Two Preventable Accessibility Problems Facing Tourists with Disabilities Already Surfaced for the Toronto 2015 Pan/ParaPan American Games – The Media Had To Shine a Spotlight on Them Before They Were Addressed

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United for a Barrier-Free Ontario

June 22, 2015


The Wynne Government has said that the Toronto 2015 Pan/ParaPan American Games give Ontario a great chance to showcase for the world the globe-leading progress Ontario is making towards becoming fully accessible to people with disabilities. Yet two developments last week raise real questions about Ontario’s preparedness to effectively accommodate tourists with disabilities who want to enjoy the Games.

Two entirely preventable barriers have surfaced, facing tourists with disabilities, in connection with the Toronto 2015 Games. The initial official reaction to them was insufficient. Only when the media shone a glaring spotlight on them did the publicly-funded Games officials scurry to address barriers that should never have been created in the first place.

In this Update, we focus on:

1. The fact that the Toronto 2015 Smart Phone app for Apple devices like the iPhone was released with preventable barriers. These made key parts of the app inaccessible to blind or dyslexic people who use Apple’s free VoiceOver screen-reader.

This problem was first brought to the attention of the Games’ organizers back on June 1, 2015, by Mr. David Best. He is a blind information technology specialist, and a member of the Government-appointed Accessibility Standards Advisory Council.

Yet the Games organizers did not address this app’s problems until Global TV’s evening news broadcast on Friday, June 19, 2015. That broadcast made this accessibility barrier the day’s top news story. That is the first time in many years that an AODA-related story was the top news story on a news broadcast.

Within hours of that broadcast, and with no public notice that we saw, the app’s accessibility problems were quickly addressed. We have not had a chance to fully test the app to see if all problems are resolved.

2. A 12-year-old girl with a disability found to her consternation that the rules governing accessible seating at the new aquatics centre to host part of the ParaPan American Games this summer would not let her sit beside more than one person without a disability. She could go to a competition and sit with only one person. We don’t understand why this new centre was not built with ample flexible seating around the stadium that could accommodate either people with disabilities or people with no disability, so that rationing accessible seating need not be even contemplated. The rigid rules were relaxed after the media got on the story.

We offer you several thoughts on these events:

* These two stories pointedly suggest that the Government seems more focused on the Games’ accessibility for athletes with disabilities, who are engaged in actual competition within the Games’ bubble, than for tourists with disabilities inside or outside that bubble. We of course agree that providing peak accessibility for para-athletes during the competitions is very important. We commend any progress on that front. However, we have been trying for almost two years without success to get the Government to take seriously the need to effectively address the accessibility needs of tourists with disabilities.

* Both of these stories came to public light because individuals with disabilities encountered these barriers, and commendably came forward to report them. We again encourage you to do the same, if you encounter an accessibility barrier. With the Toronto 2015 Games now upon us, the media is especially receptive and responsive to such stories. If you have a smart phone, video or photograph the barriers, and spread the word on social media.

Share your experiences with the conventional media in your community as well. You can encourage your local media to contact the AODA Alliance to give the full background on our long campaign for accessibility in Ontario, including our campaign to get the Government to ensure a strong legacy of increased tourism services in the lead-up to the Toronto 2015 Games. We can always be reached at or via Twitter @aodaalliance

In the case of the two barriers we address in this Update, the Aquatic Centre seating problem was taken by a member of the public directly to the media. In the case of the inaccessible Games app, David Best brought it to our attention, and we in turn took it to the media. Either route is great.

* The inaccessible Games app is especially ironic, for several reasons. First, the inaccessible features included the app’s resources on the accessibility features at the 2015 Games. The Games organizers did not take the basic step of ensuring that information on the Games’ accessibility features was itself presented in an accessible format.

Second, if one wants to know how to ensure that an app is accessible to Apple devices like the iPhone, one need only check the resources which Apple provides for app developers on its own website. To see what the Apple website offers as resources for app developers on building accessibility into an app.

Third, the Government is proudly touting that alongside the ParaPan American Games this August will be a multi-day event it organized to showcase to the world various access technologies and services. This is to celebrate the AODA’s 10th anniversary and the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The cruel contrast of the Games’ initially inaccessible app, side by side with such a showcase, shows how far Ontario still has to go before it can credibly claim to be a world leader on accessibility.

* These two new barriers, created with public money, fly in the face of Premier Wynne’s 2014 election promise to the AODA Alliance that her Government would not use public money to create or perpetuate barriers against people with disabilities. In her May 14, 2014 letter to the AODA Alliance, setting out her Government’s 2014 election disability accessibility pledges, Premier Wynne promised:

“We will continue to ensure that taxpayer dollars are not used to create or perpetuate barriers against Ontarians with disabilities. Our current mandate fully supports responsible governance and we will continue to pursue objectives that align with this belief.”

To read Premier Wynne’s May 14, 2014 letter to the AODA Alliance.

