Ontario lays out plan to address accessibility issues

WATCH ABOVE: A Toronto tour with a person in a wheelchair reveals major barriers. The barriers are at businesses both big and small. Christina Stevens reports. 

TORONTO – The Ontario government says its latest plan to address the needs of people with disabilities is meant to re-energize a movement that has lost momentum in recent years.

Brad Duguid, minister of economic development, employment and infrastructure, said Wednesday that the plan is aimed at bringing the province closer to compliance with the Access for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA), which went into effect 10 years ago.

The latest batch of projects are being released at the half-way point between the act’s implementation and the deadline to make the entire province accessible by 2025.

“I think that over the last couple of years, it’s understandable, it’s a 20-year program, we’ve seen a bit of a flag in momentum,” Duguid said in a telephone interview.

“Well, as of today, I think we’re successfully reinvigorating momentum with a number of new, ambitious programs.”

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Many of the efforts detailed in the action plan are geared towards making businesses more accessible to both future customers and prospective employees.

The plan calls for the government to spend $9 million over the next two years on a program dubbed Valuing Ability, which will provide job training for disabled post-secondary graduates, offer resources to businesses that want to become more accessible and promote the need to make workplaces more inclusive.

The government also plans to launch a loan program to reward companies that both hire and retain disabled staff.

The project would target small and mid-sized businesses by offering commercial loans at interest rates that decrease with every disabled staff member that’s added to the payroll and kept on staff for a certain period of time.

Details for the loan program and many of the other initiatives have not yet been finalized, but Duguid said the projects will get off the ground as soon as possible in order to fully implement the AODA’s employment standards by 2017.

“This isn’t a 10-year plan. This is really a 12-month plan that gets us going into the next decade with a lot of momentum behind us,” he said. “We’ll have a number of other initiatives we’ll need to move forward with over the next 10 years.”

The action plan also promises to introduce a third-party certification program to recognize accessible businesses. Duguid said the program will be modeled after the international LEED certifications for businesses that embrace environmentally friendly initiatives, adding accessibility has many of the same economic benefits as going green.

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“You open yourself up to a growing base of potential clients and customers,” he said. “At the same time, you’re opening your businesses up to a very talented, skilled, educated pool of workers.”

Other projects spelled out in the action plan include an effort to make all government documents and appeals processes accessible and a partnership with an undetermined private sector company to improve the province’s audit numbers.

Under the AODA, the government can audit companies for accessibility compliance and impose fines if their practices are found lacking. The ministry conducted nearly 2,000 audits last year but plans to cut that number back to around 1,200 for 2015. Duguid said a private-sector partnership, which is still in the works, would hopefully at least triple that number.

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