June 16, 2010

Disabled still face long-term accessibility obstacles

As published in The Erin Advocate

The steps at the doorways of some Erin stores present an impossible barrier for people in wheelchairs. Improvements have been made at many locations, but even with new customer service regulations coming in 2012, the town will still have a long way to go before it is truly accessible.

Nicole Valentine lives near downtown Erin village, and deals with the frustration all the time because her six-year-old son Pierce needs a wheelchair. He had meningitis as a baby, causing delay to his development and damage to his sight. When driving through town with her children, she would like to be able to stop and bring them into a store.

"I usually don't shop in town, that's the sad part," she said. Sometimes, she gets a babysitter so she can run errands on her own.

Newer stores generally have level entranceways, but at many older, historic buildings, there is not sufficient room on the sidewalk for a ramp, and only an expensive reconstruction of the storefront would enable easy access.

Valentine does not expect owners to tear up their storefronts, but in cases where there is enough room, she is hoping for more ramps, and doors that can be activated with the push of a button. These also help people who are frail, and those pushing strollers.

About 1.85 million Ontarians (15.5 per cent) have a disability. Within 20 years, as the population ages, 20 per cent will be disabled. Already, more than half the population feels the direct impact, if immediate family members are included.
“As caregivers and supporters, they also experience the reality of disability,” said Lieutenant Governor David Onley.

The Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) is gradually bringing in standards in various areas: Customer Service, Built Environment, Transportation, Communications and Employment. The goal is full accessibility by 2025.

The Built Environment Standard, however, will apply only to new and significantly renovated buildings. Store owners will not be required to retrofit existing structures just to meet the standard. Other exemptions are planned, where compliance would be structurally impractical, be detrimental to a building's heritage value or create "undue hardship".

Customer Service was the first standard to come into effect, in January this year for public sector facilities. As of January 2012, it will apply to the private sector. An IPSOS REID survey last month found 68% of Ontarians polled were either not very aware, or had never heard of the new rules, which are based on the principle of equal opportunity.

Private firms will have a legal obligation to train staff and accommodate the needs of customers with a variety of disabilities: physical, hearing, sight, cognitive and intellectual. Goods and services must be provided in a way that respects their "dignity and independence". Firms must communicate with customers in a manner that takes into account their disability, and unless otherwise prohibited, allow guide dogs onto the premises. For more details, go to www.mcss.gov.on.ca.

The Town of Erin has trained its staff on the new service standards. They will take action to meet the needs of a disabled person at the municipal office, though in some cases they will need advance notice. This could include providing larger print or even braille materials for a visually impaired person, hiring an interpreter for a hearing impaired person or holding a public meeting on the main floor instead of the basement, since there is no elevator. There is $9,900 in the current budget to raise the sidewalk slightly at the front entrance and install an automatic door.

Most public sector buildings in Erin are wheelchair accessible, with the exception of the upstairs banquet hall at the Hillsburgh arena. Since that building is considered quite old now, accessibility will likely have to wait for a new facility.

The Royal Bank office in Hillsburgh has no room for a sidewalk ramp, but they have still made helpful improvements with a heavy-duty hand rail and automatic door. The Family Health Team medical centre in Erin has a small ramp of pavement from the parking lot to their sidewalk. There are no markings on the pavement, however, so drivers may not realize they are parking on the ramp, blocking the access. The Erin Post Office has a large ramp, but like many facilities, a heavy door that is awkward for anyone in a wheelchair, or pushing one. This would be an ideal spot for an automatic door.

Charles Beer, a former Minister of Community and Social Services, released a review of the AODA in February. He said a major effort is needed to educate people about the new regulations, and that standards need to be harmonized and streamlined. "I sense a tremendous angst among representatives from the obligated sectors and fears that the cost of compliance will be burdensome," he said.

The rights of persons with disabilities are protected under both the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and Ontario’s Human Rights Code. Those rights don't mean much until there are regulations in place, with adequate enforcement.

"Accessibility turns legal rights into practical, everyday realities," said Beer. "As accessibility increases, Ontarians with disabilities will bring their talents to bear more effectively in the workplace and in all other aspects of Ontario life. Youth with disabilities will have more opportunity for educational achievement and seniors will live more fulfilling lives.

"Consumer spending by persons with disabilities will rise. And our quality of life will be enriched by the fuller inclusion of Ontarians with disabilities in our social relationships and community activities. Most important, the realization of accessibility will demonstrate our shared commitment to each other — and reinforce the values of decency, fairness and respect for individual dignity that bind Ontarians together."