Question: What does our firm need to do in order to comply with the Customer Service Standard under the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) that comes into force in 2012? Are there any other deadlines looming under the act?
Answer: The Ontario government enacted AODA in 2005 to ensure people with disabilities are able to obtain full access to goods, services, accommodations, employment, buildings and premises. In just a couple of weeks — on Jan. 1, 2012 — the first set of obligations, many of which have applied to the public sector since 2010, will become binding for private sector firms.
Four standards have been developed to date: the Customer Service Standard, Transportation Standard, Employment Standard and Information and Communication Standard. A fifth standard — the Built Environment Standard — is under development. It will seek to ensure persons with disabilities are able to access newly constructed or renovated buildings and premises. Each of the standards operates in addition to the Ontario Human Rights Code, which remains in effect.
But customer service is top-of-mind because of the looming deadline. It applies to every person or organization with at least one employee who “provides goods or services to members of the public or other third parties.” Although the term “other third parties” is not defined, the government has indicated it refers to organizations that may supply goods or services to other businesses. For example, a manufacturer that provides goods to wholesalers must comply with it when interacting with employees of the wholesaler in the same manner as a retailer that provides goods to the public.
The Customer Service Standard imposes specific requirements on organizations to ensure goods and services are accessible to customers or the employees of their corporate customers, as the case may be.
First and foremost, it requires organizations to create policies and practices that explain how they will provide goods and services to people with disabilities, including policies that set out whether assistive devices — such as wheelchairs or braille readers — will be provided and, whether or not assistive devices are provided, how employees of the organization will respectfully interact with persons who are using assistive devices. The organization must inform its customers of these policies and provide the policies to any interested person on request, in an accessible format if required.
The organization must also take steps to alert people with disabilities about an interruption in the ability to provide goods and services. At a minimum, it must post a notice of the disruption, the reasons for it and alternate facilities or services available. The policies must set out the steps the organization will take in the event of a disruption.
If the organization allows members of the public or other third parties onto its premises, it must allow them to bring service animals and support persons. If bringing animals onto the premises is illegal, for example for health reasons in certain types of food-related operations, it must provide other measures to allow the customer to access goods and services.
Of course, policies and practices are only as good as the people who implement them. The Customer Service Standard requires organizations to train employees on how to serve persons with disabilities in a respectful and dignified manner. Training must include:
• how to interact and communicate with people with various types of disabilities
• how to interact with people who use assistive devices or, if applicable, service animals and support persons
• how to use equipment or devices available on the organization’s premises
• what to do if a person with a particular type of disability is having trouble accessing goods or services.
Training must be provided as soon as the employee starts working and be done on an ongoing basis. Details about the training should be documented, including the topics discussed and who attended.
Finally, the standard requires organizations to create a written feedback procedure to allow the public to provide feedback or make complaints about how the organization serves or provides goods to persons with disabilities. The organization must be flexible in how it accepts feedback, recognizing individuals with disabilities may need to provide it by alternate methods.
Although the Customer Service Standard is the only accessibility standard that will apply in its entirety to private sector organizations on Jan. 1, certain obligations under other standards will also take effect on that date.
Under the Employment Standard, organizations with employees with disabilities who may necessitate emergency response measures must provide them with appropriate emergency response information in a format that can be read or understood by them.
In addition, under the Information and Communications Standard, any organization that produces emergency information for the public must ensure it’s provided in an accessible format, if requested. An employer must also be receptive to requests for alternate formats of this information from members of the public with disabilities.
The majority of the remaining obligations enacted under the Employment Standard and the Information and Communications Standard, as well as the Transportation Standard, will not become binding for private sector organizations with 50 or more employees until 2016 and private sector organizations with fewer than 50 employees until 2017. However, by 2014, employers will be required to create a written policy outlining how the obligations imposed by the various standards will be complied with up to and including the 2017 implementation date. Training in respect of the policy will be required.