ACCESSIBILITY FOR ONTARIANS WITH DISABILITIES ACT ALLIANCE UPDATE

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United for a Barrier-Free Ontario

Will the Massive New Courthouse that The Wynne Government Is Planning for the Heart of Downtown Toronto Have Sufficient Disability Accessibility?

October 6, 2017

Summary

Many think any new building built in Ontario must be fully accessible for people with disabilities. Sadly, neither the Ontario Building Code nor the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act ensures this. To the contrary, new buildings are now built in Ontario, even with public money, that lack proper accessibility.

In the face of this, the AODA Alliance continues to play a leading role in advocating for Ontario's laws to be reformed to effectively ensure that new buildings are fully accessible. As an illustration of this campaign, we have just written the Attorney General of Ontario, Yasir Naqvi, to raise concerns regarding the Government's plans to build a massive new courthouse in the heart of downtown Toronto. As we explain in our October 5, 2017 letter (set out below), there are no adequate plans for ensuring sufficient dedicated accessible parking spots for people with disabilities at or right by the courthouse. The Government has engaged accessibility consultants, has said it is committed to ensuring accessibility, and has indicated some good accessibility features it is planning to include.

However, well into the design process, the Government and the design teams it has hired inexplicably have not consulted with people with disabilities at any time over the past three years that it has spent working up the project's design specifications. We don't know what accessibility advice the Government has received, and how much of that accessibility advice it has accepted or rejected. This accessibility planning to date has all been conducted behind closed doors.

Now the Government is going to select a private company to build the project. We don't know how much the Government is doing to ensure that the successful bidder has sufficient expertise in courthouse accessibility.

Our letter concludes with a series of specific requests of the Government, as follows:

"1. Can you please send us, in an accessible format (not a PDF) the Project Specific Output Specifications that have been already set for the new Toronto Courthouse, including (if possible, in a separate document) the PSOS's accessibility content? Please let us know what specific accessibility requirements or standards will be mandatory in the Project Specific Output Specifications for the new Toronto Courthouse.

2. Please ensure that a company's demonstrated expertise in accessibility is made a major criterion when the Government selects the successful bidder to build this project. Please let us know what has been included in the procurement process for the company that seeks to build this courthouse, regarding the level of skill and expertise on accessibility that is to be sought and demonstrated by the bidders.

3. Please immediately make public any and all advice on accessibility regarding in the new Toronto Courthouse, including e.g. the advice given by the earlier accessibility consultant who worked on the development of the Project-Specific Output Specifications for this project, and the advice given by the current accessibility consultant who is working on the Project Design Compliance Team for this project.

4. Please immediately make public any decisions and reasons for them, on the advice received from any of the accessibility consultants on this project.

5. From now on, please make each step of the design and construction project immediately public as it relates to accessibility, so the public can immediately see what advice or input is being received on accessibility, and what decisions are made on that advice.

6. Please make no further decisions and take no further action on this project until proper consultation with people with disabilities is conducted, on the detailed specifics of the accessibility features to be incorporated into the new Toronto Courthouse.

7. Please take no further steps on the design of the new Toronto Courthouse and its construction until a proper and up-to-date accessibility standard is created for your courthouse by your Ministry, in consultation with people with disabilities. Please ensure that among others, we the AODA Alliance, is included in that consultation. We would like to know who is assigned or retained to develop the new Ministry of the Attorney General's standards or guidelines for accessibility in new courthouse projects."

In addition to this letter, here are some other examples of our recent efforts on this specific front:

* On October 4, 2017, AODA Alliance Chair David Lepofsky was invited to be one of the speakers at a Queen's Park news conference convened by the Older Women's Network. This news conference focused on the need for Ontario to take strong new action to avert the current crisis in accessible housing, and to significantly increase the supply of accessible places for Ontarians to live. We appreciate the Older Women's Network including us in this important event. The Older Women's Network posted the video of its October 4, 2017 news conference on YouTube.

