THE IMMEDIATE NEED FOR THE ONTARIANS
WITH DISABILITIES ACT -
NOW IS THE TIME FOR ACTION
People with disabilities face many barriers that make it difficult for them to participate fully in all aspects of life in Ontario. While governments, business, and others have taken some sporadic steps to remove some of these barriers, many still remain. Even more are being created daily. Since the ODA Committee formed over three years ago, we have raised the awareness of both the public and governments about these barriers and the importance of removing and preventing them. We have also connected with hundreds and hundreds of people with disabilities, their friends, families and organizations, to ask for their views on the barriers they face and what it would mean to them to have them removed.
This is a comprehensive brief on the proposal for the prompt enactment in Ontario of a strong and effective Ontarians with Disabilities Act. It reflects the enormous and diverse information received from our members and others across the province. This first chapter explains why a strong and effective Ontarians with Disabilities Act is needed now. Chapter 2 sets the broad framework of what must be included in an Ontarians with Disabilities Act in order to achieve the pressing and important goal of a barrier-free Ontario by the year 2000. It was developed after extensive input from our membership. Appendix 1 to this brief identifies many of the key barriers faced by people with disabilities, which have been identified to the ODA Committee, and reveals the daily experience of persons with disabilities who must confront these barriers. Appendix 2 to this brief objectively documents the strong public support for the new legislation for which this brief advocates.
2. Who Are We: The Ontarians with Disabilities Act Committee
The Ontarians with Disabilities Act Committee (ODA Committee) is a voluntary non-partisan coalition of individuals and community organizations concerned with the rights of persons with disabilities. We came together to advocate for the prompt passage of a strong and effective new law that would lead to the achievement of a barrier-free Ontario for people with disabilities by the year 2000.
The ODA Committee's individual and community organizational membership reflects a broad range of experience with many different disabilities. Our membership comes from right across this province and includes most of the major disability organizations in Ontario. Within the ODA Committee, regional groups have been launched to encompass and reflect the local needs of the province's diverse regions. They include Toronto, Hamilton, Ottawa, Thunder Bay, Windsor, London, Kingston, Parry Sound, York Region and Peel Region and their neighbouring communities.
In the three years plus since it formed, this coalition has brought its important message to the Ontario Government, the Opposition parties, the public and the media. The Committee has continued to seek new members from the disability community and the broader public through active work in the community. For example, in 1996 alone, the ODA Committee held highly successful public forums on the Ontarians with Disabilities Act in Toronto, Ottawa, Hamilton, Thunder Bay, London and Windsor. In 1997 public events were again held in many of these same communities as well as in Parry Sound, Kingston, and Peel Region. 1998 began with a highly successful public forum on the ODA held in York Region. Ongoing activity continues at the local level.
Representatives from each of these regions play important roles in the work of the ODA Committee, including the development of the information and ideas reflected in this brief.
3. Why We Need a Strong and Effective Ontarians with Disabilities Act
(a) Everyone Will Benefit
More than 1.5 million Ontarians (approximately 15% to 17% of the population) now have disabilities. People with disabilities reflect the diversity of the population as a whole in terms of age, gender, race, religion, ethno-cultural communities and political perspective. A great number of people with disabilities are seniors, aging being one of the biggest causes of disability. Therefore, as the population ages the percentage of people with disabilities will increase.
Disability touches everyone's life at some point. Everyone either now has a disability, or knows someone with a disability, or will acquire a disability in the future. This was reflected in a poll done for the Ontarians with Disabilities Act Committee by Thompson, Lightstone (the Lou Harris Polling Organization's Canadian arm), described in Appendix 2. Seventy-seven percent of the people surveyed across Canada knew someone with a disability with whom they were in contact. Disability is therefore everyone's concern. This means we all have an interest in ensuring that we live in a society which is barrier-free.
Despite the fact that there are so many people with disabilities, they tend to be among society's most disadvantaged citizens. The proportion of persons with disabilities who are unemployed or under-employed is significantly higher than for the general public. There are many arbitrary and unnecessary barriers that prevent people with disabilities from fully and equally participating in employment, education, job training, communications, housing, public and private transportation, health care, social services, as well as other goods, facilities, services, and other key opportunities in Ontario. As a result, far too many persons with disabilities are forced to live in conditions of poverty, isolation and despair in the midst of one of the world's richest societies. This cruel reality exists despite the fact that if given an opportunity to succeed on merit, they would have a great deal to offer. Somehow politicians' promises of job growth, better education, and greater opportunities for people willing to put in the effort don't seem so readily available to people with disabilities regardless of their skill or hard work.
(b) A Province Full of Barriers
Over the past three years, we have asked people with disabilities and their organizations to identify the barriers they face in Ontario. We did so at the meetings that we have had across the province. We also distributed a questionnaire to our membership and others who are interested in this issue. To date we have received hundreds and hundreds of responses from people representing the entire spectrum of disabilities, and this province's wide regional diversity. This constitutes the most comprehensive provincial investigation of disability barriers in Ontario's history, to the best of our knowledge. The recurring experiences of people with disabilities, living in a province too full of barriers, as it was reported to us, is documented in Appendix 1 to this brief. It reflects the individual voices of many individuals, including voters and taxpayers, sharing the reality in which they live.
As Appendix 1 reveals, barriers can take a number of different forms. Although most people tend to think of barriers as something physical, for example steps leading up to a store, they may also take other forms - many invisible, but very real to the people who daily confront them. Even those types of barriers that are most obvious, may take many different forms. Most people are now aware that buildings can be physically inaccessible to mobility-impaired persons who use a wheelchair, scooter or other mobility-assisting device. Fewer realize how many buildings are so inaccessible, and how few are designed to even attempt physical accessibility. Still fewer people are aware that even buildings that are labelled as accessible are often not truly and fully physically accessible for all people with disabilities. For example, the aisles of a store may be too narrow to accommodate someone who uses a scooter. The bathroom door may be too narrow for a wide, electric wheel chair. A children's playground may have a curb surrounding it. There may be a ramp outside the building, but stairs inside.
