August 29, 2012

Progress still slow in helping the disabled

As published in The Erin Advocate

Since talking is always cheaper than doing, I am always skeptical when governments talk about the need for additional talking. Such was the case when I read MP Michael Chong's announcement of a Panel on Labour Market Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities.

I may be a fine one to talk, being in the word trade, but like most people I am not in a position to directly make things better for the disabled. I wrote about this issue in 2010, but strangely, nothing appears to have changed.

Maybe businesses would pay more attention to customers than to columnists. If you were to walk into a downtown store and notice a three or four-inch concrete step, a difficult barrier for anyone in a wheelchair, would you be willing to ask the shopkeeper what could be done about it?

Removing these barriers in some older buildings might present a prohibitive cost, but there are other buildings where relatively inexpensive concrete work could make a big difference.

Municipalities with more than 10,000 people (like Erin) are required to set up an Accessibility Advisory Committee, with a majority of the members having disabilities, according to the Ministry of Community and Social Services. Erin's obligation is being met through an initiative at the County level. Store steps could be a topic for discussion.

Since one in seven people have a disability (one in five by 2036), the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act aims to make the province accessible – by 2025.

The federal government initiative focuses on employment issues, since that falls within their jurisdiction.

"The future of growth and prosperity in Canada is dependent on getting more people into the labour force, including Canadians with disabilities," said Chong. "The Panel is interested in hearing about the various ways employers have recruited and supported employees with disabilities at various stages in their careers, and how these best practices have benefitted their businesses."

This is all well and good, of course, but some disabled folks might be surprised that the Panel is setting out to identify barriers and disincentives to their employment. I thought they were fairly well-known, along with the need for laws and incentives to help change behaviours and attitudes.

An on-line consultation process starts next month, so if you want to participate or get more information, email: or go to, where you can also reach the federal Office for Disability Issues.

On the provincial side, where most disability issues reside, new rules came into effect this year. The Accessibility Standard for Customer Service applies to any person or company that provides goods or services and has one or more employees.

Businesses (and non-profit groups) must now make a plan to accommodate the disabled, including communication, allowing assistive devices and service animals, welcoming support persons and telling customers when accessible services are not available. They must also train their staff to make sure this happens.

Businesses can go to to find out all the requirements, and run the Compliance Wizard software to help sort it all out.

Other provincial initiatives include mandatory changes to recruitment and hiring processes, and changes to workplace equipment. An emergency plan is already a must, but other measures will not be required until 2015 for the public sector, and 2017 for the private and non-profit sectors.

Some accessibility changes will come through the Building Code, and there will be other standards for the built environment in public spaces, which will apply only to new construction and redevelopment. These will cover not only buildings, but recreational trails, outdoor patios, playgrounds, pedestrian traffic signals and parking lots.

Change may be happening as slow as molasses in January, but at least it is flowing in the right direction.