* On April 7, 2017, we wrote senior Ontario Government officials to voice our concerns about the steps the Government needs to take to ensure the full accessibility of the Government's forthcoming major renovation of the Macdonald Block in downtown Toronto (which houses many Ontario Government ministries). To read the AODA Alliance's April 7, 2017 letter to the Ontario Government on its plans regarding the accessibility of the Macdonald Block renovation.

* Back on January 13, 2017, we wrote Ontario's Accessibility Minister, Tracy MacCharles, to urge her to take action to ensure that Ontario's built environment becomes fully accessible by 2025, as the AODA requires. To read the AODA Alliances January 13, 2017 letter to Accessibility Minister MacCharles.

* In November 2016, we released a now-widely seen video revealing significant accessibility problems at Centennial College's brand-new Culinary Arts Centre. Our short and long versions of this video, together, have been seen almost 4,300 times.

At the end of this Update, we, as always, offer links to helpful background information on our accessibility campaign, and let you know how to sign up for or unsubscribe from these Updates.

MORE DETAILS

Text of the AODA Alliance's October 5, 2017 Letter to the Attorney General of Ontario

ACCESSIBILITY FOR ONTARIANS WITH DISABILITIES ACT ALLIANCE
1929 Bayview Avenue,
Toronto, Ontario M4G 3E8
Email aodafeedback@gmail.com Twitter: @aodaalliance www.aodaalliance.org

October 5, 2017

To: The Honourable Yasir Naqvi, Attorney General of Ontario 
Via email: Yasir.naqvi@ontario.ca

Ministry of the Attorney General
McMurtry-Scott Building
720 Bay Street, 11th Floor
Toronto, ON M7A 2S9

Dear Sir,

Re: Ensuring Accessibility for People with Disabilities at the Forthcoming New Toronto Courthouse

We write to raise serious concerns about the Government's plans for ensuring the full accessibility for people with disabilities at the major new Toronto Courthouse, which the Ontario Government is planning to have built in the heart of downtown Toronto. This new courthouse is evidently meant to replace a number of courthouses now situated around the city. 

Your Government passed the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act in 2005. It requires the Ontario Government to lead Ontario to become fully accessible to people with disabilities by 2025, just over seven years from now. Despite this, at present the built environment in many of Ontario's courts still lacks full accessibility to court participants with disabilities. This is so, even though there has been some progress on this front in recent years.

It is essential to ensure that the new Toronto Courthouse is fully accessible. It is very rare that a new courthouse is built. When one is built, it is expected to serve the public for many decades to come.

It is good that the Government committed that this new courthouse will be accessible for people with disabilities. We understand that some steps have been taken to address accessibility in the design. We also understand that an accessibility consultant is now connected with the design compliance team for this project. A number of good accessibility features have been listed as part of the plans for the project.

Despite these helpful steps, we are not confident that this new courthouse will have full and proper accessibility for court participants and attendees with disabilities. We have learned over and over that strong and commendable Government commitments on accessibility do not always translate into actual full accessibility in practice. We wish to bring to your attention our serious accessibility concerns.

1. Accessible Parking Needs for Court Participants with Disabilities

As one obvious example, there does not appear to be in place an effective plan for ensuring the availability of sufficient accessible parking spots, at or very near this new courthouse, that are reserved for court attendees with disabilities. Because this new courthouse is meant to replace several existing courthouses around the Toronto area, court participants such as witnesses and attendees, lawyers, accused persons, and their families, will have to travel much further, right into the core of downtown Toronto to attend a court proceeding. For many, these court proceedings are now held at courthouses outside the downtown core – courts that are slated to close. This means that court participants will have to make this trip, potentially day after day, right into Toronto's excessive downtown traffic jams.

For people with disabilities, the TTC may not be an adequate alternative. The TTC is now far from fully accessible. Up to half of the subway stations are not accessible. TTC's plans to fix this stretch out as far as 2025. There remains the risk that this could extend even longer. Yet this courthouse is intended to open in 2023. Wheeltrans does not provide comparable service to passengers with disabilities. It can arrive late, involve excessive wait times, and requires advance booking before the day of travel.

