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.
As a hard of hearing person, Kellina Powell says she can rarely make out the announcements on the GO train, often leaving her in the dark about what’s happening on her commute from downtown Toronto to her home in Scarborough.
With few visible aids inside the train to know which stop she’s at, she needs an unobstructed view of a window — or better yet, a seat next to one.
Since neither is guaranteed, Powell says she’s often forced to rely on the kindness of others to navigate her commute.
“Especially as a disabled person, sometimes we don’t want to rely on someone to come with us,” the 26-year-old said.
With all of Ontario mandated to be accessible by 2025, advocates say cities need both funding and clearer targets to meet that goal. And while Toronto, home to an estimated 900,000 people with disabilities, has perhaps more resources than other municipalities, advocates warn successive governments haven’t provided enough support for the city to comply with the five broad regulated under the Accessibility for Ontarians With Disabilities Act (AODA): transportation, the design of public spaces, customer service, information and communications and employment.
In a statement to CBC Toronto, Metrolinx says it has visual electronic displays of available route stops on their buses and trains for customers like Powell. But Powell says it doesn’t matter much if she can’t find them.
Whether it’s on transit, ordering food at a restaurant or attending public events, she says such experiences are the norm. At this rate, she feels it’ll be years before Ontario hits its goal.
“It’s really sad and frustrating that we are still fighting after 2025.”
Where does Toronto stand?
Jamaal Myers, the chair of the city’s TTC board and accessibility advisory committee, says Toronto is “making a lot of strides” when it comes to accessibility, but there’s still more to be done.
“When you’re dealing with an organization like the TTC that’s been built up over 100 years, it’s just going to take time,” said Myers, who called on the province for more help implementing the AODA. He pointed to the city’s Wheel Trans service, which has been in need of additional funding for years.
“I think more funding has to be made available to municipalities,” said Myers. “Even in Toronto, you know, we’re struggling to provide.”
Still, Myers is optimistic. The city’s latest report on its accessibility progress listed 56 out of 63 of its accessibility goals as complete as of the end of 2022.
“That culture of ableism? I’m not going to deny that it’s still there,” said Myers. “But we’re moving in the right direction.”
Outside of transportation, removing barriers in the built environment remains one of the most challenging parts of enforcing the AODA. The fourth legislated reviewer of the act said in his December report that it’s the most costly for organizations to do right, leading to “reason not to advance accessibility in general.”
According to one architectural expert, that’s because it’s hard to retrofit older buildings, there aren’t enough checks and balances to ensure new spaces are accessible and there’s little awareness of why accessible design is needed to begin with.
Roman Romanov, who specializes in accessible design education and consultancy work, says that’s especially the case in Toronto, which he says is held back by its heritage protections.
“There’s the potential there, but there’s also so much red tape that people have to go through,” said Romanov, who is partially blind and teaches at OCAD University.
Beyond Toronto, many of Ontario’s public spaces have inaccessible features, Romanov said, such as hard-to-open door handles, narrow hallways and tiny washrooms.
“Architects and developers are not really being held accountable to whatever it is that they’re asked to comply with,” said Romanov.
Other cities in need of even more support
Cities know there’s a patchwork of accessibility across the province and that more needs to be done. But they work with the resources they’re given, says Stephen O’Brien, president of the Association of Municipal Managers, Clerks and Treasurers of Ontario (AMCTO), and often it’s not enough.
He says that’s why progress isn’t the same across Ontario and why it’s more difficult in smaller, rural cities.
Ontario Morning6:01A tool to make the search for accessible playgrounds easier.
“Our members in those small communities are wearing many, many hats,” said O’Brien, who is also the general manager of the City of Guelph. That means city staff are contending with competing priorities, making it harder to to deliver accessible services.
“There is that need for … more demonstrable leadership from the province to move this file forward.”
He agrees with Myers that municipalities need more resources and funding, adding the province needs to make the AODA easier to understand, clarify who’s in charge of enforcement and outline clearer objectives, for the benefit of all residents.
“It’s good to make services accessible for all members of the community, regardless of ability,” said O’Brien.
People with disabilities deserve more: advocate
Asked about municipal requests for more support, Wallace Pidgeon, spokesperson for the Ministry of Seniors and Accessibility said works with all levels of government to “meet, achieve or exceed the AODA,” saying each city is mandated to have an accessibility plan.
“Project by project, community by community, every dollar the government is investing in infrastructure, programs and services has a focus of making our communities accessible to people of all abilities,” Pidgeon wrote in an emailed statement.
Pidgeon points to recent investments in Toronto transit as an example, such as new streetcars that are AODA compliant, saying they’re examples of “the kinds of investments that will continue.”
But not everyone is convinced.
Tracy Odell, former president of advocacy group Citizens With Disabilities Ontario, has lived in Toronto since she was a child. Her parents moved her from Ottawa in search of programs and services to help her live as independently as possible with spinal muscular atrophy.
But even now, Odell says she still spends most of her time at home. That’s partly because there’s no way of knowing if a place will be fully accessible until she gets there, she said.
Ontario, she says, is “a long way from being totally accessible,” and with the population aging and the number of people with disabilities in Canada expected to increase, she’s worried about the future.
“I do despair that we’re going to be going backwards in terms of accessibility,” she said.
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