For someone who is blind a physical barrier may be an office tower that does not have either Braille markings on the elevator buttons or an electronic voice announcing the floor on which the elevator has stopped. For someone who is Deaf, a comparable barrier may be a fire alarm system that does not also have a visually-displayed alarm.
Many people commonly but mistakenly believe that all buildings must now be accessible to persons with disabilities because of the existence of laws called "building codes". The reality is that building codes only require that when a new building is constructed it be made accessible or that accessibility features be added to an older building when and if it is renovated. Even where the building code is followed, existing legislation does not address the full range of physical barriers that exist in so many new as well as old buildings.
Early in its mandate the current Ontario Government contemplated reducing the protections for people with disabilities in the Ontario Building Code. It quickly backed down in the face of public criticism. In 1997, the government proposed very modest improvements to the Ontario Building Code's disability provisions. However, even with these changes, most physical access barriers will still be left permanently in place, unless something else is done about it now.
Many barriers are also created by the designs of goods and services that do not take into account the needs of people with disabilities. Many of these barriers are easily resolved with good design and an awareness of the need to consider people with disabilities as possible users when the good or service is being designed. It becomes more costly and difficult to remove these barriers after the design is completed. Design barriers occur in public transit systems, playgrounds, household goods and products, government services and the increasingly pervasive use of technology to replace cash in everyday transactions.
For example, often consumer products are not designed to be easily used by people with disabilities. Some products, such as VCRs, use visual menus that show up on the television screen. This is impossible for someone who is blind or who has a serious vision impairment to use. Other products may require the user to have good manual dexterity to push tiny buttons, making it difficult for someone with cerebral palsy or a neurological disease. Important public announcements in train stations or other public facilities are useless to people who are Deaf or hard of hearing unless they are accompanied by a visual announcement of some type. Information provided to the public is often presented in conventional printed form only, not in Braille, large print or other alternative formats, accessible to people who are blind, who have low vision, or who have other print disabilities.
In the workplace, persons with disabilities often confront frustrating barriers that keep them from getting a job, keeping a job or getting a promotion based on their abilities. Office equipment and technology is generally not designed with the idea that people with disabilities might be using them. For example, there are very few computer tables that can be easily modified to accommodate someone in a wheelchair. Modular office configurations that use screens and single-piece units containing a desk and drawer are not easily modifiable making employers reluctant to hire someone who might need the modification even though their disability will not affect their ability to do the work required. It is the setting, not the job that is the barrier.
Some of the most pervasive barriers are those that cannot be seen. They are the result of policies or programs designed without taking into account the needs of people with disabilities. For example, collective agreements, employer policies and insurance plans may include provisions that create barriers that make it difficult for people to obtain employment or to take advantage of benefit plans used by other employees. Attitudinal barriers and workplace harassment also create impediments that may inhibit people with disabilities from trying to enforce their existing rights. They may also discourage people from staying at their jobs. As but one example, discrimination against people who are HIV-positive has made it difficult for some people to continue in their job or obtain a new job even though they are physically able to carry out all of the job duties.
Application procedures that require people to fill in forms on the spot may create barriers for people who have difficulty writing because of a learning disability or a physical disability that affects their coordination. A student loan program that requires students to enrol for a full time program, and which make no provisions for part time studies, creates a major barrier for students who cannot physically spend an entire day in school because of fatigue due to a disability. The same is so for a person who needs to receive important disability-related medical treatments, such as dialysis, or who needs to return home to receive disability-related support services which are often rigidly scheduled.
Unfortunately, even with the increased public awareness of the needs of people with disabilities, new barriers continue to be created. Companies designing computer hardware and software too often do not take into account that some of the people using the technology may be blind, Deaf or have a motor coordination challenge. It was only after the Americans with Disabilities Act came into effect that some software manufacturers began to design some software so that it could be adapted for use by someone with a disability. There are, however, many new products and services in the computer field and elsewhere which continue to be designed in ways which create major barriers for people with disabilities.
Whether the barriers are physical, contractual, technological, bureaucratic, communicational, informational, attitudinal, or some other kind of barrier, they have little relationship with the service, program or job that they are related to or to the ability of the person to perform the task. They are not necessary, but are created because too often, no one has thought about the need to prevent barriers. What to many might seem to be minor annoyances in daily life can, for people with disabilities, create a major blockade keeping them from benefiting from the goods, services and other chances for participation in society available to everyone else.
(c) We Cannot Afford to Keep the Old Barriers and Allow New Ones to be Created
No one would argue that these barriers benefit society. Yet when public discussion turns to the barriers confronting persons with disabilities, an almost automatic, unfortunate and inaccurate reaction by some is that it would be nice to have a barrier-free society for persons with disabilities, but the cost of achieving this is just too high. The same lack of information, understanding and incentive that leads to barriers being created in the first place often keeps these barriers in place. People with disabilities end up paying a very high price for this ignorance and inaction.
In fact, the actual cost of removing existing barriers confronting persons with disabilities is often far lower than is initially guessed. Modern technology and a little imagination and motivation can go a long way. It costs nothing to remove the barriers created by policies simply by rethinking the policy. Preventing barriers usually costs nothing, and saves society from having to absorb later the cost of removing the new barriers.