We understand that connected with this new courthouse are to be a mere six accessible parking spots. Those six spots are meant for court staff, not for the public (such as witnesses, lawyers, accused persons or other members of the public attending court).

It is our understanding from the Ministry that the Government plans to look to the City of Toronto to increase the number of street-level disability parking spots near the new courthouse. This is no solution. We have no assurance that the City of Toronto will create enough new accessible parking spots at street level near the new Toronto Courthouse. There is no assurance that any of those new street-level accessible parking spots will have a fully accessible path of travel from the parking spot to the courthouse.

Moreover, even if the City of Toronto were to create a sufficient number of street-level disability parking spots that are sufficiently close to the new courthouse, these parking spots would be open for any people with disabilities to park in, whether or not they were heading to that courthouse. Court participants with disabilities will be uncertain whether or where they will be able to find accessible parking each day. They may have to drive in circles in downtown rush hour traffic, fearing whether they can find parking and then make it to court on time.

Many court participants are not regular court attendees. They may only go to court once or a few times in their life. This can subject those with disabilities to unfair confusion and stress. Court attendance itself is stressful enough.

Moreover, a proportion of people with disabilities who need accessible parking spots have fatiguing conditions. If they only find an accessible parking spot that is too far from the courthouse, they will be forced to exhaust themselves before getting to court. Toronto's winter weather will make this situation worse.

It is commendable that this new Toronto Courthouse design is supposed to include an accessible drop-off spot for people with disabilities. However, that will not solve this problem. That measure only helps those who come to court using Wheeltrans, or those who can bring with them a driver who has no disability, who can drop them off, find parking elsewhere in downtown Toronto, and then return to meet up with them in the courthouse.

Some people with disabilities must have a care-giver with them throughout. An accessible drop-off spot is no solution for them, unless they are expected to bear the burden of bringing two people with them to court, a driver as well as a care-giver/support person.

2. Court Design and Compliance Teams Have Not Consulted to Date with People with Disabilities on the New Courthouse's Design and Accessibility Features

It is absolutely essential that the needs of people with disabilities be taken into account, from the very start of a building's design process, and at every stage of the design and construction process. To that end, front-line people with disabilities must be consulted throughout, and as early in the process as possible. The later in the process that people with disabilities are first consulted, the greater be the design mistakes. The greater is the cost to rectify them.

Unfortunately, the Government cannot count on design professionals (such as architects and interior designers) to ensure that they get it right, when it comes to accessibility. They too often lack sufficient training on accessibility. Ontario's inadequate accessibility laws, such as the Ontario Building Code and the regulations enacted under the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, do not ensure that new buildings are designed to be barrier-free.

The Government is now at least fully three years into setting the design requirements for this new courthouse. Yet its design teams have not consulted with people with disabilities at any stage of that process up to now. This is a huge failure.

After extensive work, the Government last year already set this courthouse's Project-Specific Output Specifications (PSOS). These include the accessibility requirements that the Government plans to list. The Government and the team that designed the PSOS did not consult people with disabilities when designing the PSOS accessibility requirements.

We understand that the team that developed the project's PSOS had an accessibility consultant. However, the Government has not made public the advice that that accessibility consultant gave. We do not know whether there are accessibility requirements that that consultant recommended, but which were not included in the PSOS, and if so, by whom, or why. We understand that the private team that the Government hired to work with the Government on developing the PSOS, including the accessibility consultant for that team, have been let go or their involvement with the project has been terminated.

Now the Government has a new Project Design Compliance Team, working on the project. It is involved in activity leading to the upcoming selection of a private bidder to build the project. That new Project Design Compliance Team has a different accessibility consultant, working with it.

We understand that the new accessibility consultant, working with the Project Design Compliance Team, has given that team some advice on needed improvements to the accessibility requirements for this project that were included in the project's PSOS. We understand as well that the team has accepted some of the new accessibility consultant's recommendations. Others of those recommendations, from the current accessibility consultant, are said to still be under discussion.

This clearly suggests that the accessibility requirements in the project's PSOS are not sufficient. As such, the accessibility of this project remains a cause for real concern.

