ACCESSIBILITY FOR ONTARIANS WITH DISABILITIES ACT ALLIANCE UPDATE

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While the Ontario Government Continues Multi-Year Dithering on Accessibility Rather than Keeping Its Promise to Effectively Enforce Ontario’s Accessibility Legislation, the City of Toronto Wrongly Orders a Downtown Restaurant to Remove Its Wheelchair Ramp – If Only the Ontario Government Enforced Accessibility As Swiftly and Vigorously as the City of Toronto Enforces Inaccessibility!

December 1, 2014

Summary

At the same time as the Ontario Government under Premier Kathleen Wynne continues to break its promise to effectively enforce the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, the City of Toronto is busy trying to force a downtown restaurant to remove a wheelchair ramp to its front door. There is something very wrong with this picture.

A downtown Toronto restaurant called “Signs” recently took the highly commendable step of installing a ramp up to its previously-inaccessible front door, so that people using wheelchairs could enter the restaurant through the front door. Impossible as it may be to believe, according to several media reports the City of Toronto has ordered Signs to immediately remove the ramp. This is because it is said to encroach on a city sidewalk. If Signs does not remove the ramp, the City reportedly threatens legal proceedings leading to a forcible removal of the new ramp, at taxpayers’ expense.

Ironically, this deplorable incident has garnered attention in the Toronto Star, Global TV, CTV and CITY-TV in recent days. This coverage coincides with our celebration on Friday November 28, 2014 of the 20th anniversary of the birth of the grassroots campaign for strong Ontario accessibility legislation.

In this Update, we explain why this is an inexcusable use of municipal government power. We show why we need both the Ontario and Toronto Governments to act decisively, now, to prevent such a misuse of public resources and public authority. This all occurs as we begin to launch a new province-wide campaign to get the Ontario Government to keep its long-overdue promises and duties on disability accessibility.

We encourage one and all to spread the word about this incident. Bring your own stories about accessibility barriers to your local media and your MPP. Individual incidents like this help focus media attention on broader accessibility issues, including the Ontario Government’s weak and insufficient actions in recent years on accessibility.

Making this situation worse, Signs Restaurant reported on its Facebook page on Sunday, November 30, 2014 that its wheelchair ramp cannot be used for the next few days, because it was just vandalized. We condemn such conduct, just as we deplore the City of Toronto’s efforts to tear down this accessibility ramp.
 
Below we set out a November 27, 2014 Toronto Star article that gives background on this incident.

MORE DETAILS

1. Governments Should Never Use Public Power or Public Resources to Create or Perpetuate Barriers against People with Disabilities

It is hard to imagine a situation where a restaurant or store took the highly commendable step of installing a ramp to its front door, only to have a city government threaten to use public resources to take steps, to force it to remove that ramp. The Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act 2005, for which people with disabilities campaigned for a decade, requires Ontario to become fully accessible by 2025, just a little over ten years from now. Ontario is now behind schedule for reaching full accessibility by 2025. We need governments at all levels to take action to speed up progress towards accessibility. Ontario cannot afford to have any public officials stand in the way of progress towards full accessibility.

As depicted on CITY-TV and CTV news reports on Friday, November 28, 2014, the City of Toronto claims that removing this ramp is necessary to meet the accessibility needs of people with disabilities, with an emphasis on blind people. The City seems to think that blind people cannot readily walk down the sidewalk in front of Signs Restaurant, so long as that ramp is present. This is very obviously wrong. It shows that senior City of Toronto officials fundamentally misunderstand disability accessibility, and are ready to improperly try to publicly pit one disability group, people with vision loss, against another disability group, people who cannot climb stairs.

On Friday afternoon, November 28, 2014, AODA Alliance chair David Lepofsky (who is blind) demonstrated for CITY-TV and CTV that a blind person, using proper white cane technique, can easily walk past this restaurant on the sidewalk, without the restaurant’s ramp presenting any impediment whatsoever. On November 28, 2014, CTV reported that by its measurements, the ramp makes the passage on the sidewalk a mere three centimeters narrower than municipal requirements. This is a trivial encroachment on the path of travel.

