During Its Four Years in Power, Ford Government Made Ontario a More Dangerous Place for Vulnerable People with Disabilities

Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance Update

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

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During Its Four Years in Power, Ford Government Made Ontario a More Dangerous Place for Vulnerable People with Disabilities

April 18, 2022

Let’s size up the Ford Government’s four-year record on accessibility and inclusion for people with disabilities. There has been so much talk about building a stronger, more resilient Ontario after the first two years of COVID-19. Yet, for people with disabilities, Ontario is now less accessible and more dangerous for vulnerable people with disabilities than it was a year ago, and even more so than it was in June 2018.

The Ford Government and media talk about the “new normal.” This Update reveals that over and over, in this new normal, Ontario is now sharply divided between people who are medically strong and who have no disabilities on the one hand, and vulnerable people with disabilities on the other. This accelerating divide is due to the Ford Government’s deliberate actions. In summary:

  1. People with disabilities continue to disproportionately suffer COVID-19’s burdens.
  1. Shopping for basic necessities is more dangerous for vulnerable people with disabilities.
  1. Schools are more dangerous places for vulnerable people with disabilities.
  1. Ontario’s health care system is more dangerous for vulnerable patients with disabilities.
  1. Sidewalks In some cities are now more dangerous for pedestrians with disabilities and others.
  1. People with disabilities must endure new publicly funded infrastructure with disability barriers.
  1. Disability poverty persists.
  1. Ontario has fallen further behind in its commitment to become disability-accessible by 2025.

 1. People with Disabilities Continue to Disproportionately Suffer COVID-19’s Burdens

As we predicted over two years ago, vulnerable people with disabilities disproportionately suffered COVID-19’s hardships. They were more prone to get COVID-19, to experience its harshest impact, and to die from it. The Ford Government has made this much worse by failing, despite our repeated requests, to address the urgent needs of people with disabilities as an important part of its pandemic response. Ford’s “one size fits all” emergency planning too often assumed that no one has a disability. It relegated people with disabilities as an afterthought.

More on this is set out on the AODA Alliance website’s COVID-19 page.

 2. Shopping for Basic Necessities is More Dangerous for Vulnerable People with Disabilities

For people with disabilities with medically vulnerable conditions, it is more dangerous than three months ago to go to a grocery or drug store to buy basic necessities. This is because in the wake of a sixth wave of COVID-19, Ford prematurely eliminated mask and vaccine mandates. This accelerated the spread of the pandemic’s most contagious variant.

Ford’s medical officials strongly advise that we should still wear masks in public. This proves that masks are still medically necessary. The only reason for lifting those mandates in the wake of a new COVID-19 wave is Ford’s preoccupation with winning the June election.

 3. Schools Are More Dangerous Places for Vulnerable People with Disabilities

Public schools are a more dangerous place for the spread of COVID-19, because the Ford Government prematurely removed the mask and vaccine mandates and used its muscle to demand that no school board continue those mandates. It put at risk vulnerable, medically fragile students, as well as medically vulnerable family members who are endangered by the risk of their child bringing the infection home from school.

It was bad enough that Ford removed those mandates, predictably increasing this danger. It was worse for the Ford Government to try to prohibit all school boards from restoring mask and vaccine mandates.

This was blistering hypocrisy. Last year, Ontario’s Ministry of Education told the K-12 Education Standards Development Committee that the Ministry has no role to enforce special education requirements in school boards. Yet Ford’s Education Minister used his position to demand that school boards remove mask and vaccine mandates in school, even if a school board thinks they are needed to protect the health of students and staff. Ford’s Education Minister is far more willing to flex his regulatory muscle in ways that hurt students with disabilities than he is to help students with disabilities.

Ford’s conduct runs afoul of the Ontario Human Rights Code and the Charter of Rights. Under those laws, students and school board employees with disabilities have a fundamental human right and constitutional right to have their disability-related needs accommodated at school. Especially during this highly contagious sixth wave of COVID-19, a school board’s keeping in place the COVID-19 mandates is an obvious and necessary accommodation for medically vulnerable students, employees, and family members.

