TORONTO – If Emily Daigle had wanted to watch Ontario make history when it passed Canada’s first accessibility law in 2005, she would have had to do so from afar thanks to the lack of wheelchair accommodations in the legislature’s visitors’ gallery.
More than a decade later, Daigle and other disability advocates say the law that was supposed to eliminate such barriers has had little effect.
Even if the party that wins Thursday’s election heeds calls to improve the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, Daigle will still struggle to get a front-row seat to the conversation. The visitors’ gallery remains inaccessible to wheelchairs and while five spots are available elsewhere, the distinction makes Daigle feel voices like hers are not as welcome in the province’s political discourse.
The situation underscores what, for many, is a critical issue the new government will need to address – revisiting the legislation’s stated goal of making Ontario fully accessible by 2025 and implementing major changes to get that process back on track.
“Right now it’s about as worthless as Dollarama toilet paper,” Daigle said of the law. “It has no teeth.”
The law – often referred to by its acronym, AODA – has dominated many campaign discussions around disability issues, which some activists say have been more numerous and nuanced than in past elections.
The three main parties have all made pledges or even explicit platform commitments geared toward the estimated 1.9 million Ontarians living with physical, intellectual or developmental disabilities.
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Some of those came in response to a letter sent out by the AODA Alliance, a non-partisan advocacy group that tackles issues around the province’s access legislation.
Chairman David Lepofsky outlined 48 accessibility related requests for the incoming administration and pressed the governing Liberals, the Progressive Conservatives, the New Democrats and the Green Party for their commitments on each one.
All four asserted support for the AODA and the need for greater enforcement, which the alliance has flagged as an urgent priority.
Government data obtained by the alliance showed that since 2013, more than half of private-sector companies with at least 20 employees had not filed mandatory AODA compliance reports. During that time, the government issued only five monetary non-compliance penalties.
Many of the alliance’s issues were not addressed in party responses, but Lepofsky said this year’s campaign marked the first time he’d secured accessibility related pledges from all four parties.
Another sign of growing engagement, he said, was an all-party debate in Toronto organized by community service providers and grass-roots organizations.
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The Liberals defended their record but asserted more work needed to be done, including on AODA enforcement and mental health supports. Candidate Damin Starr stated the party promise to raise Ontario Disability Support Program rates by three per cent for each of the next three years, as well as revisiting asset limits and how much money recipients can keep from employment or other sources.
The NDP, represented by MPP Monique Taylor, promised its own ODSP increase of at least five per cent. Other commitments included thousands of new affordable or supportive housing units and modernization of the Assistive Devices program that alleviates the cost of some accessible technology and mobility devices but has not expanded to cover heavily used tools like smart phones.
The party’s platform also promises to create a stand-alone ministry for mental health issues and do away with regulations forcing disabled youth to reapply for support programs once they turn 18.
The latter priority was echoed by Progressive Conservative candidate Christine Elliott, who also emphasized a $1.9 billion promise to bolster mental health supports and a public education campaign for employers looking to hire disabled workers.
Elliott, however, would not join the other parties in promising an immediate social support increase, saying that would be addressed when the province’s finances were under control. An individual on ODSP currently makes less than $1,200 per month, a figure well below the poverty line.
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Promises from the Green Party, represented by leader Mike Schreiner, included a province-wide expansion of the guaranteed income pilot that rolled out in parts of Ontario last year, and barrier-free public transit.
Lepofsky said it’s been encouraging to witness such a wide-ranging discussion, crediting the disabled community for mobilizing on social media and applying pressure.
He said he’s observed the effects of that pressure in many ways. While he knows of few disabled candidates on the campaign trail, more people are openly discussing disability concerns that impact their families. Candidates are also making efforts to provide election materials in multiple formats and hold meetings in accessible venues, he said.
But Lepofsky noted that disability issues are still not frequently discussed by the prominent party leaders.
The incoming government will have the last real chance to reform the AODA and get province-wide accessibility back on schedule, he said, adding the uncertainty of the race means there may be room for contributions from all parties.
“One of the possibilities … is a minority government, and in a minority government we want to make sure that our issues become a priority,” he said. “That’s not just a function of what whoever wins does, but what the opposition parties make a priority.”