TORONTO – Coming changes to the rules governing accessible customer service in Ontario are being decried as inadequate by at least one group representing the clientele the regulations are meant to help.
They argue that changes increasing the number of workers requiring accessibility training, and expanding the number of professionals authorized to vouch for the need for a service animal, do little to directly impact the lives of people with disabilities.
The province’s Liberal government announced the amendments to the customer service section of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) on Monday, three years after undertaking a review of the rules that originally went into effect in 2008.
The Ministry of Economic Development, Employment and Infrastructure, which oversees the act, made the changes after reviewing recommendations from an advisory council that sought public input on how best to reduce accessibility barriers for the estimated 1.8 million Ontario residents currently living with a disability.
The new rules, which go into effect on July 1 and apply to all organizations providing goods, services or facilities, now specify that all employees must undergo accessibility training. Previously only staff who dealt directly with the public had to be trained on accessibility issues.
The government has also expanded the list of professionals authorized to provide documents indicating the need for a service animal. Doctors and nurses were originally the only ones allowed to provide such authorization, but the list now includes psychologists, psychotherapists, audiologists, chiropractors and optometrists.
David Lepofsky, chair of advocacy group the AODA Alliance, described the changes as “minor tinkering.”
He lamented that the new rules would have very little practical impact on the day-to-day challenges the people with disabilities continue to face.
“Changing the documentation for service animals, that’s helpful, but we certainly don’t hear the number of people using service animals who get refused admission to a taxi or restaurant are refused because someone looked at the documentation and said, ‘oh, if only it was signed by this professional instead of that one, we’d let you in,”‘ he said in a telephone interview.
“What we hear is the taxi that won’t even stop or the person at the restaurant who simply says, ‘no dogs allowed.”‘
A member of the advisory council tasked with recommending changes to the rules said the service animal requirements will have a more widespread, if less visible, impact.
Former CNIB President Jim Sanders said the ranks of service animal users have swollen to include far more than simply blind people relying on a guide dog for travel assistance.
Expanding the list of professionals, he said, makes it easier for those with less visible disabilities such as epilepsy, diabetes or post-traumatic stress disorder to move through society with the supports they need.
“When you need a service animal in order to carry out your day-to-day activities, the last thing you need is a level of bureaucracy that places the individual using a service animal in the awkward position of constantly verifying that this is, in fact, legitimate,” he said.
Sanders said the council at one point toyed with changing the rules to specify only dogs as valid service animals, but opted to keep the regulations broad for maximum flexibility.
He described the changes to employee training requirements as “ideal,” but did acknowledge one area that caused the council some trepidation.
The current rules distinguish between large and small corporations, defining small ones as those with fewer than 20 employees.
The latest amendments will see the definition of small organizations shift to those with fewer than 50 staff members, greatly increasing the number of companies that would now fall under this classification.
Current rules have less stringent documentation requirements for small organizations, which do not have to have written accessibility policies in place and are not subject to government compliance audits.
“For organizations with 20 to 49 employees, which is a huge part of the private sector, they don’t have to have documentation of any of this anymore, which essentially means all the policy has to be is in someone’s head,” Lepofsky said.
The new rules will effectively leave a large swath of the province’s businesses free from audit requirements and efforts to see that accessibility laws are being enforced, he added.
Sanders said council members did “struggle” with the issue, but said it made sense to change the classifications to bring them in line with similar government policies.
“The perception by moving it up is that some organizations will be let off the hook. That’s a perception only,” he said, adding the AODA applies to companies whether they have written policies or not.
“The value in having the basic administrative rules harmonized outweighed the perception and the value of having to sit down and fill out a form every year.”
Sanders said public education will be critical to making sure accessibility rules are enforced throughout Ontario, adding the council got very little feedback during the public consultation phase of its review.
Economic Development Minister Brad Duguid acknowledged the AODA remains a work in progress as Ontario tries to make the entire province fully accessible by 2025.
“There’s more work to be done, but steps like these (new rules) are the foundation to developing a culture of inclusion, where economic and social opportunities exist for people of all abilities,” Duguid said in a statement.