ACCESSIBILITY FOR ONTARIANS WITH DISABILITIES ACT ALLIANCE UPDATE

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UNITED FOR A BARRIER-FREE ONTARIO

ONTARIO BUSINESSES MUST NOW COMPLY WITH ONTARIO'S CUSTOMER SERVICE ACCESSIBILITY STANDARD –BUT ONE PART OF IT CREATES BARRIERS AND SHOULD BE DISREGARDED

January 6, 2012

SUMMARY

Ontario's Customer Service Accessibility Standard now applies to, and must be complied with by, Ontario's private sector. Up until now, only public sector organizations had to comply with it.

The January 6, 2012 on-line edition of the Toronto Globe and Mail includes an article reporting on confusion over the obligations of businesses to comply with the Customer Service Accessibility Standard enacted under the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act. The Globe and Mail article commendably shows that providing accessible customer service is good for businesses. We set out that article at the bottom of this update.

It is unnecessary for there to be any confusion over complying with that accessibility standard. The Customer Service Accessibility Standard is quite short. It was enacted back in 2007. All organizations have had ample time to address it. The Ontario Government and broader public sector (e.g. municipalities, school boards, hospitals, universities, colleges and public transportation providers) have already had to comply with it.

The Government gave the private sector an excessive period of over four years to gear up for this accessibility standard. Unfortunately, the Government did not make resources, guides and other tools available to the private sector much earlier, so that the private sector could make productive use of that long period of almost half a decade. It is likely that at least some private sector organizations are only turning there attention to this standard now. Those long time lines were not justified.

In any event, all organizations that must comply with this accessibility standard have had an obligation since 1982 to provide barrier-free customer service to customers with disabilities under the provisions of the Ontario Human Rights Code. If anything, the Customer Service Accessibility Standard doesn't go as far as does the Human Rights Code at ensuring accessible customer service.  

In addition to the Customer Service Accessibility Standard, a number of requirements for accessible customer service are also set out in the Integrated Accessibility Regulation that the Ontario Government enacted on June 3, 2011. All organizations should address those now, even if the time lines for them are not yet reached.  For example, the Integrated Accessibility Regulation will require organizations to ensure that information they post on their websites is accessible. All organizations should do that now, to avoid creating new barriers, and to avoid the cost of having to retrofit their websites later. For more on the Independent Review, visit:

http://www.aodaalliance.org/strong-effective-aoda/06032011.asp

The Globe and Mail article includes a link to some tips for complying with the Customer Service Accessibility Standard. We offer that link here, but don't profess to vouch for the information in it. Visit: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/small-business/sb-marketing/customer-service/tips-for-compliance-with-customer-service-accessibility-standard/article2292754/?from=2292901 

To read the Ontario Government's basic information on the Customer Service Accessibility Standard, and to read the standard itself on the Government's website, visit: http://www.mcss.gov.on.ca/en/mcss/programs/accessibility/customerService/

We want to emphasize that there is one part of the Customer Service Accessibility Standard that is seriously flawed. It should not be complied with or enforced. It creates a new barrier-something that an accessibility standard under the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act may not do.

We identified this serious problem over four years ago, in our September 12, 2007 analysis of the Customer Service Accessibility Standard. To date, the McGuinty government has not rectified it. We said:

"Section 4(5) of the standard authorizes some organizations to create new barriers to impede access to persons with disabilities. Standards made under the AODA cannot do this. It states:

“4(5) The provider of goods or services may require a person with a disability to be accompanied by a support person when on the premises, but only if a support person is necessary to protect the health or safety of the person with a disability or the health or safety of others on the premises.”

Section 4, which includes this provision, applies “if goods or services are provided to members of the public or other third parties at premises owned or operated by the provider of the goods or services and if the public or third parties have access to the premises.”   

Under this provision, an organization can force a person with a disability in some situations to bring a support person with them (presumably at the expense of the person with a disability). If the person with a disability doesn’t comply, the organization can refuse to admit the person with a disability.

The vague standard governing this is “only if a support person is necessary to protect the health or safety of the person with a disability.” There is a real and serious risk that an organization with an uninformed stereotype-induced perception of disabilities will wrongly conclude that some person with a disability poses a health and safety risk to themselves. This provision also doesn’t require the risk to health and safety to be serious or substantial or imminent, or preventable by reasonable means short of forcing the person with a disability to be accompanied by a support person.

This standard lets an organization create this barrier against persons with disabilities even if a person with a disability, with far superior understanding of their disability, knows he or she poses no such risk, or concludes that the risk is one they are prepared to bear. This violates the fundamental dignity of persons with disabilities to decide what risks they wish to undertake for themselves.

Making this even worse, the standard goes on to potentially let the organization charge the patron with a disability an added admission fee for the support person. Section 4(6) of the standard states:

“4(6)  If an amount is payable by a person for admission to the premises or in connection with a person’s presence at the premises, the provider of goods or services shall ensure that notice is given in advance about the amount, if any, payable in respect of the support person.”"

Organizations should not force customers with disabilities to have a support person. If a customer with a disability needs a support person, organizations should not charge for that support person, absent some overwhelming justification. We don't foresee that such a justification can exist. Our full analysis of the Customer Service Accessibility Standard is available at: http://www.aodaalliance.org/strong-effective-aoda/09122007.asp

Send us your feedback. Write us at: aodafeedback@gmail.com

   

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THE GLOBE AND MAIL JANUARY 6, 2012

POSTED AT: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/small-business/sb-marketing/customer-service/ontario-disabilities-act-creates-compliance-confusion/article2292901/?utm_medium=Feeds%3A%20RSS%2FAtom&utm_source=Hom

Ontario Disabilities Act Creates Compliance Confusion

Shelley White

Special to Globe and Mail Update

Published Friday, Jan. 06, 2012 6:00AM EST

For Hans Sturzenbecher, catering to people with disabilities just makes good business sense.