The Ontario Human Rights Code guarantees that anyone, including a school board, has the right and duty to refuse to infringe the human rights of another person. The code also forbids anyone, including the Ford Government and its ministers and officials, from doing anything that directly or indirectly infringes the human rights of another person, or from taking or threatening a reprisal against anyone in connection with compliance with the Human Rights Code. The Code provides:

“8. Every person has a right to claim and enforce his or her rights under this Act, to institute and participate in proceedings under this Act and to refuse to infringe a right of another person under this Act, without reprisal or threat of reprisal for so doing.

  1. No person shall infringe or do, directly or indirectly, anything that infringes a right under this Part.”

When the Ford Government actively opposed school boards’ restoring the mask and vaccine mandate, this directly or indirectly violates the human rights of medically vulnerable students, school employees and family members with disabilities. The Ontario Government cannot actively try to block school boards from fulfilling their duty to accommodate people with disabilities under the Charter and the Human Rights Code.

The Ontario Human Rights Code is quasi-constitutional. It prevails over all other laws and policies, except where legislation expressly overrides it. None overrides it here.

The duty to accommodate students and school employees with disabilities requires a school board to maintain a mask and vaccine mandate while the pandemic so directly threatens public health. School boards should immediately put back in place the mask and vaccine mandate in order to comply with their duty to accommodate students with disabilities and should disregard the Ford Government’s contrary directions, which run afoul of the Ontario Human Rights Code and the Charter of Rights.

For example, the Toronto District School Board has several “congregated schools.” They include medically complex and medically fragile students with disabilities. According to the Ford Government’s harmful approach, TDSB cannot even implement a masking and/or vaccine mandate at those schools.

As the April 18, 2022, Toronto Star reports (article reproduced below), TDSB’s Special Education Advisory Committee formally recommended:

“that TDSB ensure that congregated schools maintain a mask and vaccination requirement to the full extent of its capacity, to protect the health and safety of vulnerable students with disabilities.”

School boards should restore the mask and vaccine mandates at all teaching venues, and not just at congregated schools, especially during this sixth wave of the pandemic, in order to comply with their duty to accommodate people with disabilities. They should take the position that for the Ford Government to take any action or make any threats to oppose this, it would be violating the Ontario Human Rights Code. That we must discuss this illustrates how poorly the Ford Government is treating vulnerable people with disabilities in this “new normal.”

The Ford Government’s approach is incoherent. York University is commendably free to require an ongoing mask mandate, as it has done. Yet the Ford Government has tried forbidding all schools from doing the same, including schools that are right near York’s campus.

It is no answer that a large majority of Ontarians have had two vaccine shots. Two shots received months ago no longer provide sufficient protection against Covid-19. Less than half of Ontarians have had the third shot they need, much less a fourth one.

It is similarly no answer to tell vulnerable people with disabilities that they can choose to wear a mask in public if they wish. The maximum protection in public spaces like schools occurs only when everyone is masked.

More on this is found on the AODA Alliance website’s education page.

 4. Ontario’s Health Care system is More Dangerous for Vulnerable Patients with Disabilities

Ontario’s health care system is now a much more frightening place for patients with disabilities than it was before the pandemic. During the pandemic’s earliest weeks, the Ford Government created, supported, and maintained a largely secretive elite of doctors and bioethicists with a mandate to decide who will live and who will die if overloaded hospital intensive care units cannot serve all patients who need life-saving critical care. That secret elite demonstrated that it had no expertise in disability equality or human rights.

As news leaked out about this, disability advocates, including the AODA Alliance and the ARCH Disability Law Centre, repeatedly documented that this secret new critical care triage protocol was replete with serious unlawful disability discrimination. Over the past two years, the Ford Government refused to answer any of the AODA Alliance’s letters on this issue. Our letters documented our serious concerns and asked important questions. Ford failed to comply with his obligation to make public key documents on this topic, required under AODA Alliance Chair David Lepofsky’s May 2021 Freedom of Information application.

Some of those who crafted this disability-discriminatory critical care triage protocol served as the Ford Government’s key public defenders. They wrongly denied that there is any disability discrimination despite overwhelming proof to the contrary.

The damage to patients with disabilities has been deep-rooted and lasting, even though no formal critical care triage was said to have been invoked. This is because the disability-discriminatory approach to rationing medical services is now fully embedded in Ontario hospitals. Hospital staffs secretly conducted training drills on how to use it.

