5 and Schedule 1.

Persons with disabilities shall be provided with the ability to:

a) participate in the discussion during the meeting; and

b) pose questions to candidates and receive answers to questions.

Committee Comments Section 7:

The Committee recognizes that all levels of government and stakeholders have made significant efforts to improve accessibility of persons with disabilities with respect to civic participation through increased awareness and education efforts, the provision of supports and tools and improvements to legislation covering such matters. However, many members noted that access is often inconsistently provided, and for some persons with disabilities, is not provided. A more structured, regulatory approach is required. On-line and telephone voting are examples of methods that should be available to persons with disabilities. In addition, Section 5 and Schedule 1 requirements, at minimum, should govern how voting must be made accessible.

Notwithstanding these views, some committee members expressed the opinion that voting methods are issues that deserve broader public input and government attention.

The Committee recommends that immediate action be taken by the provincial government to quickly make any legislative changes that are needed to provide for full accessibility in the voting and electoral process.

Some Committee members expressed the opinion that municipal candidates, for example school board trustees, should not be subject to this provision because of their unique circumstances, such as jurisdictional and geographic variations, variable access to electronic communications and financial limitations.

Some committee members expressed concern regarding who would incur the costs for these requirements.

Key points for consideration during public review:

The Committee is seeking input on:

* the ability of individual candidates meeting these requirements.