If the City of Toronto had any such concerns, it has other easy solutions available, which it should have implemented, far short of swiftly demanding that the ramp be removed. In front of the Signs Restaurant, between the ramp and the roadside, is a municipal bicycle rack. The City could relocate this. Those bicycle racks themselves present far more of an impediment to blind pedestrians, especially when bicycles are attached to them, randomly and unpredictably sticking out into the path of travel.

Also standing on the sidewalk between the ramp in issue and the curb is a Canada Post mail box. If it were moved just a few feet up or down the street, there would again be a wider path of travel down the sidewalk in front of the Signs Restaurant’s ramp. That would not adversely affect the function of that post box.

There is no indication that the City of Toronto first tried to move its own bicycle rack, and/or asked Canada Post to move its mail box, before it took the actions reported in the media against this restaurant. To the contrary, it was evident from a November 28, 2014 TV news report (quoting the City’s Director of Transportation Services, Kyp Perikleous) that the City had not yet made any such approach to Canada Post. The City should have done so before it took the drastic and precipitous step of ordering the Signs Restaurant to remove its ramp.

The simple fact that Canada Post is a federal Crown corporation does not mean that it has absolute immunity from provincial and municipal law, and can place its post boxes wherever it wishes on City property, no matter what be the consequences. Federally-regulated bodies like Canada Post are only exempt from provincial and municipal laws in narrow exceptional situations.

It is inexcusable for any public official, provincial or municipal, to use the great power and weight of any government or government agency to actively oppose commendable efforts at accessibility, such as that of the Signs Restaurant. This is a misuse of public money and public power.

It seems that the City of Toronto is not fully aware of its accessibility obligations. Under the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA), Toronto, like the rest of Ontario, must become fully accessible by 2025. Under the Ontario Human Rights Code and the Charter of Rights, a municipality like Toronto must not take action that directly or indirectly impedes or undermines accessibility for people with disabilities. Those laws prevail over all other provincial and municipal laws, including the ones that the City’s officials were trying to enforce against the Signs Restaurant. The City’s actions fly in the face of these requirements.

2. An Incident Replete with Cruel Irony

For people with disabilities, so much cruel irony swirls around this incident. First, it is an especial cruel irony that the City of Toronto is acting with such resolute haste to enforce inaccessibility, at the same time as the Ontario Government, under Premier Kathleen Wynne, continues to dither, rather than keeping its repeated promises to effectively enforce accessibility requirements under the AODA.

The Ontario Government has for years promised that the AODA would be effectively enforced. Yet we revealed one year ago last month that the Government had known for months that some 70% of private sector organizations with at least 20 employees were violating the AODA. Despite its knowing this, the Government had by then not imposed a dime in monetary penalties, or issued a single compliance order against any of those non-complying private sector organizations.

The Ontario Government then had ample unused money on hand to take enforcement actions. It had on hand a detailed plan for enforcement that the Public Service had developed but which the politicians at Queen’s Park had not approved. It had ample unused legal enforcement powers.

In the full year since we broke that story, the Government has only taken any belated enforcement steps against a meager 2,000 organizations of the 36,000 organizations that it knew were violating the AODA. In cruel contrast, the City of Toronto has just acted with lightning speed to order that the Signs Restaurant remove this accessibility ramp. If only the Wynne Government were to act so promptly and decisively to enforce accessibility.

Second, this irony became even crueler when it secured even more media attention on the same day as many AODA Alliance supporters gathered at Queen’s Park on Friday, November 28, 2014 to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the birth of Ontario’s non-partisan grassroots campaign for strong accessibility laws in this province. This incident shows how far we still have to go to reach the promised goal of full accessibility. To learn more about the celebration of the 20th anniversary of Ontario’s grassroots campaign for disability accessibility.