For example, the health and lives of some patients have been at risk due to delays in elective surgery. This was caused by pandemic-induced hospital overloads. Scarce elective surgery opportunities are being rationed. There is a real danger that the disability-discriminatory mentality that infects Ontario’s critical care triage protocol trickled down to those rationing decisions.

As another illustration of unfair new disability barriers in our health care system, the Ford Government announced in September 2021 that by February 28, 2022, everyone with an expired Ontario Health Card must renew it. Anyone without a driver’s license had to risk getting COVID-19 by going to a Service Ontario office to renew their Health Card. Only holders of a driver’s license could renew their Health Card online.

The Ford Government agreed to allow holders of an Ontario Photo ID Card to renew their expired Health Card online only after AODA Alliance Chair David Lepofsky brought a court application against it. Only after that court case was filed was the Ford Government forced to agree to extend to September 30, 2022, the grace period to renew an Ontario Health Card. However, The Government has not effectively publicized this extension. That too endangers the health of vulnerable people with disabilities who feel they must go to Service Ontario or risk losing their OHIP coverage.

More on this is found on the AODA Alliance website’s health care page.

 5. Sidewalks in Some Cities are Now More Dangerous for Pedestrians with Disabilities and Others

The Ford Government has made sidewalks in some cities more dangerous places for vulnerable pedestrians with disabilities, seniors, children, and others. At the behest of corporate lobbyists, Ford passed a 2019 regulation that lets cities around Ontario unleash dangerous electric scooters. A silent menace, pedestrians in some Ontario cities like Ottawa are endangered by uninsured, untrained, unlicensed joy-riders, racing at over 20 KPH on local sidewalks. Corporate lobbyists for the e-scooter rental companies laugh all the way to the bank, while injured victims of this silent menace sob all the way to over-crowded hospital emergency rooms.

More on this is available on the AODA Alliance website’s e-scooter page.

 6. People with Disabilities Must Endure New Publicly Funded Infrastructure with Disability Barriers

The Ford Government keeps announcing infrastructure projects, including new hospitals, public transit routes, schools etc. Yet despite our pressing for action, Ford instituted no new measures to ensure that these new projects will be fully accessible to people with disabilities.

More on this is set out on the AODA Alliance website’s built environment page.

 7. Disability Poverty Persists

In Ford’s Ontario, tens of thousands of public dollars are readily offered to small businesses. Yet people with disabilities living in poverty get a fraction of this despite COVID-19’s raising the costs they must pay out of their sub-poverty ODSP benefits. This led us to question whether impoverished people with disabilities need to declare themselves to be small businesses in order to get desperately needed help.

 8. Ontario Fell Further Behind in Its Commitment to Become Disability-Accessible by 2025

Ford has an abysmal record when it comes to fulfilling its duty to implement and enforce the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act. Ontario will not be accessible to Ontarians with disabilities by 2025, the AODA’s mandatory deadline.

The Ford Government never brought forward a comprehensive plan to meet that deadline. It never announced an effective plan to implement the blistering final report of the Independent Review of the AODA’s implementation that it received a long 1,173 days ago, and that was conducted by former Lieutenant Governor David Onley.

It enacted no new accessibility standards under the AODA. It strengthened none of the AODA accessibility standards that were in force when it took office. Its enforcement of the AODA is ineffectual and barely visible.

Ontario desperately needs to enact a strong and effective AODA Built Environment Accessibility Standard to ensure that the built environment becomes disability accessible. In 2019, Ford’s Accessibility Minister insulted, hurt, and infuriated many people with disabilities when he publicly described the creation of such a standard as “red tape.”

The Ford Government broke its commitment that it would get a new AODA Standards Development Committee running by early this year to address accessibility barriers in the built environment. It has only appointed a Committee Chair, without holding a fair public competition.

Ford substantially delayed the work of AODA Standards Development Committees that were addressing disability barriers in education, health care, employment, and information and communication when Ford took office. He only let those Standards Development Committees get to work after the AODA Alliance spent months tenaciously campaigning to get him to lift the freeze on their work.

The Ford Government unlawfully kept secret for months the reports of these Committees despite an AODA requirement for them to publicly post those reports upon receiving them. It announced no plans for new action in any of these areas.

The Ford Government wasted $1.3 million dollars by giving it to the widely criticized and seriously deficient Rick Hansen Foundation private accessibility certification program. Not a single disability barrier was removed as a result of that misuse of public money.

