ACCESSIBILITY FOR ONTARIANS WITH DISABILITIES ACT ALLIANCE UPDATE

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United for a Barrier-Free Ontario

Proposed Remarks by AODA Alliance Chair David Lepofsky for the May 16, 2014 Virtual News Conference

May 16, 2014

Note: Check against delivery. Where there are any differences between this text and the recorded video of this virtual news conference, the media and anyone else is welcome to quote from either source, and to use as much of the recorded video and audio as it wishes.

Welcome. My name is David Lepofsky. I am the chair of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance.

Thank you for logging on and tuning in to the first virtual news conference ever convened by the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance. We are holding this very novel virtual on-line news event to make public for the first time, the election commitments that the major Ontario political parties have made to us on the topic of making Ontario fully accessible to all people with disabilities. We will also unveil our non-partisan 2014 Ontario election strategy for voters with disabilities and anyone who may get a disability.

We are speaking to you right now from the Inclusive Design Research Centre. It is part of the Ontario College of Art and Design, in downtown Toronto.

The IDRC is a world-leading centre with extraordinary expertise in how to make information technology fully accessible to persons with disabilities. We chose this location because it so powerfully illustrates how Ontario could become a world leader on disability accessibility, to the benefit of everyone, if our next Government shows strong new leadership on this issue.

In this virtual news conference, I will explain what the accessibility issue is that confronts Ontario. I will describe the commitments that we asked of the major party leaders. The Liberals, Conservatives and New Democrats have all now made written commitments to us. I will summarize what they have promised. Finally, I will unveil our election strategy.

This virtual news conference is, of course, pre-recorded. If you have questions for us, or want an interview, please send a request to us via email. Write us at aodafeedback@gmail.com . We will get back to you as quickly as possible.

The election commitments from the parties, plus our analysis of them are now going live and available to you by visiting our website. Just go to www.aodaalliance.org and visit our What's New page.

What is the issue?

Imagine going to school to see your child or grandchild in a school play, but finding out that you can't get in because the building has steps, and you use a wheelchair or walker.

Imagine going to vote in a provincial election, one of the most important rights and duties of citizenship, only to find that you cannot mark your own ballot independently and in private, and verify your choice, because you are blind or dyslexic. A voter must mark their paper ballot or get someone else to do it for them. Imagine that Elections Ontario proudly proclaims that they are deploying one or two accessible voting machines in your riding, so that you can mark your own ballot, but it turns out that the machine sometimes hasn't worked.

Imagine going to a restaurant to eat, only to be told that you can't sit where you want, because you, a deaf person, brought a Hearing Ear dog to assist you.

Imagine the Ontario Government pouring millions of public dollars into developing a new Presto Smart card, to pay your public transit fare, only to find that their fancy new technology is not designed to be accessible to people who can't read a computer screen. Imagine that this happened even though the Government said it would be accessible, and the needed access technology is readily available.

Ontario has over 1.7 million people who have a physical disability, a sensory disability, a mental health condition, an intellectual disability, or a learning disability. We face too many barriers when trying to get a job, ride public transit, vote in an election, shop for goods in a store, or eat in a restaurant.

Some barriers are physical, like steps in a courthouse. Some barriers are technological, like too many websites that are inaccessible to our adaptive technology. Some barriers are communication barriers, like the lack of Sign Language interpreters when trying to access important public services.

We are the most unusual minority group in society, because we are the minority of everyone. Everyone either has a disability now, or has someone near and dear to them with a disability, or will get a disability later in life. This is because the most common cause of disability is growing older.

Who is the AODA Alliance?

The AODA Alliance is a non-partisan, volunteer coalition of individuals and organizations. We have united to advocate for Ontario to become fully accessible to all people with disabilities through the full and effective implementation and enforcement of Ontario's disability accessibility law, the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act or "AODA."

