CBC Toronto is breaking down accessibility in Ontario in four stories: the progress made so far, how legislation is enforced, if the province can reach its 2025 goal and what accessibility looks like in cities, zooming in on Toronto.
Diagnosed with polio at the age of two, Dean Mellway remembers what it was like to grow up in Ontario as someone with a disability.
The 74-year-old recalls not being able to get into many buildings for much of his early life as they weren’t wheelchair-accessible and says he didn’t see a lot of people like him graduate with degrees or make it into the workforce.
It’s been almost two decades since Ontario sought out to make the province accessible to every person with a disability. Through the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA), two Liberal governments and the current Progressive Conservative party were tasked with removing all barriers for people with disabilities by 2025.
As that deadline approaches, Mellway says the province is years away from achieving full accessibility, but that it has come a long way.
“I think it was unrealistic to believe that in one generation, you could change attitudes,” said Mellway, an accessibility advisor for Carleton University’s Accessibility Institute.
Still, advocates like Mellway say the province should aim, in the time remaining, to close the gap by implementing current and previous recommendations, passing two standards that have been left in limbo for years and keeping the spotlight on accessibility beyond 2025.
“The sooner we actually implement the laws and require people to meet them, the quicker that change will appear.”
Implement new standards faster
Under the AODA, there are five areas the province requires that organizations make accessible: customer service, design of public spaces, transportation, employment and information and communication.
The province has been working on standards for two other areas since 2017: one for health care, such as in hospitals and patient care; and another for education, on teaching a barrier-free curriculum for students from kindergarten to Grade 12 and those in post-secondary school.
Matthew Shaw, the committee chair for the province’s Accessibility Standards Advisory Council and founder of consultancy firm Disability Solutions Canada, says schools and hospitals have many accessibility barriers.
“Those are both environments that are in desperate need of additional support,” said Shaw, who has Usher Syndrome, a degenerative condition that causes hearing and vision loss and leads to blindness.
Both areas rose to the forefront of disability advocacy after the COVID-19 pandemic, with advocates saying people with disabilities were left out of the province’s emergency response plan and children with disabilities faced barriers going to school without proper supports.
They were flagged as early as 2014, when a second, legislated review of the AODA recommended they be looked at by the provincial government. But progress has been stalled for years, with the government sitting on a recommendation reports for health care and similar reports for education in 2022.
In an email to CBC Toronto, the Ministry of Seniors and Accessibility said its currently analyzing recommendations contained in these reports and is developing a “comprehensive plan for 2025 and beyond.”
“I would like to see them instituted as soon as possible,” said Shaw.
Beyond the standards, Shaw says accessibility looks different for everyone. That’s why there needs to be an overall focus on changing cultural attitudes and day-to-day experiences for people with disabilities, rather than working through solely a legislative lens, he said.
“It was never clear by what metrics that would be measured,” he said.
Act on recommendations
Monique Taylor, the NDP critic for children, community and social services, says the Ford government needs to immediately work on implementing the latest legislated review’s recommendations evaluating the progress on the AODA.
“The government needs to do better and start saying sorry to the people in this province who need the accessibility measures implemented,” said Taylor.
There’s still a host of other recommendations from previous reviews the province could benefit from too, say some.
David Lepofsky, the chair of the main advocacy group on the file AODA Alliance, has been urging the province to implement the late lieutenant governor David C. Onley’s recommendations following his review in 2019, which slammed the government for its “glacial” progress.
“There’s not a single indication that they’re even thinking about it,” said Lepofsky.
In a written statement to CBC Toronto, Wallace Pidgeon, director of communications for the Minister of Seniors and Accessibility Raymond Cho, said the province has taken “important” steps toward implementing Onley’s review. Cho denied an interview request for this series.
“This includes breaking down barriers in the built environment, growing awareness and understanding about accessibility, increasing participation in the economy for people with disabilities, and increasing funding to programs to make Ontario barrier free,” said Pidgeon.
“We know that more needs to be done. That’s why we will continue our efforts to improve the lives of those living with a disability for them to live a better, barrier-free life.”
Bringing spirit of AODA into other laws
Although the goal is accessibility by 2025, work needs to continue well beyond that deadline, say advocates, particularly as politicians use the AODA as the basis of new, intersecting legislation.
The AODA has helped lay the groundwork for similar legislation in British Columbia, Manitoba, Nova Scotia, Saskatchewan, and Newfoundland and Labrador. It’s also credited as a pillar of the federal Accessible Canada Act, which aims to prevent similar barriers Canada-wide by Jan. 1, 2040.
That’s why Ontario will need to be mindful of how federal policies and provincial policies can often be contradictory to one another, said Rabia Khedr, the national director of the community organization Disability Without Poverty.
She points to inadequate provincial social funding programs like the Ontario Disability Support Program keeping people with disabilities below the poverty line, and the increased use of the federal medical assistance in dying program as an alternative to making do with today’s supports.
“Core principles of the AODA are respect, dignity, independence and equality of opportunity,” said Khedr.
“We need a champion behind the law who’s going to make sure that the intent of the law is achieved.”