Accessibility depends on employees

Blind commuter’s fight for transit stop announcements hinges on drivers’ support

Fresh from a win to get Toronto subway drivers to announce stops, a blind lawyer and accessibility activist has launched a second complaint to force bus and streetcar drivers to do the same on surface routes.

Citing potential difficulties with employees over the requirement, the TTC has offered instead to put in technology to announce the stops.

The case offers a glimpse into the sweeping changes that are required if businesses and institutions are to offer full accessibility to people with disabilities. With the passing of a new accessibility law in Ontario last spring, it’s also a reminder to employers about the extent to which compliance will depend on employees and how they think about and do their jobs.

David Lepofsky has been fighting with the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) for 10 years to get subway stops announced. Threatened with a human rights complaint, the commission agreed to make regular stop announcements in 1995.

In 2001, however, Lepofsky went ahead with a complaint claiming that subway operators weren’t announcing stops consistently. He cited internal audits that found subway stops were called out anywhere from 57 per cent to 88 per cent of the time. On the service’s Sheppard line, compliance was at 33 per cent. He won last June when the province’s human rights tribunal ruled the transit commission had discriminated against visually impaired riders.

Lepofsky now wants the same practice to apply to surface routes. Last year, in response to his written request for drivers to announce bus and streetcar stops, the TTC replied that under its current policy, drivers announce all major intersections and stops requested by riders. Lepofsky filed a second human rights complaint in November.

City councillor Howard Moscoe, chairman of the TTC, said the TTC agrees with Lepofsky’s request, which is why it’s putting in an automated system on all its trains, streetcars and buses at the end of the year.

“We’ve decided to go with the automated system because (otherwise) we would end up with a myriad of discipline cases with drivers who refuse to do it, plus hundreds of grievances,” said Moscoe. “A lot of the drivers don’t want to (call out stops). They say they’re busy, collecting transfers, trying to drive a vehicle and they can’t do it.”

The TTC’s response illustrates the key role employee relations, staff training and work conditions play when organizations are expected to comply with the province’s new and far-reaching Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act.
The law, passed unanimously by the provincial legislature last spring, sets as its goal full accessibility for people with disabilities in 20 years.

Standards for accessibility will be set out by committees representing a cross-section of disability groups, government, and public and private sector employers. The first two committees have been formed to set out standards in customer service and transportation. They are expected to come out with proposed standards by late summer.

At the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB), Lesley MacDonald speculated that the standards developed by the customer service committee might closely resemble the voluntary standards set out by the Canadian Standards Association in 2004.

MacDonald, the CNIB’s national co-ordinator of accessible design services, said the standards for customer service may cover such issues as whether an organization’s website is set up for adaptive technology, whether written material is available in alternative formats and whether front-line employees know how to treat people with different disabilities.

“The legislation is far-reaching. It will reach every corner of our lives, both in the public sector and the private sector,” said Stuart Johnston, vice-president of policy and government relations for the Ontario Chamber of Commerce.

It has indeed engendered much concern from chamber members that “they will be forced to do very expensive things that they can’t afford to do.” Given that he has been invited to be part of the standards development committee for customer service, Johnston said he’s “cautiously optimistic” that business interests will be taken into account from the get-go and “not on day 45 when the standards have all been developed and it’s, ‘What do you think?’”

Having met with the customer service committee for only one day just before press time, Johnston said he had no information on the kinds of standards that will end up in a proposal to the government. He added, however, “with us being on the customer service committee, we’re bringing the perspective that you can’t legislate customer service. But there’s an opportunity to create an awareness through this (legislation).”

Toronto-based diversity consultant Lynne Sullivan said because accessibility means different things for different people, it would be important for organizations to train staff to be aware, responsive and willing to be flexible in how they carry out their jobs.

“If you’re going to provide an inclusive environment, it’s not going to be a one-size-fits-all environment,” said Sullivan. “Employees are going to have to be more aware in general when they interact with the public, if they find they have a problem, that the problem could be due to a disability. Maybe the person has a learning disability, or the person has schizophrenia, or the person really didn’t hear what they just said.”

And when standards are developed by a committee focused on access to employment, employers may find they have to change the recruiting process, said Sullivan. This may mean that when there’s a screening test, recruiters would have to provide someone with a learning disability extra time to do the test.

Sullivan added that in this matter training may be necessary, but not sufficient. “I think what will be important is giving people access to resources and tools, so it’s having an internal point person on this issue.”

She added that what the law would entail is a “new normal in which everybody’s required to think differently in how they do their job.” As an example, she pointed to one visually impaired person calling up a restaurant to see if anyone would be available to read the menu out loud.

“By the time the person arrived, the person answering the phone has dictated the menu onto a tape.” That’s an example of the kind of quick thinking that may be required under this law, she added.

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