More on this is provided on the AODA Alliance website’s What’s New page

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Toronto Star April 18, 2022

Originally posted at https://www.thestar.com/news/gta/2022/04/15/tdsb-committee-wants-masking-vaccination-for-those-who-work-with-special-needs-children.html

News

Panel wants masking for at-risk kids

TDSB committee asks Ontario’s top doctor to reinstate measures for special needs education

Isabel Teotonio Toronto Star

A Toronto public school board committee that advocates on behalf of students with special needs wants to bring back mandatory masking and vaccination for those who work with medically fragile children.

The Special Education Advisory Committee has written to the province’s top doctor requesting permission for the board to reintroduce masking rules and its vaccination policy at congregated schools that serve students with complex special needs, many of whom have multiple disabilities.

“Recent changes to COVID-19 safety measures, specifically regarding masking and vaccination requirements, have put these students at great risk of contracting the virus,” say SEAC members in a letter to the chief medical officer of health, Dr. Kieran Moore. “The COVID-19 virus poses great risks for any of these students, as it may exacerbate existing symptoms of their already complex disabilities and medical fragilities.”

The committee says some parents are concerned about potential exposure at school and are keeping their kids home.

“They have been forced to choose between safety of their children, and important therapies and learning,” according to the letter sent Tuesday. “These vulnerable students must risk getting sick to be able to access education.”

The Star contacted the ministries of health and education about SEAC’s request, but did not hear back by time of publication.

The Toronto District School Board has 12 congregated schools, serving about 1,100 students with complex needs, including intellectual, physical, medical, communication, or behavioural challenges. TDSB spokesperson Ryan Bird said the “vast majority” of staff at those sites are vaccinated and masked.

Last month, the province said school boards were no longer required to have a COVID-19 vaccine disclosure policy for staff, beginning March 14. So the TDSB, one of the few boards that mandated COVID-19 vaccination amongst staff, revoked its policy. Ontario also lifted mandatory masking for most settings, including schools, effective March 21.

As legislated by the Ministry of Education, each school board must have a Special Education Advisory Committee, which provides advice on the special needs of exceptional children and makes recommendations about special education services and programs.

At the TDSB, the committee is made up of three trustees, voluntary representatives from 12 local associations, eight community representatives and alternates. The board appoints them to a four-year term. Many members are parents of children with special needs.

SEAC chair Steven Lynette says it doesn’t make sense for the province to maintain mandatory masking in places such as congregate living settings and hospitals, but not in congregated schools.

“Some of these classrooms are like hospital wards,” Lynette told the Star.

“These kids are not just in wheelchairs, but they’re in hospital beds, being transported around. Some of them have feeding tubes. Many of them have IVs (intravenous therapies). There are nurses in these schools. These are like hospital settings, but the ministry has decided that they’re not.”

Before the province lifted its mask mandate, the TDSB wrote to Moore asking for “additional direction” to protect medically fragile students, including in congregate settings.

In his response, Moore said “those most vulnerable to this virus should continue to wear a mask in select settings, including those who are immunocompromised or medically fragile. Those in close contact with vulnerable individuals may also consider continuing to wear a mask.”

Moore also noted that schools provincewide continue to be provided with ventilation upgrades, rapid antigen tests and free personal protective equipment for students and staff.

Lynette said some students in congregated schools can’t wear masks for a variety of reasons. They may pose a choking hazard, cause difficulty breathing, and those with severe developmental delays may refuse to wear them because they don’t understand the risk.

Trustee Rachel Chernos Lin, who has two congregated sites in her ward – Park Lane Public School and Sunny View Junior and Senior Public School – called SEAC’s letter “incredibly powerful.”

“It supports the advocacy we have done at the TDSB, and clearly elucidates our concerns and the concerns shared with me by principals and parents at congregated sites,” said Chernos Lin, who isn’t on the committee.

Toronto Public Health says policies related to masking are within the province’s purview. It says a recent update to the Reopening Ontario Act prevents local medical officers of health from issuing letters of instruction to implement local measures, such as masking requirements in schools.

But the Ministry of Health says the Reopening Ontario Act was intended as a temporary response to the pandemic, and public health units can still implement local public health measures through Section 22 orders under the Health Protection and Promotion Act.