* We have written the Toronto 2015 Games to ask how it came to release an inaccessible Games app, without first ensuring that it was fully accessible. In his June 18, 2015 email to the Games organization, AODA Alliance chair David Lepofsky asked:

“Were the Toronto 2015 Games aware of these problems before this app was released? Who was consulted on its accessibility? Why was it released without ensuring that it is fully accessible? When will this problem be fixed?”

We await answers to these questions. As the Global TV news report on June 19, 2015 shows, the Games organization was not prepared to give on-camera answers to the media about this app.

* The Ontario Government shares responsibility for these incidents. In her September 25, 2014 Mandate Letter to Michael Coteau, the cabinet minister with lead responsibility for the Toronto 2015 Games, Premier Wynne set as a priority that he work with stakeholders for developing an accessible tourism/hospitality legacy for the Games. She specifically set as a priority:

“Working with stakeholders to make Ontario a more accessible and barrier-free tourist destination.”

In the same direction, last month, the Ontario Human Rights Commission publicly echoed our call for more action to ensure a legacy of improved tourism/hospitality services for the Toronto 2015 Games. To read the Ontario Human Rights Commission’s May 21, 2015 public statement on accessibility and the Games.

Below we set out:

* The text of the June 19, 2015 Global TV news story on the inaccessible Toronto 2015 Games app.

* The June 15, 2015 Toronto Star article, making public the barrier facing a child with a disability re accessible seating at an upcoming ParaPan American Games event, and

* The June 16, 2015 Toronto Star article further reporting on the resolution of the accessible seating issue .

The Ontario Government only has 9 years, 6 months and 8 days left to lead Ontario to become fully accessible to 1.8 million Ontarians with disabilities by 2025, as the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act requires.

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1. Global News Toronto Evening Broadcast June 19, 2015

Pan Am Games app deemed failure by advocates for people with disabilities

Originally posted at:

By Christina Stevens Senior Reporter Global News

The Toronto 2015 app has been deemed a failure by advocates for people with disabilities. They say the App for the Panam/Parapan Am Games is not accessible to those who are visually impaired. Christina Stevens reports

The official Toronto 2015 Pan Am/Parapan Am Games app is not accessible to those who are visually impaired, according to advocates for people with disabilities.

They said it wouldn’t have been difficult to implement the helpful feature directly into the design phase of the Toronto 2015 app.

One accessibility IT expert explained that iPhones have a built in voiceover setting, which works interactively with apps to make them accessible to people who are visually impaired.

David Best said hundreds of mainstream apps work just fine, but not the app for the Panam/ Parapan Am Games being held this summer in Toronto.

He said the first time he opened the Toronto 2015 App, it was clear there were issues – whole pages don’t have any voiceover functions – so he showed the problem to Global News.

“I’m told there is an accessibility icon on this screen but I can’t get to it.  The accessibility is not accessible,” said Best.

David Lepofsky, an advocate for people with disabilities, said it’s ironic that the government is touting the Panam/Parapan Am Games as being exceedingly accessible, then missed the mark on something so basic.

“The government says it is leading by example on accessibility. This is an example that no one should be led by,” said Lepofsky.

In response to inquiries from Global News on the accessibility of the app, a Toronto 2015 spokesperson emailed a brief response.

“If there is an issue we will attempt to resolve it as soon as possible,” read the statement in part.

It is not clear why the spokesperson said “if” there was an issue with the app, but Best said he sent representatives an email on June 1 drawing their attention to the problem.

Pan Am/Parapan Am Games spokespeople wouldn’t meet with Global News in person and declined to comment on that particular line of questioning over the phone.

“From their email, they are questioning whether there is a problem,” said Lepofsky.

“It tells you exactly how seriously they are taking it.”

2. Toronto Star June 15, 2015

Originally posted at

Parapan Am Games policy keeps girl in wheelchair from having friend join her in the stands
People needing tickets in an accessible area may only be seated with one able-bodied companion, creating a dilemma for a Mississauga family.

By: Tara Deschamps
Toronto Star, June 15, 2015

Every time Alessia Commisso’s weekly swimming class ends, the 12-year-old Mississauga girl begs to stay in the water just a little bit longer.

Alessia suffers from Leigh’s Disease —a condition causing degeneration of the nervous system and requiring wheelchair and walker use. The pool, her mother Sonia told the Star, is the one place where Alessia “can be like anyone else” because “it gives her freedom.”

But that freedom doesn’t extend to the newly opened Parapan Am Aquatic Centre in Scarborough.

Sonia had hoped to take Alessia and her friend there to watch the upcoming Parapan Am Games competitions, but was told days ago that people needing tickets in an accessible area may be seated with only one of their able-bodied companions.

For a girl with medical issues, too young to be at the competition unaccompanied, that meant Alessia would have to ditch her pal Weronika Rodowicz, 13, for her mom.

