Doors opening for workers with disabilities (Guest commentary)

Ontario’s comprehensive accessibility legislation is now in force for public sector — private sector should start preparing for January 2012 deadline

If asked how many employees in your workplace have a bona fide disability, would you know the answer? If asked, 10 years from now, how many of your employees will be at an age or state of health where they are more likely to develop a disability, would this be readily apparent to the HR team?

What percentage of the potential working population in Ontario has a disability your workplace has not even considered in the hiring process? Of that percentage, how many could potentially be high-level performing employees who help an organization succeed in the marketplace?

These questions about disability often bring to mind more obvious disabilities, such as an employee in a wheelchair, a prospective employee with multiple sclerosis or a manager who wears two hearing aides.

But what about an aging employee whose vision is slowly diminishing due to diabetes? Or an employee with a hidden disability, such as moderate depression, who is not able to make it to work on time? Or a job candidate who had great qualifications and skills but needed to have the interview questions ahead of time and seemed to need time to process the answers?

Consider if your workplace has systems in place that will allow these employees or potential employees to contribute to the organization’s success. This includes:

• wayfinding and signage in the workplace, both internal and external

• policies and procedural documents

• forms and contracts

• processes to determine if a new or established employee with a hearing impairment could immediately start work in his assigned job and interact with the technology and equipment

• online application systems for prospective employees with disabilities who have communication-related issues such as cognitive, visual or auditory impairments.

Time to get moving: AODA is here

In Ontario, barriers to accessibility have been, and will be, addressed over the next few years. Is your organization ready? Do you, and other stakeholders in your company, know about the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disability Act (AODA) and what is needed to comply with the legislation?

AODA was passed on June 13, 2005. It came into force for public sector firms on Jan. 1, 2010, and will apply to the private sector on Jan. 1, 2012. (Note: Even though AODA is now the law, the Ontarians with Disabilities Act, 2001, will remain in force until it is repealed.)

AODA will make Ontario the first jurisdiction in Canada to develop, implement and enforce mandatory accessibility standards — it will make the province accessible by 2025.

Why now? One reason it’s top of mind for the province is sheer numbers — about 15 per cent of Ontarians have a disability. Over the next 20 years, as the population ages, the number is expected to rise to 20 per cent.

This presents both a huge challenge and an enormous opportunity for businesses, designers and architects, facility managers, ergonomists, HR professionals and purchasing agents to do things right the first time.

When disability statistics are paired with the shrinking skilled workforce in Ontario — and across Canada — this represents a “perfect storm” for a shrinking pool of potential and current employees.

5 standards for everyone

There are five standards, or regulations, all sectors must comply with:

• customer service

• employment

• information and communication

• transportation

• built environment (buildings and other structures).

The first regulation under AODA that became law on Jan. 1, 2008, was the customer service standard. All businesses or organizations that provide goods or services to the public or other third parties in Ontario are required to comply with the requirements of the standard.

In terms of timing, all public sector organizations must comply with the standard by Jan. 1, 2010, and file the first accessibility report by March 31, 2010.

As for the private sector and non-profit organizations, compliance with this standard will be required by Jan. 1, 2012, with the first filing of the accessibility report by March 31, 2012.

What will compliance with the customer service regulation look like? Here is a list to get started to ensure provision of accessible customer service to people with various kinds of disabilities:

• Establish policies, practices and procedures for providing goods or services to people with disabilities.

• Set a policy allowing people to use their own personal assistive devices — and anything your organization offers (assistive devices, services or methods) — to enable them to access your goods and services.

• Use reasonable efforts to ensure policies, practices and procedures are consistent with the core principles of independence, dignity, integration and equality of opportunity.

• Communicate with a person with a disability in a manner that takes into account the disability.

• Train staff, volunteers, contractors and other people who interact with the public or other third parties on your behalf on a number of topics, as outlined in the customer service standard.

• Train staff, volunteers, contractors and other people who are involved in developing policies, practices and procedures on the provision of goods or services on a number of topics, as outlined in the customer service standard.

• Allow people with disabilities to be accompanied by their guide dogs or service animals in those areas of the premises you own or operate that are open to the public, unless the animals are excluded by another law. If a service animal is excluded by law, use other measures to provide services to the person with a disability.

• Permit a person with a disability who uses a support person to bring that person with him while accessing goods or services in premises open to the public or third parties.

• Where admission fees are charged, provide notice ahead of time on what admission, if any, would be charged for a support person of a person with a disability.

• Provide notice when facilities or services that people with disabilities rely on to access or use your goods or services are temporarily disrupted.

• Establish a process for people to provide feedback on how you provide goods or services to people with disabilities and how you will respond to any feedback and take action on any complaints. Make the information about your feedback process readily available to the public.

If your business is a designated public sector organization, or has 20 or more employees, you and your clients have additional responsibilities that include the need to:

• document in writing accessible customer service policies, practices and procedures

• notify customers these documents are available upon request

• provide information in the required documents, when providing them to a person with a disability, in a format that takes into account the disability.

Olga Dosis is a senior accessibility consultant at Optimal Performance Consultants, an ergonomic, accessibility and disability prevention firm in Toronto. She can be reached at [email protected]. Jane Sleeth is managing director and senior ergonomic consultant at Optimal Performance Consultants. She can be reached at [email protected] or visit for more information.

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