His restaurant, Macy's Diner & Delicatessen in Mississauga, Ont., has been making changes to accommodate people with disabilities for the past eight years, from creating space between tables to make room for wheelchairs and walkers to enlarging the print size on menus.

Other Ontario small and medium-sized businesses will have to start making changes of their own to comply with the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, provincial legislation to be phased in over the next 10 years that can carry fines of up to $100,000 a day for non-compliance.

As of the start of this year, all businesses in Ontario became required to be in compliance with phase one of the AODA, the Accessibility Standard for Customer Service.

But many small and medium-sized businesses may not yet be up to par.

Small businesses in the province “are just starting to really get on board” with the new customer service regulation, said Russ Gahan, vice-president of operations for People Access, a non-profit organization charged with helping the Ontario government raise awareness about the AODA.

He said there's been some confusion about what the customer service standard is all about.

“It's not about putting in ramps and automatic doors; that's the first thing people think. They think mobility when they think of disabilities, and what you need to do to accommodate them physically,” he said.

“What this is about is attitude change, empowering your employees to be confident when providing customer service to people with disabilities.”

If you're an Ontario small business, what does that mean in practical terms?

The customer service regulation has two major components.

First, all companies must create “an accessible customer service plan” that outlines how their business will provide service to people with disabilities. This includes identifying potential barriers and figuring out new ways of dealing with them.

“The example I like to give is, let's say you have a store that has a no-refunds policy and you have change rooms that are not accessible,” said John Milloy, Ontario Minister of Community and Social Services.

“Yes, it would be wonderful if someone could invest to make the change rooms accessible, but that may not be practical. What they might do is change their policy and say that if you're in a wheelchair or can't access those change rooms, you will be allowed to return those clothes.”

Another example, Mr. Gahan said, would be how to deal with customers with hearing loss. “They may be better off not having to negotiate their terms in a noisy office where they can't hear what you're saying,” he said.

“You start to think of these things, instead of just being oblivious to them.”

The second component of the regulation requires employers to train their staff to provide accessible customer service. Training topics must include how to communicate with people with different types of disabilities and how to interact with people who use assistive devices or service animals.

In addition, employers with 20 or more staff members must keep a copy of their accessible customer service plan and file reports with the ministry, indicating how and when their employees have been trained. They have until the end of 2012 to do so.

There are many businesses to go: According to the Ministry of Community and Social Services, 17 large and small Ontario businesses have filed reports since Jan. 1.

Penalties for refusing to comply with the legislation can be serious – organizations can be fined up to $100,000 a day, or individuals can be fined up to $50,000 a day.

Mr. Milloy said that although the regulations are primarily about encouraging and educating the business community, the ministry will follow up with businesses that do not file their reports.

“We're obviously going to reach out to those that have not filed to urge them to take the steps necessary, and we're going to obviously be in touch with the disability community as people bring concerns to our attention,” he said. “We do ultimately have fines in place and that's the last resort.”

To help businesses create their accessible customer service plan and train their staff without spending a lot of money, the ministry offers several free toolkits, including a 78-page employer handbook and a 51-page training resource.

There are further resources available. Mr. Gahan said People Access offers both free and paid tools for small businesses.

“The paid one includes e-learning,” he said. “If you have 20 employees and you don't want to figure out how to put together a training program for them, for $149, you can have all the templates, tools, window stickers and 19 e-learning seats.”

With e-learning, staff can log in and go through a 25-minute course, reading and answering questions. They can then print a certificate and show their employer they've been through the training.

Another option is to hire a consultant to come in and teach a course in-house. “A physical workshop is the best,” said Suzanne Share, CEO of Access Consulting Services in Toronto. “It can be very difficult to change attitudes. I give people a good idea what it's like to have dyslexia, to have arthritis, to have temporary disabilities or long-term disabilities.”

Once Ontario businesses have met the requirements of the customer service regulation, there will be more to come. The Integrated Accessibility Standards Regulation will be next – wider-ranging legislation requiring that transportation, employment and all forms of communication be accessible to people with disabilities.

According to the Ministry of Community and Social Services, these standards will be phased in over time between 2011 and 2025, to “give organizations the time they need to build accessibility into their regular business processes.”

Mr. Milloy said employers should look at the AODA regulations as not only important for people with disabilities, but good for business too, particularly in a province where close to two million citizens are identified as having a disability.

“I think the message really needs to be that there is an enlightened self-interest there, because people are making decisions. Where do we go for lunch? Well, here's a place that's adapting to have a customer service standard that's very welcoming,” he said.

“If I have a business, I want to be able to reach out to them and make them comfortable, because, at the end of the day, it's going to mean more dollars in my bottom line.”

It’s a message that has long resonated with Mr. Sturzenbecher.

“The majority of my clients are seniors,” he said. “When we started up, we had lots of space and good daylight, and we realized there's a niche market in our area, and it's growing constantly.”

He decided to lose a few tables so customers would have extra space to get through with walkers or wheelchairs.

When he saw his customers getting out magnifying glasses to read the menu, he tripled the print size. He also offers his menu online in a format that allows visually impaired customers to access it with a screen reader.

Customers with guide dogs get a bowl of water for their canine companions. As well, his staff is well-trained in assisting the patrons with disabilities that frequent Macy's on a regular basis.

“The truth is, if you cater to them and they know you cater to them, they become loyal customers,” Mr. Sturzenbecher said.

Special to The Globe and Mail