An added bonus is that the same good design that prevents the barriers, often adds value to the ultimate good, facility or service for everyone. For example, when a builder sets about to design and build a new building, it would cost him or her virtually nothing to design it to be accessible from the very outset. The elevator that is put in where stairs are required may make it easier for a mother with young children in a stroller to go into the store. It may also allow an employee who breaks a leg skiing to return to work more quickly because they are able to get into their office. In technology, many of the accessibility features have turned out to be useful productivity tools for everyone, and not just for persons with disabilities. For example, computerized voice dictation systems (which were originally designed to assist people lacking manual dexterity to use a computer keyboard or mouse) are now being marketed to lawyers, executives and others who have no disability, but who never learned to type.
Efforts at designing new goods, services and facilities to be accessible to people with disabilities have an added benefit for Ontario. These new designs can be sold elsewhere around the world, to meet the increasing demand for such products which laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act has helped fuel. Ontario could well benefit from taking a lead in this new, challenging sector of the economy.
The cost of creating a barrier-free society for persons with disabilities must be compared to the massive cost to society if existing barriers are permitted to stay, and new ones are allowed to be created. Exclusion of people with disabilities from our society's main opportunities carries a huge moral, social and economic price tag. It forces many people with disabilities, who have valuable skills, onto social assistance at public expense when they would rather be active participants in our work force.
Barriers that prevent people with disabilities from obtaining post-secondary education and training limit the career opportunities for persons with disabilities. This also forces too many people with disabilities to require social assistance. Barriers that keep people from entering stores or using goods and services make the manufacturer or store owner lose customers and sales. When more persons with disabilities can enjoy the services and facilities of stores, restaurants, and the like, the dollars they spend can only strengthen our economy.
The removal of existing barriers and the prevention of new ones does not just help those people who now have a disability. It also meets the needs of those who will acquire a disability in the future - which includes most people in society. The removal of existing barriers and the prevention of new barriers also aid families of persons with disabilities who may otherwise have to shoulder burdens which their relative with a disability would prefer to handle themselves.
When it comes to undertaking serious efforts at achieving a barrier-free society for persons with disabilities, there are no losers. There are only winners. On the other hand, the status quo, of a society replete with existing barriers and many new ones on the horizon, involves many losers and no winners.
(d) Existing Laws and Programs Not Enough
Over the last 20 years there have been some steps taken to create laws and other programs to prevent discrimination against and barriers confronting people with disabilities. While these have had some positive impact, neither the legislation, the means of enforcement, nor the current resources are sufficient to remove existing barriers or to prevent new ones. In addition, there can be confusion about what standard applies. Existing laws and other programs also leave significant gaps in the coverage. Despite this legislation and these programs, exclusion of persons with disabilities, and barriers impeding them, remain widespread. This is reflected in the high rates of unemployment and poverty facing people with disabilities. This section briefly reviews the existing legislative framework to identify limitations of these laws and programs. This in turn reveals why there is a pressing need for a strong and effective Ontarians with Disabilities Act.
(ii) The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms
Section 15 of the Charter includes a guarantee of equality for persons with disabilities. The Charter applies only to the actions of governments and the legislation they enact. As a rule it does not apply to the private sector. Under the Charter even public institutions such as universities may not be subject to the Charter. The Supreme Court of Canada recently extended the Charter's application to the actions of the private sector where they are carrying out governmental-type actions, but this is not an all-inclusive exception. For example, while a hospital has a Charter obligation to provide sign language interpreter services to patients who are Deaf, the Charter might not apply to the needs for a sign language interpreter of Deaf hospital employees. Thus, there are many areas of society with barriers which the Charter will never reach.
In addition to the limited scope of the Charter, there are two other difficulties with relying solely on the Charter to achieve a barrier free society.
Enforcing the Charter requires very expensive court proceedings. Even in situations where the Charter does apply, an individual with a disability may not be able to afford the long litigation. The expenses include the cost of lawyers, as well as the expert witnesses who must be hired to provide evidence, sometimes at a cost of several thousand dollars. Charter litigation pits the ample resources of the government, who is defending their legislation or action, against the far smaller resources of the people suffering from the barriers. Access to effective legal services for people with disabilities is also very limited.
Once a case is brought, it may take a long time for it to be fully resolved, particularly if there are appeals to the Supreme Court of Canada. For example, in the landmark Charter case of Eldridge v. Government of B.C. (1997), 151 D.L.R. (4th) 577, a Deaf woman eventually won the right to have a sign language interpreter provided to her by the provincial government when she goes to the hospital to give birth to twins. Unfortunately, however, the children were fully six years old before the Court ruled that their mother had a fundamental right to a sign language interpreter during their birth. The British Columbia government was given another six months to implement the decision. There are signs that the other provinces have yet to take any steps to apply the decision to their own services, even though all provinces are legally required to comply with the Supreme Court's ruling.
The Charter does play an important role by ensuring that governments cannot pass legislation or take action that is discriminatory, including action which creates or perpetuates barriers. It provides an important avenue to deal with the most serious violations, at least for those with the time, resources and energy to take on the ordeal of a full-fledged constitutional fight with government. A strong and effective Ontarians with Disabilities Act would not replace the Charter. It would provide an alternative, proactive, cost-effective way to deal with and prevent the full range of barriers, including, among other things, those barriers which the Charter does not even address. It would also provide a more effective means for the Ontario Government to meet its obligations to people with disabilities under the Charter.
(iii) The Ontario Human Rights Code
The Ontario Human Rights Code includes a broad protection against discrimination based on disability. Unlike the Charter, the Human Rights Code does apply to private companies and individuals including situations where they employ people, deliver goods and services to the public, provide housing or other facilities, or are responsible for buildings to which the public has access.
There are a number of difficulties, however, with relying on the Human Rights Code as the primary means of removing and preventing barriers. As with the Charter, it is up to each individual who encounters a barrier to enforce their own rights. They must file a human rights complaint each time their rights are violated. While lawyers are not technically required to file a complaint, in recent years legal advocacy has been needed just to get the Human Rights Commission to accept and investigate a complaint.