We do not know what specific advice the new accessibility consultant has given, or which parts of it have yet to be accepted, or why the project compliance team has not accepted all of that advice. This is all happening in secret, behind closed doors. Here yet again, no consultation has been conducted with end-users with disabilities.

This is especially troubling since, a decade ago, the final report of a widely-respected joint committee of the judiciary, the Ontario Government and the legal profession in Ontario recommended that the Government should develop an up-to-date accessibility standard for courthouses. In the decade since then, it is our understanding that no such new up-to-date courthouse accessibility standard has been adopted by your Ministry, based on universal design principles.

Several years ago, before this new Toronto courthouse project was underway, your Ministry commendably conducted a public consultation with the disability community, on the accessibility needs of court participants in the design of courthouses. Our coalition was one of the disability organizations that took the time to participate in that consultation.

The design compliance team now working on this new courthouse project, including the head of the new accessibility consultant firm working with that team, did not even know about this earlier consultation by your Ministry, much less did they know what feedback that consultation had gathered. That is deeply troubling, with this project already one third the way towards completion.

3. Accessibility as a Priority in Selecting the Successful Bidder for This Project

We gather that the Government is not itself building this project. Instead, this project is being undertaken as an "alternative finance procurement" (AFP) project. Through a competitive process, the Government will select a successful private bidder, which will build the project and which will own the building for the next period of some thirty years. The Government will rent the courthouse, once built, from that company. Some three decades later, the building will revert to the Government.

It is essential that when the Government selects the successful bidder from among those competing for the project, it must make accessibility a major priority. It should ensure that the successful bidder has sufficient and ample expertise in designing and building a fully accessible and barrier-free building, like a courthouse. We are eager to know what the Government is doing in this regard.

It is not good enough for the successful bidder to retain an accessibility consultant, as it builds the project. The company can get the best advice in the world from an accessibility consultant, but then can choose to ignore it. This can all happen behind closed doors, without us and the public able to monitor this as it happens, in order to prevent accessibility problems before the damage has been done.

The AFP process for building such a project creates serious risks that accessibility will not be adequately addressed. The contract typically goes to the lowest bidder. This creates a strong economic incentive for bidders to cut costs. Accessibility can easily be seen as an area for cutting costs, especially when this takes place behind closed doors at a private company.

We fear that in the AFP process, the private company that builds the building has too much discretion in the building's design and construction. We realize that in this process, that builder, and not the Government, is seen as assuming the risks in so doing. However, from the perspective of people with disabilities, it is we who ultimately suffer as the victims of the heightened risk that accessibility will get messed up in the process.

It is not good enough to say that the Government sets the accessibility requirements in the PSOS. As noted above, we have no assurance that the accessibility requirements in the PSOS are sufficient. As noted above, they were designed without any input from people with disabilities. The advice to the Project Design Compliance Team from its accessibility consultant (paid for with tax dollars), is not now public. This is a poor way to approach accessibility, especially in so large an enduring a project as a major new court facility.

It is not good enough to say that there are still many steps still ahead in the design and construction process. We know that consultations with people with disabilities on mock-ups of parts of this project can be conducted later in the process. However, as we noted earlier, the later that this comes in this process, the less chance there is for that input to be effectively acted upon. The higher can be the associated costs. Moreover, mockups cannot solve such problems as the accessible parking issue, raised above.

4. A Pressing Need for a Far More Open, Accountable and Consultative Process

No doubt your Ministry has learned from past serious accessibility errors in its recent construction of new courthouses. However, we cannot afford any more accessibility errors in such a massive project as a new downtown Toronto Courthouse with some 53 courtrooms, and with over one thousand people coming to that building each day.

The problem facing us and the public is this: Because all these design and construction decisions are being made in secret and behind closed doors, including the advice of accessibility consultants and the action or inaction in the face of that advice, we and the public cannot monitor what is going on. We won't know the results until some five or more years from now, when the new courthouse opens. By then, it will be too late. Moreover, many if not most involved in making decisions now on accessibility issues will be long gone from their positions, or impossible to identify after the fact.

