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Ontario’s 2025 accessibility goals impossible without urgent action, report finds

Queen’s Park in Toronto, Monday, Feb. 20, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

Ontario will fail to meet its goal of making the province accessible for people with disabilities by 2025 unless the government takes urgent action, a new report has found.

The report examined the implementation of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act and said a lack of basic leadership, accountability and data will make meeting the 2025 target “difficult, if not impossible to achieve.”

“People with disabilities still consistently face barriers in their everyday experiences, from navigating city streets, to applying for jobs, to accessing public transit and government services,” wrote report author Rich Donovan.

“Entities serving Ontarians with disabilities need to change … There is no plan that adjusts behaviours to achieve an accessible Ontario.”

Donovan, who was appointed by the province in early 2022 to conduct a legislative review of the act, said little progress has been made since the law was passed in 2005. That stems from design flaws in “services, products, technology, buildings, infrastructure, careers, processes and human imagination,” he said.

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In the report, which was based on extensive consultations with the disability community, Donovan asks Ontario Premier Doug Ford directly, “Do you care?”

Ontario’s accessibility law was the first of its kind in Canada, with a stated goal of ensuring universal accessibility in the province by Jan. 1, 2025.

Donovan’s scathing report asserts the government has failed the roughly 2.9 million Ontarians with a disability — more than one-fifth its population.

The review noted that previous reviews of the law — Donovan’s is the fourth — also reported continuous failures, poor outcomes and painfully slow progress.

Former lieutenant-governor David Onley, who conducted a 2019 review, said at the time it was released that disabled residents were barred from full inclusion at nearly every turn, likening some of the barriers they face to long-abolished laws that perpetuated racial discrimination in the United States.

Donovan echoed Onley’s language, writing in the report released Thursday that “no other demographic group faces these kinds of negative experiences, barriers and outright discrimination without public outcry, much less one that represents nearly a quarter of the population.”

In response to the report, Ontario’s Ministry of Seniors and Accessibility said the province has taken steps toward implementing the recommendations that were in Onley’s review.

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“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,” spokesman Wallace Pidgeon wrote in a statement.

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“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.”

Donovan, the former chair of the province’s Accessibility Standards Advisory Council, called attention to the lack of incentives to comply with the law or improve accessibility, the lack of accountability for outcomes and the lack of data collection on the experiences of people with disabilities.

The report called the Ford government’s lack of a plan to implement the accessibility law “utterly shocking” and also criticized opposition parties, private sector organizations and the media for failing to hold the province accountable.

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Donovan also said there needs to be a societal shift in how people think of and interact with people with disabilities in order to remove barriers.

“Government can, and needs to be, a leader,” he said, “But it cannot lead alone.”

David Lepofsky, chair of the AODA Alliance, an advocacy group working to support the legislation’s implementation, said there was worry when the law first passed that politicians would celebrate the introduction of the law but then let it fall by the wayside.

The independent legislative reviews are a check-and-balance measure, he said.

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“We have campaigned to get the government to implement each of these reports and virtually none of them were employed,” he said. “We’re at a point now where attempts at being polite, gentle in terms of terminology have proven fruitless.”

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The law’s implementation is not exclusively the responsibility of the Ford government, Lepofsky noted, but they had a lot of potential to move forward on the file.

“They had a clear opportunity to say, ‘We’re going to shift this thing into higher gear.’ Instead, they shifted this thing down, they shifted it back,” he said.

“It’s gotten to a point where right now, frankly, nothing is going on that is changing the circumstances for us.”

Lepofsky said it’s hard to even point to specific access barriers that need urgent attention since they span all aspects of society, from built environments like transit stations to the COVID-19 pandemic response, which he said failed to account for the disproportionate hardships people with disabilities faced.

The report is an interim one that Donovan said he released to emphasize the urgent need for the province to make accessibility a priority – his final report will be published in June with a full set of recommendations following more consultations.

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