In addition, because the process often pits an individual against someone with whom they have an ongoing relationship - an employer or a landlord or school - many people who face real and serious barriers are reluctant to file complaints. This means that someone facing a barrier will often wait until they have already suffered substantial harm before trying to deal with it through the Human Rights Commission. For example, someone may wait until they are fired before filing a complaint, rather than dealing with a workplace barrier that impeded their work on the job.
When a human rights complaint is filed, the complainant must often wait for lengthy periods of time before an investigation is even started. Once the investigation is started it may be years before a decision is made on whether the complainant will receive the most basic procedural entitlement - a hearing before an independent and impartial Board of Inquiry to determine if their human rights were violated. If the Commission decides not to refer the case to a Board of Inquiry, the individual has to retain a lawyer to contest that decision - a decision which is not easy to get overturned.
Human rights complaints often take so many years to litigate that the case can often become irrelevant to the complainant by the time a decision is reached, even if they win. Where a complainant is prepared to shoulder the strain and delay of the human rights process, and proves before a Board of Inquiry that they had been the victim of discrimination, Boards of Inquiry too often order only inadequate if not inconsequential sums as monetary compensation. Some decisions may have broad, systemic implications, such as the landmark decision of the Ontario Court of Appeal in the Roberts case (Ontario Human Rights Commission v. Ontario (1994), 19 O.R. (3d) 387). Eliminating provincial age restrictions on the right to get Ontario Government funding to help purchase expensive assistive devices to accommodate a disability. However many, if not most, Human Rights rulings deal only with individual issues and situations. Even when a case raises systemic issues, there is often little opportunity for many of those people who may be affected by the outcome to intervene in the process.
Part of the problem lies with the human rights process itself as set out in the Human Rights Code. Studies have recommended fundamental improvements to the process, to increase the real protection for human rights. Yet the only changes to occur as of late have deprived victims of procedural rights. The problem is made worse by the cuts in funding to the Human Rights Commission announced by the current government despite election promises to increase its funding.
Finally, the Human Rights Code provides little in the way of meaningful, specific guidance to employers, landlords, educators, and the providers of goods, services and facilities who wish to bring their conduct in line with the law. It merely tells them in grand but unspecific terms not to discriminate, and to accommodate the needs of persons with disabilities up to the point of undue hardship. This creates uncertainty for those companies, service providers and others who want to comply with the Code but are unclear about their obligations. There is no incentive for employers, landlords and others to stop discriminating by removing existing barriers and by preventing new ones from being created, until they are actually faced with a human rights complaint.
As with the Charter, a strong and effective Ontarians with Disabilities Act would enhance rather than replace the Human Rights Code.
(iv) Employment Equity Legislation
Ontario enacted employment equity legislation in the mid-1990s. However, that legislation was subsequently repealed before it took practical effect. It was also limited in scope. It dealt only with employment, not with the barriers confronting a person in other areas which may have an impact on their ability to work. For example, if a person requires accessible transit to get to work on a daily basis the employment equity legislation provided no remedy. Similarly, it did not deal with the barriers faced by people with disabilities seeking training or education to prepare them for the work force.
(v) Voluntary Measures
To address the needs set out in this brief, the current Ontario Government and several previous governments also tried non- legislated solutions for many years. These included, among other things, public education campaigns, provision of supports and information to employers and others, and the like. The most recent example of this is the Equal Opportunity Plan introduced by the current Ontario government. This plan depends solely on voluntary activities such as public education on the need to extend equality of opportunity to persons with disabilities in all aspects of Ontario life. It also includes voluntary equal opportunity programs within governments and private organizations. Along similar lines, many members of the ODA Committee have been involved for years in efforts at public education in this area, and have a great deal of experience with them.
These voluntary programs have been proven over and over again to be dramatically insufficient to deal with the barriers facing people with disabilities. There is no evidence that normal market forces nor gradual increases in the public's understanding of the situation confronting persons with disabilities have been or will be sufficient to eliminate the barriers which persons with disabilities face. To the contrary, even with such voluntary measures in place, the old barriers for the most part remain in place, while new ones continue to be created. For example, public education on disability barriers will not resolve the problem of disability barriers, unless those being educated are under a clear, effective, strong and enforceable legal duty to remove existing barriers, and to prevent new ones.
(e) The International Trend and Our International Obligations
Canada and Ontario also have international obligations to tackle the barriers confronting Ontarians with disabilities, which are not currently being met by the existing legislation or voluntary programs. The obligation arises under the United Nations' 1975 Declaration of the Rights of Disabled Persons, and the 1993 U.N. Standard Rules on the Equalization of Opportunity for Persons with Disabilities. These important international commitments require governments to take positive measures to remove the barriers facing people with disabilities. With these international obligations in place, there is a growing international trend towards the enactment of specific new laws to protect and promote the rights of persons with disabilities. Though one of the world's most affluent societies, Ontario now lags far behind in this trend. Legislation now exists in such places as the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, India and Israel. Other jurisdictions are looking at developing similar legislation. The enactment of a strong and effective Ontarians with Disabilities Act would go a long way towards meeting our unmet international obligations towards people with disabilities in Ontario.
4. The Solution - Enact A Strong and Effective Ontarians with Disabilities Act
The ODA Committee strongly believes that there is a solution which will deal effectively with the barriers facing people with disabilities, and which will prevent the creation of new barriers while at the same time minimizing the cost and administrative procedures needed to achieve these goals. It is to enact a strong and effective Ontarians with Disabilities Act. As important as the Ontario Human Rights Code and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms are for persons with disabilities, neither sufficiently meets the pressing need for comprehensive legislation whose goal is to identify, remove and prevent barriers which keep people with disabilities from fully participating in society. A strong and effective Ontarians with Disabilities Act would be a vital tool to help achieve a barrier- free society by the year 2000. It would not only provide remedies where exclusion of people with disabilities occurs, but would provide the type of consistent guidelines that will allow employers, builders and others to plan effectively a way that will prevent new barriers from being created.