It outraged Sonia, who said concert promoters have made exceptions to the rules before, allowing her to snag extra seats in wheelchair accessible areas for her daughter and friends to see sold-out shows put on by Taylor Swift and One Direction.

“For something like this, I thought I would get the extra ticket. It just doesn’t make sense. This is the Parapan Am Games. These are the athletes with disabilities. If they should be accommodating at any event, it is this one,” Sonia told the Star. “My daughter is at that age where parents are embarrassing, and she does not want to be with her mom all the time. She wants a friend to come along.”

Monday afternoon, PanAm spokesperson Kevin Dove told the Star in an email that “the 1:1 ratio of accessible and companion seats is done in order to maximize the number of accessible seats within a venue.”

“In some venues there are existing permanent seats that are fixed at the 1:1 ratio, and in venues where this is not the case, the ratio is applied so that the accessible seating capacity is not eroded,” he said.

When and where possible, he said, friends and family are accommodated in nearby seats.

But later in the day, following questions from the Star, Pan Am officials had changed their tune, saying: “We are planning to follow up with the family. We’d like to see what we can do to make it a positive games experience for the family.”

Sonia said, “I think one or two extra people is not an issue. This is not a 6:1 ratio I am asking for.”

“When you are going out, you want to go out as a group, not as a caregiver and your patient,” she said, noting that the policy would even restrict Alessia and herself from bringing her son along, unless they bought a ticket for her husband, who also uses a wheelchair.

Not being able, because of a restrictive ticket policy, to give her daughter the freedom to go to ticketed events at massive stadiums with whomever she wants, just as her able-bodied friends often do, is “disappointing, frustrating and sad,” she added.

Sonia said it’s hard to hear Alessia say, “Oh, here we go again” every time her mother has to make a case to get an extra ticket, but it’s always worth it to see her daughter smiling at the event later.

“I teach her that most people go to point B from point A in a straight line. We will get there differently, but we will still get there, and that is OK,” she said. “I always tell her, you don’t let barriers get in the way, so why should this situation be any different?”

3. The Toronto Star June 16 2015

Originally posted at:


Pan Am organizers overturn policy keeping girl who uses wheelchair from having friend join her in stands.

Alessia Commisso’s mother said she received a call Tuesday from Games organizers offering her daughter three seats together.

By: Tara Deschamps Staff Reporter, Published on Tue Jun 16 2015

Pan Am Games organizers are backtracking on a policy that was keeping a 12-year-old girl using a wheelchair from sitting with both her mom and a friend at an upcoming swimming competition.

Following a Star story, Sonia Commisso, the girl’s mother, said she received a call Tuesday from Parapan Am Games organizers and Ticketmaster staff offering her daughter three seats located together.

It was a quick turn around from the message Parapan Am spokespeople had the day before when they touted “accessible seating capacity” as the reason for barring attendees with accessibility from sitting directly beside more than one of their able-bodied companions.

With Sonia’s daughter Alessia, who has Leigh’s Disease, too young to go to the competition without a parent, but old enough to want a friend to join her, the policy was disappointing.

Hearing that organizers would let her purchase three seats side-by-side in a wheelchair-accessible area, though, was “great,” said Sonia, hours before Alessia was due to arrive home to receive the news.

“I think she will be excited and thrilled. This will be a pleasant surprise,” said Sonia. “Friendships are hard, but being able to sit with her friend, makes her feel the same as everyone else.”

Organizers had told her that their policy was in place because accessible seating areas at the Pan Am/Parapan Am Acquatic Centre in Scarborough are set up with one permanent seat beside every gap for a single wheelchair, leaving no place for more than one able-bodied companion to sit.

“It is interesting that they made it like this knowing that this is a facility for the Parapan Am Games,” said Sonia. “I don’t think it’s the best way of doing things. I think it still raises challenges.”

Alessia and her two companions will be seated at the end of a wheelchair-accessible row, with her in middle. In future situations, where others might be seeking seats for more than one able-bodied companion to join someone needing accessible seating at the Games, Pan Am spokesperson Neala Barton said “we will do our best to accommodate, in cases where it is possible.”

The 1:1 policy for accessible seating is still in place to “maximize the number of accessible seats and to accommodate the venue,” but Pan Am staff and Ticketmaster are eager to find solutions wherever possible, she said, adding, “We were happy that the issue was brought to our attention because we wanted the situation to be really positive and we wanted everyone to feel like they can take part this summer.”

Sonia said she was “a bit embarrassed” that she had to appeal to the Star to get Pan Am organizers to realize the challenges associated with their rules, but said she felt she had to take her story public “because it is part of a lifelong journey of obstacles that I want to show Alessia she can overcome.”

In keeping with setting an example for her daughter, Sonia declined offers from the Games to waive ticket fees or offer her extra seats.

“I paid for the tickets and that’s the only way I would have it because this is not about being selfish,” she said. “This is about being fair and learning a powerful lesson.”