Based on past practice, your Ministry's officials will take this letter, and write a response for you to send us. It will say that your Ministry and your Government is deeply committed to accessibility. It will list all the accessibility features that are said to be included in the courthouse. It will recite all the accessibility standards that are to be considered. It will thank us for our input.

Please do not send us such a letter. Even though an organization such as your Ministry can profess to a commitment to ensure accessibility in a new project such as the new Toronto Courthouse, the results that eventuate can nevertheless be replete with accessibility problems.

It was just earlier this decade that your Ministry opened huge new courthouses in Durham Region and in Waterloo, at major public expense. Each of those courthouses had significant accessibility problems. The accessibility needs of people with disabilities are not new. Those courthouses were opened decades after the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Ontario Human Rights Code began to guarantee strong equality rights for people with disabilities. Those courts were opened years after your Government enacted the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act in 2005. One of the architects on your Ministry's current design compliance team worked on the new Durham Courthouse project.

We therefore urge your Government to take these immediate steps, in order to act on your commitment to the accessibility of the new Toronto Courthouse project:

1. Can you please send us, in an accessible format (not a PDF) the Project Specific Output Specifications that have been already set for the new Toronto Courthouse, including (if possible, in a separate document) the PSOS's accessibility content? Please let us know what specific accessibility requirements or standards will be mandatory in the Project Specific Output Specifications for the new Toronto Courthouse.

2. Please ensure that a company's demonstrated expertise in accessibility is made a major criterion when the Government selects the successful bidder to build this project. Please let us know what has been included in the procurement process for the company that seeks to build this courthouse, regarding the level of skill and expertise on accessibility that is to be sought and demonstrated by the bidders.

3. Please immediately make public any and all advice on accessibility regarding in the new Toronto Courthouse, including e.g. the advice given by the earlier accessibility consultant who worked on the development of the Project-Specific Output Specifications for this project, and the advice given by the current accessibility consultant who is working on the Project Design Compliance Team for this project.

4. Please immediately make public any decisions and reasons for them, on the advice received from any of the accessibility consultants on this project.

5. From now on, please make each step of the design and construction project immediately public as it relates to accessibility, so the public can immediately see what advice or input is being received on accessibility, and what decisions are made on that advice.

6. Please make no further decisions and take no further action on this project until proper consultation with people with disabilities is conducted, on the detailed specifics of the accessibility features to be incorporated into the new Toronto Courthouse.

7. Please take no further steps on the design of the new Toronto Courthouse and its construction until a proper and up-to-date accessibility standard is created for your courthouse by your Ministry, in consultation with people with disabilities. Please ensure that among others, we the AODA Alliance, is included in that consultation. We would like to know who is assigned or retained to develop the new Ministry of the Attorney General's standards or guidelines for accessibility in new courthouse projects.

Your Ministry may object to these requests because they can delay this project. We regret any such delay. However, any delay is needed to ensure that so large and important a project is made properly accessible. Any delay would be due to the fact that your Ministry and the teams it has recruited for this project have to date failed to do the proper accessibility consultations.

We would welcome the opportunity to assist in this process, and value our opportunity to serve on the Ontario Courts Accessibility Committee,

Sincerely,

David Lepofsky CM, O. Ont
Chair
Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance

cc: Premier Kathleen Wynne, premier@ontario.ca   
Tracy MacCharles, Minister of Accessibility tracy.maccharles@ontario.ca
Marie-Lison Fougère, Deputy Minister of Accessibility, marie-lison.fougere@ontario.ca
Ann Hoy, Assistant Deputy Minister for the Accessibility Directorate, ann.hoy@ontario.ca
Steve Orsini, Secretary to Cabinet steve.orsini@ontario.ca
Irwin Glass, Deputy Attorney General Irwin.glass@ontario.ca
Dante Pontone, Assistant Deputy Attorney General dante.pontone@ontario.ca
Sheila Bristo, Assistant Deputy Attorney General Sheila.Bristo@ontario.ca 

Links to Helpful Background Information

You can always send your feedback to us on any AODA and accessibility issue at aodafeedback@gmail.com

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