Despite the inherent problems with the Ontario Human Rights Code described above, it does provide some protection for the basic rights of people with disabilities as well as other groups facing discrimination. That law prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities and creates general duties on employers, landlords, service providers, school boards, manufacturers and others to accommodate people with disabilities to the point of undue hardship. The development and enactment of a strong and effective Ontarians with Disabilities Act should not, and indeed must not result in less protection than is currently available.
At the very least, these fundamental, basic human rights guarantees that now exist in the Human Rights Code must be scrupulously preserved and protected from any substantive or procedural changes that would weaken or impede them in any way. The Supreme Court of Canada has described these human rights as quasi-constitutional. They must not be tampered with. It would be a cruel irony of the first order if a provincial government were to try to use the effort by people with disabilities to secure a new Ontarians with Disabilities Act as a pretext for cutting back on existing human rights protections.
Although an effective Ontarians with Disabilities Act must at a minimum provide comprehensive barrier removal and prevention for people with disabilities in Ontario, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms will continue to provide an important safeguard vis a vis legislation and other government actions. The Ontarians with Disabilities Act, as explained in this brief, would be consistent with the landmark 1997 decision in the Eldridge case. There the Supreme Court of Canada unanimously recognized that the goal of equality for persons with disabilities includes the achievement of a barrier-free society. It requires governments at all levels to take into account the needs of persons with disabilities to fully participate when they design and implement laws and other public programs, including public programs which are delivered through the private sector. The constitutional guarantee of equality, like its counterpart in human rights legislation, includes a fundamental duty to make sure that the needs of persons with disabilities are accommodated. The Ontarians with Disabilities Act, like the Charter as interpreted in Eldridge, would place an obligation on the Ontario Government to affirmatively address the barriers in fields such as the provincial health care system. It, like the Charter, would not allow the Ontario Government to slough its responsibilities in this regard off on the hospitals and doctors who deliver health care to the public.
The ODA Committee seeks a strong new law to be enacted at the provincial level in Ontario, because the provincial government has authority under Canada's Constitution to address many if not most of the barriers which impede people with disabilities. However, there is a movement to also secure the enactment of comparable federal legislation, to be called the Canadians with Disabilities Act, to address those barriers over which the Government of Canada has authority. There is no need for Ontario to wait for federal legislation. Ontario should act now.
5. Principles for the Ontarians with Disabilities Act
In 1995 the ODA Committee adopted the following principles that should be used as the basis for the Ontarians with Disabilities Act. These principles were included in our first brief in 1995 which was provided to the government at that time. We hoped that by providing these principles to the Ontario Government at an early stage, they would be useful to the government in developing its promised public consultation process and the legislation itself. Unfortunately, in the two and a half years since delivering these principles to the Ontario Government, we have had no response or comment from the government on them. It remains the position of the ODA Committee that for the government to meet its commitment to persons with disabilities to enact the Ontarians with Disabilities Act, the new law must at least embody all of the following principles:
1. The purpose of the Ontarians with Disabilities Act should be to effectively ensure to persons with disabilities in Ontario the equal opportunity to fully and meaningfully participate in all aspects of life in Ontario based on their individual merit, by removing existing barriers confronting them and by preventing the creation of new barriers. It should seek to achieve a barrier-free Ontario for persons with disabilities by the year 2000;
2. The Ontarians with Disabilities Act's requirements should supersede all other legislation, regulations or policies which either conflict with it, or which provide lesser protections and entitlements to persons with disabilities;
3. The Ontarians with Disabilities Act should require companies, organizations, government entities and public premises to be made fully physically accessible to all persons with disabilities through the removal of existing physical barriers and the prevention of the creation of new barriers, within strict time frames to be prescribed in the legislation or regulations;
4. The Ontarians with Disabilities Act should require the providers of goods, services and facilities to the public to ensure that their goods, services and facilities are fully usable by persons with disabilities, and that they are designed to reasonably accommodate the needs of persons with disabilities. Included among services, goods and facilities, among other things, are all aspects of education including primary, secondary and post-secondary education, as well as providers of transportation and communication facilities (to the extent that Ontario can regulate these) and public sector providers of information to the public e.g. governments. Providers of these goods, services and facilities should be required to devise and implement detailed plans to remove existing barriers within legislated timetables;
5. The Ontarians with Disabilities Act should require public and private sector employers to take proactive steps to achieve barrier-free workplaces within prescribed time limits. Among other things, employers should be required to identify existing barriers which impede persons with disabilities, and then to devise and implement plans for the removal of these barriers, and for the prevention of new barriers in the workplace;
6. The Ontarians with Disabilities Act should provide for a prompt and effective process for enforcement. It should not simply incorporate the existing procedures for filing discrimination complaints with the Ontario Human Rights Commission, as these are too slow and cumbersome, and yield inadequate remedies;
7. As part of its enforcement process, the Ontarians with Disabilities Act should provide for a process of regulation- making to define with clarity the steps required for compliance with the Ontarians with Disabilities Act. It should be open for such regulations to be made on an industry-by-industry basis, or sector-by-sector basis. This should include a requirement that input be obtained from affected groups such as persons with disabilities before such regulations are enacted. It should also provide persons with disabilities with the opportunity to apply to have regulations made in specific sectors of the economy;
8. The Ontarians with Disabilities Act should also mandate the Government of Ontario to provide education and other information resources to companies, individuals and groups who seek to comply with the requirements of the Ontarians with Disabilities Act;
9. The Ontarians with Disabilities Act should also require the Government of Ontario to take affirmative steps to promote the development and distribution in Ontario of new adaptive technologies and services for persons with disabilities;
10. The Ontarians with Disabilities Act should require the provincial and municipal governments to make it a strict condition of funding any program, or of purchasing any services, goods or facilities, that they be designed to be fully accessible to and usable by persons with disabilities. Any grant or contract which does not so provide is void and unenforceable by the grant-recipient or contractor with the government in question;
11. The Ontarians with Disabilities Act must be more than mere window dressing. It should contribute meaningfully to the improvement of the position of persons with disabilities in Ontario. It must have real force and effect. The key to the achievement of these important goals is the enactment of new provincial legislation which would provide a means for giving specific directions to employers, landlords, school boards, service providers, manufacturers and sellers of goods, and the like on what existing barriers must be removed and what new barriers must be avoided, as well as how this should be done. This new law should also establish realistic and workable timetables for the removal of barriers and the prevention of new ones. The process by which these rules are made should not leave it to individual victims of discrimination to be forced to come forward and complain against individual, offending employers, school boards, landlords and the like in adversarial law suits as the sole or main method for enforcement. Rather, the process should include a co-operative effort involving persons with disabilities on the one hand, and the affected industries on the other, with an objective, impartial and informed public authority acting as the ultimate facilitator and decision-maker. Rules should be enacted into law which address the major sectors of Ontario society, such as employment, education, services, goods, facilities, housing, andtransportation.