Since 1994, we, preceded by our predecessor coalition, the Ontarians with Disabilities Act Committee, have spearheaded a tenacious campaign across Ontario to tear down the barriers that impede Ontarians with disabilities from fully participating in and benefitting from all that Ontario has to offer. From 1994 to 2005, our predecessor coalition, the Ontarians with Disabilities Act Committee, led the decade-long fight to win the enactment in 2005 of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act. The Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act requires the Ontario Government to lead Ontario to become fully accessible to all persons with disabilities by 2025. That is only eleven years from now.

It was an exciting day just a little over nine years ago, on May 10, 2005, when the Ontario Legislature unanimously passed the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act on Third Reading. It was amazing to watch all MPPs from all parties rise in unison to give this historic moment a standing ovation. Our politicians are rarely so united over anything these days.

Our movement is widely recognized for our leadership on this important issue, by the media and by all political parties. In every Ontario election since 1995, our organized disability accessibility movement has asked the major parties for specific commitments on what they would do, if elected, to make Ontario become fully accessible to all people with disabilities. In every Ontario election since 1995, at least two of the major parties have made election commitments on disability accessibility. In every case, that commitment has been expressed in letters to our coalition.

We are totally non-partisan. We do not seek to elect or defeat any party or any candidate. In this election, we aim to get the best promises from each party that we can on disability accessibility. We inform voters about the parties' commitments and records on this issue. We also do our best to help voters with disabilities get around the unfair barriers they can face when trying to vote.

What commitments did we seek from the party leaders?

To understand this, I want to give some background. It is the common experience of persons with disabilities that we are not on schedule for reaching the goal of full accessibility by 2025, on time. We need Ontario's next Government and Premier to show strong new leadership, to revitalize the implementation of the disabilities Act, and to breathe new life into it.

How does the Disabilities Act work? Most organizations that employ people, or provide goods and services to the public, have no idea that they have barriers impeding persons with disabilities, whether as potential customers or employees. These barriers hurt persons with disabilities. They hurt people who will get a disability later. They hurt our economy. They hurt a company's bottom line.

Providing accessibility helps everyone. I know that lesson all too well. As a blind person, I had to fight not one, but two human rights cases against the Toronto Transit Commission to force it to announce all bus and subway stops. Those announcements help blind people like me know when it is time to get off the bus or subway. Yet they also help the many sighted people on public transit who cannot see through the crowd, or through the dirty windows, or through a snow storm.

Under the Disabilities Act, the Government must create, enact, and then enforce accessibility standards. These are regulations, enacted sector by sector, that list the barriers that need to be fixed, and that set deadlines by when they must be fixed. They are not one-size-fits-all. Rather, they can set rules that vary depending on whether an organization is public sector or private sector, and depending on whether the organization is large or small.

The Government must create all the accessibility standards needed to ensure that Ontario reaches full accessibility by 2025. To date, the Ontario Government has enacted several accessibility standards. However, they are not broad enough, or detailed enough, to ensure that Ontario reaches full accessibility by 2025.

Moreover, we revealed last fall that the Ontario Government is now not effectively enforcing these accessibility standards, even though it budgeted for this, and knew of rampant violations of the Disabilities Act in the private sector. Last November, the Government knew that some 70% of private sector organizations with at least twenty employees had violated the Disabilities Act with impunity. Its actions on enforcement since then have been far too little and far too late.

We therefore wrote the major party leaders on March 3, 2014 to list the election commitments we need to get Ontario back on track and on schedule.

On our website www.aodaalliance.org if you go to the What's New link, you can find:

We sought 19 commitments that boil down to the following eight items:

  1. Generally strengthen implementation of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act
  2. Ensure that all enforceable requirements under the AODA are effectively enforced
  3. Develop the new Accessibility Standards under the AODA needed to achieve full accessibility by 2025
  4. Ensure taxpayers' money is never used to create or buttress disability barriers
  5. Ensure accessibility of provincial and municipal elections
  6. Substantially improve how the Ontario Public Service ensures the accessibility of its services, facilities and workplaces
  7. Complete the overdue promised review of all Ontario laws for accessibility barriers
  8. Foster our ongoing relationship with each party.

What did the Parties Promise in this election?