Third, the restaurant that is the victim of the City of Toronto’s inappropriate action, the Signs Restaurant, is a most ironic target for the City’s actions. It is the first restaurant in Canada whose wait staff includes many deaf people. Guests at this restaurant learn to sign their menu requests. What a wonderful way to help tear down stereotypes and attitude barriers against people with disabilities. What a great way to expand employment opportunities for people with disabilities. What a wonderful way to provide deaf customers a restaurant where they can order food using Sign Language. That this trail-blazing restaurant has gone out of its way to expand its accessibility to include physical disabilities demonstrates that the City of Toronto should be giving this uniquely inclusive restaurant a major award, not a notice of violation and threatened legal proceedings.

Fourth, the City of Toronto here voices concern over a wheelchair ramp, because it is supposedly an obstacle impeding blind people on the city sidewalk. This wrongly pits one group of people with disabilities against another.

Yet the City of Toronto has at best, a poor record on ensuring that City sidewalks are safely navigable by blind people. Toronto is far more tolerant of a great number other far worse obstacles for blind pedestrians on Toronto’s sidewalks. These include some poles for power or communication lines that stand on an angle, rather than standing straight up, vertically. A white cane makes it seem like the coast is clear, until the pedestrian whacks his or her head on a higher part of the pole that angles into the path of travel.

Bicycles tethered to poles or municipal bicycle racks unpredictably stick out into the path of travel on sidewalks. So do garbage cans, signs, outdoor restaurant seating, store displays, trees and potted plants in the middle of sidewalks, just to name a few. When it snows, municipal snow-shoveling crews routinely and unnecessarily pile snow up in accessible paths of travel. This makes them much harder to navigate for people with vision loss or people with mobility limitations.

Toronto’s efforts should focus on those many other obstacles, and not the Signs Restaurant’s ramp. The city should not try to play one disability group off against another, instead of accommodating us all.

Fifth, this incident comes just a half a year before Toronto welcomes hundreds of thousands of tourists, including tourists with disabilities, to enjoy the 2015 Toronto Pan/ParaPan American Games. Unlike the Olympics in Vancouver BC or London England, the Government has no comprehensive plan in place to ensure that we have adequate accessible restaurants, public transit, hotels and other tourism and hospitality services to meet the needs of an influx of tourists with disabilities at this major international sporting event.

There are estimated to be as many as one billion people with disabilities around the world. Toronto and Ontario would like the 2015 Toronto Games to show the world what a great place we are to visit. Unless something substantial is done, and is done fast, to address this major accessibility problem, we are headed for a very visible, glaring global embarrassment at the 2015 Toronto Games, when the world is watching Toronto.

Back on October 1, 2013, we made public a comprehensive plan for a strong and effective disability accessibility legacy for the 2015 Toronto Games. Sadly, over a year later, the Government has not announced any detailed plans to ensure that the Toronto 2015 Games will be accompanied by sufficient accessible public transit, restaurants, hotels and other tourism and hospitality services. To see the AODA Alliance’s proposed plans for a strong and effective disability accessibility legacy for the 2015 Toronto Games.

Downtown Toronto needs substantially more accessible restaurants. We cannot afford to lose accessibility at any restaurants, including the Signs Restaurant. The City of Toronto should stop trying to make things worse.

3. The City of Toronto is Sending the Wrong Message to Private Businesses on Accessibility

The City of Toronto’s wrong-headed action in this incident is sending a very destructive and harmful signal to private businesses. The city should be doing whatever it can to encourage organizations to make themselves accessible to people with disabilities. It should praise any organization that does so. Instead, it here will make private organizations fearful that if they take such praiseworthy action as installing an accessibility ramp, they run the risk of municipal officials threatening them with legal proceedings or other hostile action.

It is hard enough to get some private sector organizations to take such positive actions. Sending them the wrong signal has just made this worse.