The ODA Committee therefore calls for the prompt enactment of a strong, effective and comprehensive Ontarians with Disabilities Act to meet the need for a new law described above.
6. Words Versus Action - The Ontario Government's Record
(a) The Election Promise
The first proposal for the Ontarians with Disabilities Act introduced into the Ontario Legislature for debate was Bill 168. Tabled in 1994, it was not a Government bill, sponsored by the then Ontario Government. Rather it was introduced by then-MPP Gary Malkowski as a Private Members Bill. Although Mr. Malkowski was a member of the NDP, the governing party at the time, his bill did not have official government backing and sponsorship.
Nevertheless, Bill 168 received unanimous bi-partisan approval in the Ontario legislature at both first and second readings in 1994. It was referred to the Ontario legislature's Standing Committee on Justice which convened public hearings on the bill on short notice in December of 1994. People with disabilities moved quickly to support the need for this kind of legislation. That legislative process was cut short by the spring 1995 provincial election. The legislative process on Bill 168 was never completed. Bill 168 died when the 1995 election was called.
During the 1995 Ontario election campaign, the ODA Committee wrote to all three parties asking for a strong, clear commitment from each that they would introduce and pass a strong and effective Ontarians with Disabilities Act if they were elected.
In a letter dated May 24, 1995, Mike Harris, on behalf of the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party, made a solemn written election promise to the ODA Committee to pass an Ontarians with Disabilities Act in the first term of his government "within the economic goalposts of The Common Sense Revolution." He pledged in that letter "to work together with your Committee in the development of such legislation". He also wrote about the accommodation of needs of persons with disabilities, saying, "We hope, through cost efficiencies achieved in other areas of government, to direct much needed funding to accommodation." The Ontario Progressive Conservatives made other campaign commitments in other forums including a promise on May 5, 1995 to introduce into Ontario a new Workplace Equal Opportunity Plan. The plan expressly recognizes the systemic barriers confronting persons with disabilities. To the ODA Committee, a strong and effective Ontarians with Disabilities Act can and should form a core element of such a plan, if the plan is to be meaningful.
(b) The Government's Actions on Election Promises
The Harris Government's first two and two-thirds years in office have been marked by inaction on its commitments regarding the Ontarians with Disabilities Act. Right after the 1995 election, Premier Harris reaffirmed to the ODA Committee in writing his intent to keep all election promises. However his Government's subsequent actions, described in this section, have seemed to speak louder than its words.
Since taking office, Premier Harris has repeatedly refused to meet with the ODA Committee, despite his written election promise to work together with this broad coalition. He has referred all inquiries to the Minister of Citizenship, as have other Ontario Cabinet ministers whom the ODA Committee have attempted to contact. The Harris Government's first Citizenship Minister, Marilyn Mushinski, in turn refused for her first year in office to meet with the ODA Committee. During its first two years in office, the Government would not announce a target date for introduction of the ODA, nor did it make any material progress towards starting public consultations that could lead to the drafting and passing into law of an Ontarians with Disabilities Act.
In the face of this first year of inaction, the ODA Committee took action in the spring of 1996. On May 16, 1996, at the ODA Committee's request, an opposition MPP, Marion Boyd, tabled a private member's resolution in the Ontario Legislature calling on the government to keep its election promises regarding the Ontarians with Disabilities Act. A one hour debate ensued in the Ontario Legislature. Two hundred or more persons with disabilities converged on Queens Park to observe the proceedings. That day, the Ontario Legislature unanimously passed the following resolution, on a vote of 56 to 0:
In the opinion of this House, since persons with disabilities in Ontario face systemic barriers in access to employment, services, goods, facilities and accommodation; and since, all Ontarians will benefit from the removal of these barriers, thereby enabling these persons to enjoy equal opportunity and full participation in the life of the province; therefore the Government of Ontario should keep its promise as set out in the letter from Michael D. Harris to the Ontarians with Disabilities Act Committee dated May 24, 1995 to:
a) enact an Ontarians with Disabilities Act within its current term of office; and
b) work together with members of the Ontarians with Disabilities Act Committee, amongst others, in the development of such legislation.