Here's the bottom line: Each party made some helpful promises. The NDP overall gave a better package of promises. The Liberals were in the middle. The PCs promised the least.

The New Democratic Party commits to

* strengthen the implementation of the Disabilities Act, and not allow any accessibility measures to be weakened.

* create new accessibility standards to address barriers in education, health care, and residential housing, and deciding on all the other accessibility standards needed to get Ontario to full accessibility by 2025.

* release a plan for fully enforcing the AODA.

* ensuring the accessibility of the 2015 Toronto Pan/ParaPan American Games and a disability accessibility legacy for the Games.

* ensure public money is not used to create disability barriers.

* meeting with and working together with the AODA Alliance.

* amend Ontario's Elections Act to address voting barriers facing voters with disabilities, akin to those which the NDP proposed on our behalf in 2010, e.g. to advance telephone and internet voting.

* Designate a specific cabinet minister to be responsible for disability accessibility, and to take the other steps recommended in the 2010 Report of the Charles Beer Independent Review of the Disabilities Act.

* accelerate the Ontario Government's current review of all Ontario laws to address any disability accessibility barriers in those laws.

Regarding the AODA, the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party committed to:

* a goal of removing barriers facing persons with disabilities in areas like education, health care and public housing (but without committing to enact and enforce accessibility standards to address these).

* take seriously the goal of making Ontario fully accessible to persons with disabilities by 2025.

* acknowledging a moral and social responsibility to address voting barriers impeding voters with disabilities.

* work with the AODA Alliance to address implementation and enforcement issues  regarding the AODA.

* believe that our education system must minimize barriers for students with disabilities.

* spend tax dollars wisely and ensure public funds are not used to create new disability barriers.

* maintain a strong, open dialogue with the AODA Alliance.

The Liberals offer us less than they have in any of the previous three elections. They commit to: 

* increase private sector compliance with the AODA, but don't say by how much. They say they'll increase public sector compliance from 99% to 100%, which is inconsequential.

*a helpful new toll free number to report AODA violations, to finally release their overdue action plan on AODA enforcement, and to annually report on their progress on enforcement.

* create a new accessibility standard to address barriers in education, or health care, or both. They don't say when, after three years of dithering, they'll finally decide. They admit to creating what is to us a new, improper bureaucratic barrier to getting this decided.

* not to use public money to create or perpetuate disability barriers.

* vague promises on addressing barriers to accessible voting for voters with disabilities, and on continuing their promised review of Ontario laws for accessibility barriers..

Let me offer an analysis of how these stack up:

None of the parties commits to all or even most of what we sought. This can have nothing to do with Ontario's deficit and debt. The measures we seek can be achieved within the current budget. Indeed, the Economic Development, Trade and Employment Ministry's Accessibility Directorate of Ontario has been under budget in every year since 2005, totaling some $24 million of appropriate but unused disability accessibility budget.

The New Democrats commit to more than do the Liberals and PC's, but in some areas, to less than do the Liberals.

The Liberals are in the unique position of having been in power since 2003. The Liberals' record on this issue started off strong back in 2003. They kept their word to consult with the public and bring forward a strong, mandatory, enforceable accessibility law that applied to both the private and public sectors.

The Liberals did a good job in 2005 of selecting the first five accessibility standards to develop. They commendably worked hard in the early years on getting this legislation implemented.

However, their efforts have taken a troubling turn for the worse in recent years. Since the summer of 2011, their work on this issue has ground down to a virtual stand-still. They are creating no new accessibility standards. They are not effectively enforcing or even effectively educating the public on the accessibility standards they have already created. As the documentation on our website shows, they have a troubling record of making great promises, but too often breaking them in recent years, when it comes to disability accessibility.

Tim Hudak voices support for the Act, commits to dialogue with us, and to not spend public money to create new barriers against persons with disabilities. Beyond this, he doesn't make the specific commitments for concrete action that we seek.

Perhaps most noteworthy, the PCs have refused to commit that they won't cut back any of the gains that we have won since 2005 on disability accessibility. For example, they don't commit that our hard-won new accessibility standards already enacted won't be repealed or gutted.