4. This Incident Further Illustrates that Ontario Needs Bold New Action on Accessibility from Both the Provincial and Municipal Governments

This incident demonstrates once again why Ontario needs the Ontario Government to show real leadership on accessibility, and to start to again act decisively, as it did years ago. Shortly after the AODA was passed in 2005, the Government committed to enacting an accessibility standard to address barriers in the built environment. It thereby recognized the obvious fact that Ontario’s built environment is full of barriers against people with disabilities. Measures enacted to date don’t go anywhere near far enough to ensure that Ontario’s built environment becomes disability-accessible by 2025, or indeed, at any time in the future.

As one example, the Ontario Government needs to cut municipal and provincial red tape that gets in the way of accessibility. Among other things, this incident shows that the Ontario Government should enact accessibility regulations under the AODA that prevent municipalities from using their power to impede such efforts at accessibility by private businesses. In the 2014 election, Premier Wynne promised to ensure that public money is not used to create or perpetuate barriers against people with disabilities. Here the City of Toronto wrongly uses public funds that pay its public officials, to create a new accessibility barrier.

We also need newly-elected municipal governments across Ontario to take bold new action on accessibility. As a first step, they should make it clear to their officials that they are never to use their powers and public resources to obstruct accessibility.

During the 2014 municipal election, Toronto’s new mayor, John Tory, commendably committed to accessibility as a municipal priority. He agreed that he needs to have a senior official in place to lead on this issue. As a first step, he should immediately order that no action should be taken against the Signs Restaurant and its ramp. He needs to review the practices of the City’s Transportation Services. He also needs to put in place measures to ensure that municipal staff (and especially senior staff such as the Director of Transportation Services) are far better trained on disability accessibility, and are made fully accountable for their positive or negative actions on disability accessibility.

Municipalities should promptly implement policies and practices that promote the addition of ramps to roadside stores, restaurants and other organizations that serve the public. They should also try to remove other obstacles on sidewalks that can impede pedestrians like people with vision loss, but not at the expense of wheelchair-related accessibility.

We would welcome a chance to meet with Mayor Tory, to discuss this and offer our advice and assistance. What better place for him to hold an open meeting with people with disabilities to address this mess than at the Signs Restaurant!

5. Tell Your Local Media about Barriers You Face and any Government Action that Impedes Progress Toward Accessibility

At the November 28, 2014 Queen’s Park celebration of the 20th anniversary of the birth of Ontario’s grassroots campaign for accessibility legislation, the AODA Alliance announced the launch of a new province-wide blitz to press the Government to crawl out of its multi-year lethargy on disability accessibility. This will take place over the next weeks and months.

One great way that individuals and organizations can help with this is by bringing such stories as this to the media. Individual barriers against people with disabilities, including those created by municipal governments, trigger media attention. Those news stories in turn help press the Government to get moving.

Stay tuned over the next weeks for more on how to take part in this campaign. For now, if you see or experience a disability barrier of any sort, let your local media know. Urge them to cover this. Also, publicize it on social media like Twitter (where this specific story has gotten tons of attention) or Facebook. Photograph or video record barriers you experience on a smart phone. Post videos of such barriers on YouTube. It’s free! Share your stories, your videos and photos and news stories on these barriers with your member of the Ontario Legislature.

Needless to say, while these events were unfolding, the Accessibility Clock ticked away. A disturbing 378 days have now passed since we revealed that the Ontario Government was not enforcing the AODA, and that there have been rampant AODA violations in the private sector. This revelation came from a Freedom of Information application last year. The Government still has not made public its promised detailed plan for the AODA's effective enforcement. The Government’s November 7, 2014 web posting on AODA enforcement includes little new. It does not constitute the promised detail AODA enforcement plan.

Two hundred and eighty-four days have passed since the Toronto Star reported on February 20, 2014 that the Government would be publicly posting that new enforcement plan "in short order." Two hundred and one days have passed since Premier Wynne promised to establish a toll-free line for members of the public to alert the Government to accessibility barriers against people with disabilities in the community. None has been announced.

