August 30, 2001
ODA Gets More Media Coverage
With only 85 days until the November 23, 2001 deadline for a strong and effective ODA to be enacted, this topic continues to get media coverage. Here are two recent articles:
1. Ability Magazine's summer edition includes an interview with ODA Committee Chair David Lepofsky. This follows on that magazine's publication of an interview on the ODA with Citizenship Minister Cam Jackson last spring. You might find this interview helpful as an aid to educating newcomers to the ODA issue.
2. The Kitchener Record included an article on August 20, 2001 reporting on Citizenship Minister Cam Jackson's remarks on his plans for the ODA at a recent conference of the Association of Municipalities of Ontario (AMO). This provides a rare indication from the Government of what the ODA may address.
People with disabilities in Ontario have been advocating for over six years to have legislation put in place to support their rights. The current provincial government made a promise during its 1995 campaign to enact an Ontarians with Disabilities Act.
In the 2001 Throne Speech, Premier Mike Harris again assured the disability community that the long-awaited legislation would be forthcoming.
In the last issue of ABILITIES, Editor-in-Chief Raymond Cohen interviewed Cam Jackson, Minister of Citizenship and minister responsible for seniors, equal opportunity and disability access, to determine the government's plans for action.
In this issue, Raymond Cohen speaks to David Lepofsky, Chair of the Ontarians with Disabilities Act Committee.
Q: I'd like to get a bit of background on the origins of the committee, how long it has existed and who is currently involved with it.
A: The Ontarians with Disabilities Act Committee is over 6 1/2 years old. It formed on November 29, 1994, when a Private Member's Bill that NDP MPP Gary Malkowski had before the Legislature went to a committee. It was the first early attempt at putting forward an Ontarians with Disabilities Act.
A number of people with disabilities and their supporters came together to go to committee hearings on that bill. After a day's hearing, they congregated in a committee room and decided it was time to form a new coalition to advocate for that legislation. It was on that day that about 20 people in the room met and formed the basis of what became the Ontarians with Disabilities Act Committee. I've been involved from day one, and have been serving in a leadership role from very early on.
Our membership includes individuals -- both people with disabilities and people without disabilities -- as well as over 100 community organizations. Membership is free; we are a totally voluntary coalition. The only thing that we ask of people is that they join only if they support the 11 core principles we've put forward to ensure that an Ontarians with Disabilities Act is strong and effective.
The goal of the legislation is a barrier-free society, where people with disabilities can participate in jobs and have access to goods and services and facilities. It has to cover all disabilities, all physical, mental and sensory disabilities, and all barriers. And it has to be effectively enforced and provide for effective remedies.
The legislation should provide for the setting of standards for barrier removal and prevention on a sector-by-sector basis -- standards for restaurants, for hotels, for public transit, for education, for health care, for hospitals and so on -- so people will be able to have a say in what the standards are, and so people will know what they're entitled to or what they've got to do.
Right now people don't. And there aren't comprehensive standards across the board. We want the legislation to provide for major organizations to undertake their own self-assessment, to develop their own barrier-free plans to figure out how to go about this, consistent with the resources they have. We don't want to put undue burdens on them. We want this to be a positive experience for everybody.
We've grown as a coalition from that day when we were 20 people in a room. We are organized in 23 regions of the province. That's all volunteer leadership at the local level, advocating to their local members of the legislature. We're non-partisan; we don't support or endorse any particular candidate or political party. We're out there for one reason: to get a strong disabilities act passed.
As we go, we're enabling people to get more involved in the advocacy process -- not only advocating for the legislation we seek but also, in the process, learning how to be as effective as they can at advocating for local concerns on local issues. That's been springing out of the ODA movement all over the province and has been really exciting.
Q: It's been quite interesting to see people become empowered through aligning themselves with your principles and seeing how that generalizes to other disability-related issues.
A: One of the exciting things is that, talking about barriers, we've come up with a mirror in which all people with disabilities can see their own experience. If you're in a wheelchair, a barrier may mean a flight of stairs. For a person who's blind or dyslexic, it may mean having to fill out a form that's not in a format you can read.
For a person who's deaf it may mean a lack of sign language interpretation in a hospital. For a person with a developmental disability, it may mean a municipal by-law that doesn't let you have a community living setting in a particular neighbourhood. The process of identifying the barriers people face in their own lives has been a process of helping people learn from each other.
Frankly, it's been really exciting to watch people in wheelchairs talking about the need for more Braille, people who are blind talking about the need for more ramps, people who are deaf talking about the needs of folks who are labelled mentally ill --we're learning to fight not only for ourselves but for each other. For us all to feel this sense that we're in this together, that's been really positive.
And over the 6 1/2 years, we've really come a long way in not only putting ODA on the map, but putting disability on the map. Folks all over the province are individually and collectively going to their city councils and getting them to pass resolutions to support the disabilities act.
So that's a sense of where we've come from, and where we've gotten to. Now the media, both opposition parties and the government have all come to see that this is an issue that won't go away, that people with disabilities are really, really tenacious about this.
Q: Clearly, the committee has had a rather bumpy ride in relating to government over the years. The new minister, Cam Jackson, seems willing to be very much out there. Have you or your committee members met with him yet?
A: Cam Jackson has met with a number of ODA committee supporters around the province, and I and a couple of my colleagues had a meeting personally with him back in May. We're eager to work with Mr. Jackson, with his caucus, and with any political party or MPP who is prepared to sit down and talk constructively about the issues.