Though not legally binding on the Government, this resolution placed direct and strong pressure on the Government to keep its unmet promises regarding the Ontarians with Disabilities Act. Shortly after the resolution passed, the Citizenship Minister Marilyn Mushinski agreed for the first time to meet with representatives of the ODA Committee. At their meeting, held on June 14, 1996, representatives of the ODA Committee presented the Citizenship Minister with a set of guiding principles for a public consultation leading to the development of the new law. These principles were designed to ensure that the public consultation would be open, fully accessible, and conducted without inhibiting preconditions. The goal of the ODA Committee was to assist the Government in moving forward on its election promise.
At that meeting the ODA Committee was told that the Minister would get back to them regarding their ideas for the public consultation by mid summer 1996. However, neither she nor her Ministry gave any response to them regarding the public consultation for over a year.
May 15, 1997 marked the anniversary of the second year of inaction by the Ontario Government on Premier Harris' election promises regarding the Ontarians with Disabilities Act and the first anniversary of the Ontario Legislature's passage of the resolution calling on the Ontario Government to keep these promises. Commemorating this "Anniversary of Inaction," some 200 people with disabilities went back to the legislature. The ODA Committee invited all three political parties to send representatives to explain the delay. Both Opposition parties sent representatives. The Harris Government refused.
In the face of this impending public event, and on its eve, the Minister of Citizenship did agree to meet with the ODA Committee. This was to be only the second time she would meet with the ODA Committee during her term in office of in excess of two years.
The meeting was to occur at some future date. It did not take place until months later, on August 20, 1997. Emerging from that meeting, the ODA Committee was very optimistic that the Ontario Government was going to change its course, and start taking specific, positive action. The Minister stated that the target date for the introduction of the Ontarians with Disabilities Act to the Ontario Legislature for debate would be mid to late fall 1998. She also said that the Ontario Government would undertake public consultations prior to drafting the law.
The ODA Committee told her once again that these consultations should be public, wide-open, accessible to all persons with disabilities, and carried out at the local level across the province so everyone can have a chance to fully participate in them. Moreover, it was explained that the public consultations should be conducted directly by provincial politicians, and not by public servants or private consultants.
It is fundamentally important that the public consultations enable people with disabilities to express their views and needs directly to their accountable, elected representatives, who need to learn from the daily experiences of persons with disabilities. People with disabilities should not be relegated to express their views to unaccountable bureaucrats or private consultants. The ODA Committee also asked that the Minister provide the ODA Committee with the feedback received from the public consultations so that the Committee could assist the Government in working with that information. The clear impression was left at the end of this meeting with Minister Mushinski that the ODA Committee's views were well-received.
Weeks after Minister Mushinski gave these commitments, Premier Harris shuffled his cabinet. He replaced Ms. Mushinski with Ms. Isabel Bassett as the new Minister of Citizenship.
ODA Committee representatives held one introductory meeting in October 1997 with the new Minister. Ms. Bassett had nothing substantive to say at that meeting, and has since taken the position with the ODA Committee that in her view, any commitments made by her predecessor dissolved when Ms. Bassett took office as minister. Throughout the fall of 1997 and the winter of 1998, Ms. Bassett refused to give any substantive answers or engage in any substantive dialogue with the ODA Committee about what form a public consultation would take and what the legislation would cover.
(c) The Government's Actions Undermining the Election Promise
The fact that the Ontario Government has failed to date to launch or even announce public consultations on the Ontarians with Disabilities Act (a public consultation which it says that it has been developing for at least a year and a half) is a strong indication that its words and its actions conflict. As well, other recent Ontario Government program and budget cuts, downsizing, restructuring and off-loading initiatives are creating new barriers and decreasing the quality of life in Ontario for people with disabilities while increasing the economic cost to the province of lost opportunities. These actions undermine the election pledges regarding the Ontarians with Disabilities Act.
Although documentation is difficult because the government has provided few detailed figures on expenditures related to people with disabilities, the ODA Committee has identified several specific areas of provincial cuts and restructuring which run directly counter to the content and the fundamental direction of Premier Harris's May 24, 1995 written election promise regarding the Ontarians with Disabilities Act. The ODA Committee forewarned the Ontario Government about several examples of this in February of 1997. It has subsequently received no indication that the Government took any action to prevent the harms to which they had been alerted. Those examples include:
(i) Cuts to Funding for the Human Rights Commission
During the 1995 election, Premier Harris promised to increase funding to the Ontario Human Rights Commission. In a May 5, 1995 election release, Harris specifically committed as follows: "Specifically a portion of the money saved by winding down the (Employment Equity) Commission set up to enforce the quotas ($9.3 million) will be redirected to the Human Rights Commission." In direct breach of this election pledge, then Citizenship Minister Marilyn Mushinski announced a 6% cut to the Commission funding after the election was won. It is well known that even before these recent cuts were announced, the Commission suffered from chronic under-funding which made it difficult to fulfil its existing mandate. The Commission's lack of funding has put pressure on the Commission to turn away legitimate human rights complaints, rather than investigating them and taking them to a hearing. By turning away these cases, the Government claims that it is reducing the Commission's backlog. However in reality, it is doing so by denying justice to many, including complainants with disabilities. These latest budget cuts erode even further the Commission's effectiveness. The ODA Committee has repeatedly asked Ms. Mushinski, Ms. Bassett and the Premier when the Government will fully restore to the Commission's budget any funds previously cut from it, and when it will direct the new funds to the Ontario Human Rights Commission as was promised during the 1995 election. All have refused to answer this question from the ODA Committee.
(ii) The "Red Tape Commission" Recommendations on the Human Rights Commission
Four of the so-called "Red Tape Commissions" recommendations (Recommendations 33 to 37) would add, not remove red tape for people trying to use the Human Rights Commission to combat exclusion from the opportunities available to others in society. The "Red Tape Commission" recommendations responded only to complaints by employers who do not want to comply with the Human Rights Code's requirement to accommodate people with disabilities. The "Red Tape Commission" did not ask groups of people with disabilities such as the ODA Committee for their perspective, despite the Premier's promise that he would work with the ODA Committee to achieve our common goals.
