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An accessible Ontario by 2025? Here’s where the province stands on its goal

CBC Toronto is breaking down accessibility in Ontario in four stories: the progress made so far, how legislation is enforced, if the province can reach its 2025 goal and what accessibility looks like in cities, zooming in on Toronto.


On a spring day in 2005, Ontario’s Legislative Assembly was filled with applause.

In a rare moment of unanimity in politics, legislators celebrated their vote to make the province accessible to people with disabilities by 2025. 

The Accessibility for Ontarians With Disabilities Act (AODA) was created to help people with disabilities fully participate in society, bring them to the table in crafting regulations and build mechanisms to enforce standards. Advocates and experts hailed the legislation as groundbreaking and progressive.

That’s how David Lepofsky remembers it. Lepofsky, who is blind, worked for years with other advocates to make the legislation a reality.

But 18 years later, he says the province is nowhere near its goal.

“We’ve been warning about it for years,” said Lepofsky, the chair of the AODA Alliance, the main consumer advocacy group monitoring the legislation’s implementation. He says his group has been actively trying to meet with the Progressive Conservative government on the file to no avail.

“Government after government, minister after minister makes nice speeches and then does nothing.”

WATCH | The moment the AODA unanimously passed third reading: 

Advocates and people with disabilities say the slow pace of current and previous Ontario governments in implementing the AODA has hindered the bill from reaching its full potential, leaving roughly 2.9 million Ontarians wanting. Their disabilities range anywhere from physical and developmental to mental health and mobility, and are often invisible to others.

They’re concerned not only that the province will miss its deadline, but there won’t be any way to make government answer for the potential failure. And, they worry, there will be no renewed push to keep accessibility issues at the forefront after 2025. 

Anthony Frisina, the spokesperson for advocacy group Ontario Disability Coalition, says the lack of prioritization of the file is putting people with disabilities at risk.

“We’re more vigorously keeping track of it … we want to hold people accountable,” he said. Frisina has spina bifida, a condition that occurs when the spine and spinal cord don’t form properly, and uses a wheelchair.

“I find that people with disabilities, the perception is like we’re asking for so much and then we’re coming off as complainers … And that’s an attitude barrier that needs to change.”

What does the AODA aim to do?

According to the legislation, the AODA aims to develop, implement and enforce standards related to goods, services, accommodation, employment and buildings before Jan. 1, 2025. The legislation applies to every person in both the public and private sector.

They’ve enacted some accessibility standards, but the ones they’ve enacted are far too narrow, far too weak and don’t address the vast majority of barriers we face.– David Lepofsky, chair of the AODA Alliance

 

The Ministry of Seniors and Accessibility told CBC Toronto Minister Raymond Cho was unavailable for the interview on this series.

Asked if it’s confident it will achieve accessibility by 2025, the ministry’s director of communications Wallace Pidgeon said in an email the province is “making investments across the province and working to achieve, meet and exceed the standards set out in the AODA.”

“It’s the law,” he added.

WATCH | How being hard of hearing affects this commuter’s ride home:

What it’s like taking transit in Toronto when you’re hard of hearing

4 days ago

Duration 3:05

The Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act aims to make the province fully accessible by 2025. Ahead of the deadline, CBC’s Vanessa Balintec speaks to one disability advocate about existing barriers on Toronto transit for people who are hard of hearing.

Where are we now? 

Every three years, the government must appoint someone to review its progress on the law’s implementation and recommend any improvements.

There have been four reviews since the AODA was enacted. Charles Beer, the first reviewer whose report was released in 2010, said his review aimed to smooth out the legislation.

“With subsequent reviews … there was a constant around how can the government better lead on this and bring it into [the] greater public?” said Beer, also a former Liberal MPP and minister.

The two more recent reviews, released in 2014 and 2019, have concluded the status quo isn’t working. Both said that while organizations by and large support the legislation and its goals, the province has failed not only to prioritize the file, but provide meaningful guidance on its implementation and enforcement. 

Advocates note there has been progress but say it’s failed to transform the everyday experiences of people with disabilities.

Lepofsky says there have been improvements in some public spaces, but not all, pointing for example to newly built bike lanes in Toronto that pose problems for blind people. Besides, he says, the legislation is only so strong — it only applies to public spaces and not buildings, leaving many older ones almost entirely unnavigable.

He points to inconsistent reliability and accessibility features and services of the province’s transit systems; and vague customer service standards that make equitable customer service available only on a case-by-case basis.

He also points to the employment standard being too reliant on accommodations rather than removing barriers, and to an information and communication standard that, while mandating a minimum level of accessibility when sharing info on web-based apps, falls short on regulating mobile-based apps.

Two men in separate photos smile at the camera.
David Lepofsky, left, is the chair of the advocacy and consumer group AODA Alliance. Anthony Frisina, right, is the spokesperson for advocacy group Ontario Disability Coalition. Both are prominent disability rights activists in Ontario advocating for better implementation of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act. (Submitted by David Lepofsky and Anthony Frisina)

The poor implementation of accessibility standards are made worse by “paltry” enforcement of the law, he added.

“They’ve enacted some accessibility standards, but the ones they’ve enacted are far too narrow, far too weak and don’t address the vast majority of barriers we face,” said Lepofsky.

Where do we go from here?

A fourth review, containing advice on how to get Ontario back on track toward achieving accessibility, was handed to the province by appointee Rich Donovan in June and was publicly released last month. 

Donovan called its quiet and delayed release by the province “disappointing, but not surprising” and the latest example of its sluggish pace on the file.

“That to me tells you everything you need to know,” said Donovan.

The government has responded to the report, saying it’s started work on at least three of its 23 recommendations.

But absent was any mention of Donovan’s most pressing one: the creation of a new crisis committee, chaired by the Ontario Premier Doug Ford, to initiate and streamline a slew of recommendations on things like public safety, a broader AODA action plan and a new agency dedicated to accessibility.

All of those aims, he said, are within government reach and could bring it closer to closing the accessibility gap if it wants to.

“I do believe most of this can be done by 2025 if the right levers and buttons were pushed, if senior bureaucrats were told to get this done,” said Donovan.

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