Q: Nobody knows yet what the government intends with its pending Ontarians with Disabilities Act. I guess that's really the million-dollar question. How do you feel about the possibility of voluntary measures once more being called for, versus mandatory measures?
A: There are two critical pieces, among other things, that will make a disabilities act work. One is that it has to be mandatory, not voluntary; it has to detail the standards that people need to comply with or provide for the making of those standards. And, secondly, it has to cover the range of barriers that we face.
The bill proposed three years ago, and the one that we learned about through a leaked cabinet document a year ago, both weren't going to cover a lot of barriers and were going to be voluntary. Legislation that is not mandatory accomplishes nothing. We've already got a voluntary situation right now. In fact, we've got more than a voluntary regime right now.
We've got an Ontario Human Rights Code that requires barrier removal and prevention and accommodation, but because it's only enforced by a case-by- case, barrier-by-barrier litigation process, it has been ineffective. We need a new disabilities act that goes further. Who's ever heard of a voluntary law? Can you imagine how safe the highways would be if we had a voluntary speed limit?
Mandatory legislation is really important from a business perspective, too. If you want a particular drug store or retail establishment or other business to take certain steps, they've got to have a level playing field. They shouldn't be put at a competitive disadvantage.
But a good, strong and effective Ontarians with Disabilities Act would be really good for business, not just good for people with disabilities. There are at least a million and a half folks with disabilities in Ontario. If you're an employer, you'll benefit from having them among the talent pool that you can draw on to hire. If you're a retailer, you'll want our business. We have billions of dollars in spending power. And there are 54 million Americans with disabilities. Wouldn't it be great to have their tourist dollars spent up here? Wouldn't it be great to be exporting products to that market? That's a big market.
As well, we're not only talking about people who have a disability now. The reality is, people without disabilities today will get one in the future. We may not like to think about it, but it's going to happen, and they're going to be a market too. And as our society ages, there is going to be a bigger and bigger population to service.
Not only that, but if I, who happen to be blind, go out to dinner with a friend who happens to be in a wheelchair, and we go to a restaurant that's got one step so my friend can't get up, that restaurant loses my business as well as my friend's business. So these barriers hurt access not only to the dollars of folks with disabilities, but to those of their friends or families.
A good, strong disabilities act will drive down the cost of making changes in the end. Right now, if a business wants to make itself barrier-free, it has to hire consultants and figure out how to do it. If a strong and effective disabilities act set reasonable standards, that would take away that cost. It's a total win-win-win situation.
Another example of why this is really, really good for everybody: If we could make our public transit system more accessible to people with disabilities, that not only helps people with disabilities who want to get around, but it helps employers who want to hire them, stores that want to sell to them, universities that want to educate them, and so on. The bottom line is that a disabilities act helps everybody and hurts nobody.
Q: Well, we'll see what the near future brings.
A: I am an optimist, despite the fact that we've had a very tough six years of advocating on this issue. In my view, there will be a strong and effective Ontarians with Disabilities Act enacted in the province of Ontario. The only question is when it's going to be enacted and which party wants to do it and claim credit for it. Because whoever does it, like Bush back in 1990 in the U.S., will then be able to look back and say, "We were the ones with the courage and the wisdom to do it."
One other important thing is that the disabilities act we're looking for is not a carbon copy of any other specific law. We want to learn from the best of everybody else's laws. We want to learn and use the best parts of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Australian Disability Discrimination Act, the equal rights legislation in Israel, in England. We want to come up with something that will work better in the province of Ontario.
Ontario law could dramatically boost access for disabled
Could affect all public and private buildings
By BOB BURTT
New legislation will be introduced this fall that could make restaurants, libraries and all forms of public and private buildings accessible to handicapped people.
The legislation, not yet written, will consider the needs of not only people in wheelchairs, but also the blind and hearing handicapped, says Ontario's Minister of Citizenship Cam Jackson.
At a meeting of the Association of Municipalities of Ontario at Toronto's Royal York Hotel yesterday, Jackson told delegates that the Ontarians with Disabilities Act will be inclusive.
Jackson said the goal is to eliminate new barriers and to remove existing ones where possible.
For people to enjoy full citizenship they need better access to education employment and training and to be able to get into restaurants, movies and libraries, Jackson said.
"We are looking at some mandatory requirements for private as well as public buildings," he said.
Jackson talked of the need for better transit for the handicapped as well.
The minister was reluctant to talk about who will pick up the bill and what, if any, support municipalities or private property owners might expect when it comes to retrofitting existing buildings.
"There is a role for all three levels of government. There are opportunities to collaborate on a whole series of combined programs involving all three levels of government."
Jackson said enforcement could fall to the municipalities as they negotiate new subdivision agreements, when building permits are issued and by following provisions in the Planning Act and Municipal Act.
He cited Kitchener as one of several communities that have already taken bold steps to improve accessibility.
He commended Kitchener for making play spaces accessible to children in wheelchairs.
Delegates attending yesterday's workshop said the move to make stores, offices and public facilities accessible is long overdue.
Some told stories about people in wheelchairs not being able to get down aisles in some stores.
And others talked of the need for more education and training for people who work with the public to assist those with physical handicaps.
In one community, ambulance workers were unable to get a stretcher into a town hall council chamber after a councillor suffered a heart attack because of restrictions in the way the building was constructed.
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Last updated September 2, 2001