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

As well, 461 days have passed since the Government unveiled its plans for the legacy of the 2015 Toronto Pan/ParaPan American Games. Yet it has still not released details and specifics of a comprehensive disability accessibility legacy for the Games. Only 219 days remain until the 2015 Games begin. Time is running out!

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Toronto Star November 27, 2014

City orders restaurant to remove wheelchair ramp

Anjan Manikumar's efforts to make his restaurant more accessible have resulted in a notice of violation from the city.

Signs restaurant owner Anjan Manikumar, right, chats with his father and principal investor Manny Manikumar, outside the eatery at Yonge and Wellesley St. The city has ordered Manikumar to remove a wheelchair ramp saying its a hazard for pedestrians. RICHARD LAUTENS / TORONTO STAR FILE PHOTO

By: Sadiya Ansari Staff Reporter, Published on Thu Nov 27 2014

The city has ordered this ramp outside Signs restaurant at Yonge and Wellesley be removed.

When Anjan Manikumar opened Signs, a deaf-friendly restaurant, he wanted it to be accessible in more ways than one.

But his efforts to put in a ramp outside his restaurant at Yonge and Wellesley Sts. resulted in a notice of violation from the city just two weeks after it was installed.

The 29-year-old said he got frustrated after trying to work with the city since April, so decided to install a temporary ramp.

“It’s not fair that we are excluding some people just because we are not able to get a permit,” Manikumar said.

He said the city wouldn’t even take his application to build a permanent ramp and he believed he wouldn’t need a permit for a temporary ramp. So he worked with StopGap, an organization that helps build low-cost ramps, to install one at a cost of $4,700.

The ramp was ordered to be removed immediately on Thursday because it “poses a hazard to pedestrians and people with visual disabilities,” said Kyp Perikleous, director of transportation services at the City of Toronto.

“When something creates an immediate hazard, we do not give a buffer. We ask for immediate compliance,” said Perikleous.

Not complying with the city can mean a fine of up to $5,000.

This type of violation is unusual, with only one or two similar issues faced this year, said Perikleous.

And there seems to be little room for compromise.

“We usually do not accommodate obstructions to a sidewalk,” he said.

The policy is strict because according to Ontario’s accessibility law, the city has to provide 2.1 metres width on a sidewalk and a busy pedestrian street like Yonge St. can require more, said Perikleous.

Manikumar says he’s been monitoring pedestrian traffic and that “there’s no problem with the walking space.”

He says a simple solution that would create even more space on the sidewalk is moving a mailbox across the ramp a little further up the street. Manikumar said in earlier discussions with the city, there was a willingness to explore this but nothing has happened since.

The width left for pedestrian traffic from the ramp to the mailbox is just 2 centimetres short of the 2.1 metre requirement. The ramp encroaches about 72 centimetres onto city property, according to a Star measurement.

There is a way to legally encroach on city property, but Manikumar would have to make an application to the city’s community council, said Perikleous. But before he can do that, he has to prove he has no other choice.

“The owners or the tenants of the property need to show they have tried to do everything in their means to provide ramping facilities within their property,” Perikleous said.

He added that many people don’t want to make accommodations within the existing property because it usually costs much more money.

Manikumar says he’s not concerned about the cost because he sees making his restaurant accessible as an investment.

“A lot of our guests have demanded a ramp,” he said.

But Manikumar is a tenant and says his landlord doesn’t want him to make any permanent changes to the property. He’s looked at many different options, including installing a $50,000 wheelchair lift. But even that would encroach on city property, he said.

Both supporters and those urging the restaurant to go through the city process voiced their opinions after the notice of violation was posted to the restaurant’s Facebook page.

A woman passing by the restaurant Thursday evening said she saw the Facebook post and that “there’s more than enough space” for pedestrians to get through.

“The restaurant wants to include everybody and I think everybody should do that,” said Tammy Penasse.

“For the city to say that’s wrong — I think that’s wrong.”

Manikumar said won’t be taking down the ramp until he can work out an alternative with the city, saying he will “fight for what is right.”