Ontario talks tough on disability discrimination

But policy and guidelines no substitute for disability law: critics.

The Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) is getting aggressive with employers and workplaces that discriminate against the disabled.

The OHRC sent that message to employers with its revised Policy and Guidelines on Disability and the Duty to Accommodate, released late last month.

Chief commissioner Keith Norton said the commission will no longer wait for a formal complaint to be lodged in the system. Instead, the new policy states, the commission plans to go out and investigate workplaces and other establishments to ensure accommodations have been made and the rights of the disabled have not been violated.

“This policy is critical. It establishes standards to ensure that persons with disabilities are vital participants in community life and contribute equally in the workplace,” said Norton. “Society itself creates many obstacles that are faced by people with disabilities. This policy allows us to tackle these obstacles and to focus on how society should best respond.”

In the coming months, the commission will be asking large organizations to submit a report on the accessibility of their facilities. If the commission finds an organization’s facilities are not accessible, it will be asked to prepare a plan to become fully accessible.

“We must see action and if there’s no sign of action...on the part of corporations, individuals, employers and others across the province, then we will come calling at your door,” said Norton.

The policy leans heavily on workplace accommodation and employers duties. About 75 per cent of human rights complaints are related to employment. Roughly 40 per cent of the 1,800 Ontarians who file complaints cite disability. According to the commission, one in six people suffers from a disability.

In an effort to make duties and responsibilities more clear, the policy spells out what employers, unions and employees are required to do when it comes to accommodating for a disability in the workplace.

According to the policy, the duty to accommodate requires employers to take an active role in ensuring that alternative approaches and possible accommodation solutions are investigated; grant accommodation requests in a timely manner; bear the cost of any required medical information or documentation. The policy also recognizes individuals who suffer from mental disabilities.

The OHRC will be asking employment stakeholders for input as they prepare specific workplace guidelines.

“This policy is pretty leading-edge stuff,” said Wolfgang Zimmermann, executive director of the National Institute of Disability Management and Research.

“It really provides the tools, so it eliminates all the excuses for not accommodating. It removes the nebulous questions of ‘How do I make it happen?’ or ‘What is required of me?’”

Zimmerman, who himself returned to work after a debilitating work-related logging accident, said it will still take a firm commitment from employers and unions for the policy to have a real effect in the province’s workplaces.

“It has the potential to have a great impact. But ultimately, you need to have a commitment from everyone.”

While he applauds the commission for taking a more proactive approach to discrimination, David Lepofsky, chair of the Ontarians with Disabilities Act Committee, said it’s only the beginning, adding the province needs to pass a law that makes discrimination and barriers to full access illegal.

“This policy is leading us there, it’s pointing us there. But we need to go beyond that. We need to set legal standards,” said Lepofsky.

“While it’s a step forward, the policy is no substitute (for the act).”

The OHRC’s recent policy brings some attention, and has given a substantial boost, to the fate of the Ontarians with Disabilities Act.

Lepofsky said it gives him hope that the government will make good on an election promise Premier Mike Harris made in 1995 to enact legislation that would make it mandatory for barriers to be removed.

The act would require the removal of existing barriers and prevent new barriers from being erected. The act would apply to the workplace, public transit, education, provincial and municipal government services and facilities.

It would also make it law for organizations and governments to identify barriers and design plans for the removal of barriers.

“They’ve broken every single promise and we aren’t fools. But that they’ve made a commitment is a step forward,” said Lepofsky.

SIDEBAR
Disability issues top federal discrimination complaints

Not enough is being done to protect the rights of disabled people, according to the Canadian Human Rights Commission’s annual report.

The 2000 Annual Report and Employment Equity Report, presented to Parliament last month, reports discrimination on the basis of disability accounted for the largest single number of new complaints, representing a total of 38 per cent of the 1,238 discrimination complaints lodged with the commission.

“There is still much to be done to make our society barrier-free to ensure that workplaces, public facilities and services are accessible to Canadians with disabilities,” said chief commissioner Michelle Falardeau-Ramsay.

In terms of employment, the commission also found that there was only a slight increase in the overall representation of people with disabilities in both the private and federal public sector. In the private sector in 1999, 2.4 per cent of the workforce were people with disabilities, compared to 2.3 per cent in 1998; and in the federal public sector in 1999, people with disabilities represented 4.7 per cent of the workforce, compared to 4.6 per cent over last year.

The report also states that Aboriginal peoples continue to be one of the most disadvantaged groups in Canada, and that the federal government has been too slow and done too little to try to address the issue.

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