We faced this same problem with Mr. Hudak in the 2011 election. If he is promising to cut many Ontario regulations and programs, we want to be sure that ours were not on the chopping block.  He has not made that commitment.

During the 2011 election campaign, we tried to get Mr. Hudak to make that pledge on the campaign trail. He said some helpful things, but they didn't go as far as we want. They are not repeated in his letter to us during this election.

What is our strategy that we unveil today for this election?

We have concluded that none of the party leaders have shown enough leadership on this issue, even though there are clear differences among them on what they would do for us. Ontarians deserve a strong accessibility platform that will get Ontario back on schedule for full accessibility by 2025, and that will ensure that we reach that target on schedule.

The problem we face is that many of the members of the Legislature who took part in the decade-long battle for the Disabilities Act have now left Ontario politics. The candidates running across Ontario in this election, and their staffs, don't have the same background, and may not have the same ambition to make a difference in this area.

We need to roll up our sleeves and start building support again, one MPP at a time, right across Ontario. We need the back benches of each party to demand of their leaders a greater sense of urgency on this issue. Talk is cheap. We need concrete action. If we cannot get the leaders to make all the commitments we seek, we will try to do so, one MPP at a time. If we cannot succeed top-down, then we must try to succeed going from the bottom up.

We also need to focus specific effort on the Progressive Conservative Party. As we did in the 2011 election, we need to press the PCs to make a strong, clear and unambiguous commitment that they will not cut accessibility gains we have made to date, whether in the form of accessibility standards that we won, or other accessibility initiatives. We want to be certain that whichever party wins this election will not turn the clock back on accessibility for persons with disabilities.

We therefore today kick off our call to voters with disabilities and to their friends, families and supporters. Take our accessibility agenda to all the candidates in their own ridings. Tell them that you don't want to just hear what the leaders have to say. The leaders need the backbenches to lead them! Ask the candidates to personally commit to the commitments that we sought from the parties in our March 3, 2014 letter to the party leaders.

We urge voters to call on every candidate from every party in every riding to personally support our constructive agenda for reaching full accessibility by 2025. We need voters with disabilities and their friends and families to educate and energize candidates, to win their support, and to get the candidates to lobby their own leaders to step up to the plate.

We are very busy harnessing social media to get the word out. We will soon release an action kit that will give people everything they need to swing into action.

We know that our issue too often does not get the headlines during an election campaign. But we know full well that, flying just below that radar, we can have a dramatic impact right across Ontario. That is how we won the Disabilities Act in 2005, after a ten-year long, arduous battle. That is how we will win its effective implementation and enforcement.

How can reporters contact the AODA Alliance for an interview right now? How can members of the public get involved and stay informed?

You can contact the AODA Alliance for an interview right now. Email us at aodafeedback@gmail.com As the expression goes, operators are standing by!

There are several easy ways for persons with disabilities and people without disabilities to plug into our non-partisan campaign. It's free. We don't ask for money from our supporters.

To sign up for AODA Alliance Email Updates, send a request to us at aodafeedback@gmail.com

We are very active on Twitter. We tweet accessibility news from Ontario and around the world. We have tweeted to every candidate who has a Twitter handle and have gotten several to respond. Follow us at @aodaalliance

You can also get updates from us by liking our Facebook page: Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance.

Our strength comes from the many Ontarians who know they are part of the minority of everyone, who have a disability now, or who may get one later in life.

The political parties see the information technology sector as a very important growth area for Ontario, especially when trying to expand our sales to international markets. Yet we have no comprehensive plan to ensure that Ontario catches up, much less becomes a world leader, in ensuring that information technology is accessible to all people with disabilities. We are speaking to you from a world-class centre of expertise in this area, right in the heart of Toronto. We have the expertise. It's time we start harnessing it. We need the Government to be a strong and effective leader. 2025 is under eleven years away.

Thank you for tuning in to our first virtual news conference. Please contact us, and get involved.