A Troubling Setback Two Decades Ago Today in the Campaign for Strong Accessibility Legislation Sowed the Seeds for Later Progress

Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance Update

United for a Barrier-Free Society for All People with Disabilities

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A Troubling Setback Two Decades Ago Today in the Campaign for Strong Accessibility Legislation Sowed the Seeds for Later Progress

November 5, 2021

 SUMMARY

Let’s take an informative stroll down memory lane! Twenty years ago, today was an important, all be it frustrating day in the non-partisan grassroots campaign for a barrier-free Ontario for all people with disabilities.

On November 5, 2001, Ontario’s last Conservative Government, under premier Mike Harris, introduced into the Legislature its promised Disabilities Act. The Government had invited disability community representatives to Queen’s Park for the introduction of Bill 125, called the Ontarians with Disabilities Act. The AODA Alliance’s predecessor coalition, the Ontarians with Disabilities Act Committee, had been campaigning for a strong Disabilities Act for six long years, since late 1994.

The bill introduced in the Legislature twenty years ago today was a disaster. Yet within were the unexpected seeds of later progress in our campaign for accessibility.

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The Long-Term Significance of the Frustrating Events Two Decades Ago Today

We quickly realized on November 5, 2005 that Bill 125 was a tremendous let-down. It was supposed to make Ontario accessible for people with disabilities. Yet it did not require a single disability barrier to ever be removed or prevented anywhere in Ontario. Moreover, that bill only applied to the broader public sector, not the private sector. As if that wasn’t bad enough, it also had no enforcement, making it a voluntary law.

Bill 125 in substance did three things. First, it required each provincial ministry and broader public sector organization (like hospitals, school boards and public transit authorities) to make public an annual accessibility plan. However, those plans did not have to be any good. Those public sector organizations were not required to ever implement those plans.

Second, it required every municipality with at least 10,000 residents to establish a municipal Accessibility Advisory Committee. However, it did not require municipalities to ever listen to those advisory committees, or to give reasons when their advice was rejected.

Third, it made a series of amendments to a short list of other Ontario laws to promote accessibility.

The disability community widely slammed Bill 125 as toothless and grossly inadequate. The very short list of community organizations that applauded it later in substance agreed that Ontarians with disabilities needed much more. The media covered Bill 125’s serious deficiencies.

During public hearings at the Legislature later that fall, presenter after presenter (including the Ontarians with Disabilities Act Committee) slammed the bill, and called for major amendments. The opposition Liberals and NDP presented many amendments on the disability community’s behalf. The Harris Government rejected those proposed amendments. The Conservative Government made at most only minor amendments.

When Bill 125 came up for Third Reading in the Legislature in December, 2001, the Liberals and NDP voted against it, arguing that people with disabilities deserved much more. The Harris Government used its majority in the Legislature to pass it. There were no celebrations in the disability community or in the Legislature when the bill passed.

Bill 125 was the last piece of legislation passed under Premier Mike Harris, before he stepped down. To us, that symbolized how low a priority it was for him. In the 1995 election, he had promised to pass the Ontarians with Disabilities Act in his first term in office, and to work with the disability community to develop it. However, it was not passed until halfway through his second term. Moreover, Premier Mike Harris, like Ontario’s current Premier Doug Ford, refused every request from the Ontarians with Disabilities Act Committee for a meeting.

So, twenty years later as we reflect on this event, was it all bad news for Ontarians with disabilities? No, it was not. Much the opposite!

Some feared that we’d give up when six years of advocacy resulted in such weak legislation. Yet Ontario’s grassroots disability advocates and the disability community did not give up at the end of 2001. Instead, we re-doubled our efforts to win strong disability accessibility legislation.

Our efforts led both the Liberals and NDP to promise in the 2003 Ontario election to bring forward a new Disabilities Act that was enforceable, that applied to the private sector as well as the public sector, and that was mandatory, rather than voluntary. The Liberals won the 2003 Ontario election. Premier Dalton McGuinty came back to the Legislature in 2004-2005 with a new bill, Bill 218, which became the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act. It fulfilled those election commitments.

In the sixteen years since it was passed, the AODA has not delivered all it promised. Its implementation and enforcement have fallen far short of what people with disabilities need. However, the AODA has certainly produced more for people with disabilities than would have ever been possible under the weaker Ontarians with Disabilities Act 2001.

The disability community learned a great deal during the blitz in the fall of 2001 surrounding Bill 125. It did an effective job of coming forward to the Legislature with strong recommendations on how to strengthen that weak bill. Those ideas and that experience enriched the disability community in 2003 to 2005, as it worked with the McGuinty Government on the design of the proposed Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act.

The abject failure of the Ontarians with Disabilities Act 2001 was eventually recognized by all. It was even recognized by the Conservatives. The Cabinet Minister who proudly introduced Bill 125 two decades ago today, Cam Jackson, was later to acknowledge in the Legislature during debates over the Liberal Government’s AODA bill in 2004-2005 that people with disabilities needed more than his own Ontarians with Disabilities Act delivered. Once they had moved from Government to the opposition, Ontario’s Conservative Party in fact voted in support of the Liberals’ AODA and congratulated the Government on it. They even proposed amendments to make it stronger.

Even leaders from the regulated organizations learned an important lesson from Bill 125. When the subsequent Liberal Government under Dalton McGuinty proposed to require the Government to enact enforceable accessibility standards, they heard about the need for such standards from some obligated organizations, and not just from the disability community. Everyone had learned that trying to come up with accessibility plans, one organization at a time, without accessibility standards in place, wastefully required each obligated organization to reinvent the same accessibility wheel over and over.

There are vestiges of Bill 125 still in place, even though the Ontarians with Disabilities Act itself was later repealed. Municipal Accessibility Advisory Committees remain, though municipalities still don’t need to listen to them or give reasons for refusing to do so. Bill 125’s amendments to a short list of other Ontario laws also remain in place.

The lessons we learned two decades ago remains vital for us today. We don’t settle for weak half-measures or distractions. We remain tenacious.

Our message about the need for disability legislation has since spread over the past two decades to Manitoba, and then to Nova Scotia and BC, as well as to the federal sphere. When the Federal Government’s Accessible Canada Act included requirements for federally-regulated organizations to make accessibility plans, we responded that we learned from Mike Harris’ Bill 125 how toothless that was.

Fast-forwarding to the current Government under Premier Doug Ford, There have now been a deeply-disturbing 1,009 days since the Doug Ford Government received the withering report by former Ontario Lieutenant Governor David Onley, who conducted a Government-appointed Independent Review of the implementation and enforcement of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act. There is still no comprehensive Government plan announced to implement the Onley Report. To learn about the significance of that delay, read the recent guest column by AODA Alliance Chair David Lepofsky published in several of the Toronto star’s Metroland newspapers.

We will again invoke our tenacity as we move forward over the next weeks and months with our non-partisan accessibility campaign.

Want to learn more about the history of the events that took place two decades ago today? How did the ODA Committee initially react to Bill 125? This is all set out in the ODA Committee’s November 7, 2001 analysis of Bill 125.

What did the ODA Committee tell the Legislature’s Standing Committee on Finance during its rushed public hearings on Bill 125? Read the December 5, 2001 ODA Committee presentation to the Legislature’s Standing Committee on Finance.

How can you learn more about these events? They are all documented on the ODA Committee website. Even though the ODA Committee was wound up in August 2005 and has been superseded by the AODA Alliance, the ODA Committee’s website remains online as a public archive of its work.