Of particular concern are recommendations of the "Red Tape Commission" to introduce legislative amendments that would cut back on the protections which persons with disabilities now have under the Human Rights Code's guarantee of the duty to accommodate people with disabilities. These counter-productive proposals (which the "Red Tape Commission" has suggested be given priority) would impose new and serious barriers in the path of persons with disabilities who seek protection for their basic human rights. They will certainly interfere with the ability of people with disabilities to obtain employment - the opposite result from that which the "Red Tape Commission" is said to be trying to reach. The "Red Tape Commission" appears to view the fundamental human rights of people with disabilities as red tape that should be cut. In light of the decision of the Supreme Court of Canada in the Eldridge case, which makes it clear that reasonable accommodation is fundamental to the protection of the rights of people with disabilities, these proposals are of dubious constitutional validity.
(iii) The New "Equal Opportunity Plan"
The Ontario government did not, as promised, replace the repealed Employment Equity Act with any program that could make a real difference in tackling the barriers that people with disabilities face. The Ontario Government did state in the 1995 election campaign that they would repeal what they called the job quota bill, the Employment Equity Act. The Employment Equity Act contained more than the hiring targets to which the Ontario Government took such strong objection. It also included many provisions designed to eliminate workplace barriers and enhance employment opportunities for people with disabilities.
Unfortunately, the Ontario Government repealed all of these, thus eliminating measures that would have moved Ontario closer to the goal of a barrier-free society.
Although the Ontario Government promised to replace the Employment Equity Act with a new and effective "equal opportunity plan," it has failed to deliver on that promise. The centrepiece of this "Plan" is a glossy internet website on equal opportunity practices. When it was first established, this website purported to give both employers and prospective employees with disabilities important information about the principles in the Ontario Human Rights Code including the duty of employers to accommodate employees with disabilities. Yet when launched, the website glaringly left out the single most important piece of information - that the law obliges employers to accommodate the disabilities of employees with disabilities, except where this would cause undue hardship to the employer.
More fundamentally, the Ontario Government's website initiative is based on the fatally flawed notion that an effective way to achieve a barrier-free society for persons with disabilities is by voluntary measures, undertaken by the private sector under the Ontario Government's informed moral leadership. Yet the life experience of people with disabilities in Ontario and elsewhere proves conclusively that voluntary measures have not led to the removal of the wide range of barriers which persons with disabilities now face, nor have they prevented new barriers from being created. Had they worked, Ontario would by now have dramatically reduced the numbers of barriers which persons with disabilities face, and would have prevented new ones from being created. Neither has occurred. Ontarians with disabilities still live in a province full of barriers. Indeed, had voluntary measures worked, people with disabilities would not have needed either the Ontario Human Rights Code or the Charter of Rights. Instead, people with disabilities need both of these laws, and much more, in the form of a strong and effective Ontarians with Disabilities Act. To claim otherwise is to either ignore or to trivialize the reality which Ontarians with disabilities now face.
(iv) Public Transit Funding Cuts
Transportation barriers impeding people with disabilities are being created rather than removed. Public transit is a vital public service for all Ontarians. Yet Ontario's local public transit services are inaccessible to many people with disabilities. People with disabilities often must rely instead for public transit on previously underfunded and inadequate paratransit services, which were highly dependent on provincial funding. The Ontarians with Disabilities Act would establish necessary and appropriate provincial standards requiring access by persons with disabilities to public transit services on which all Ontarians are so reliant.
Instead of enacting these required standards, people with disabilities have decreased access to transportation because of Ontario Government actions including the following:
* the Ontario Government has breached a written election promise to maintain funding for accessible paratransit systems. Instead, it has allowed municipalities to cut these services.
* the Ontario Government has approved waivers which permit municipal governments to purchase new public transit equipment that is not fully accessible, contrary to Ontario Government policy.
* the Ontario Government has cut funding to programs to assist municipalities in purchasing new, accessible equipment.
The Ontario Government's decision to download the cost of public transit to the municipalities with no guarantee that funding levels will be maintained contradicts the Finance Minister's firm commitment during his November 29, 1995 Economic Statement as follows: "Funding to municipalities for specialized transit services for people with disabilities will be maintained at current levels."
(v) Ontario Public Service Cuts
Ontario Public Service cuts can only have a significant impact on government employees with disabilities despite the 1995 provincial election promise by the Premier that he would implement a zero-tolerance policy towards discrimination in the Ontario Public Service. The government has implemented dramatic cuts to Ontario Public Service jobs using the same methods for layoff and redeployment used by the previous government. Under the previous Government these practices led people with disabilities to lose their jobs in disproportionately greater numbers. In addition, the Ontario Government has repealed important and specific human resources policies which had been designed to ensure that Ontario Public Service downsizing did not discriminate against Ontario Government employees with disabilities. The Harris Government has accelerated this process of layoffs, and has left those discriminatory barriers in place. One of the first areas of the Ontario Public Service cut by the government were those programs which employed a high number of people with disabilities as a result of past hiring patterns and practices.
Taken together, these actions force people with disabilities to bear more than their fair share of job losses as the Ontario Government downsizes. People with disabilities face extraordinary unemployment rates. Thus, this Ontario Government layoff pattern will tend to drive more persons with disabilities onto social assistance, when they would rather remain taxpaying employees.
At the same time, the Ontario government has undermined its capacity to achieve a barrier-free and discrimination-free Ontario Public Service for persons with disabilities. It did so by eliminating many, if not most of the staff in the various ministries who assisted with the removal of workplace barriers. These positions had been filled by employees who had developed much-needed expertise in this field at public expense. The Ontario Government has also abolished a provincial fund for the identification and removal of systemic barriers in the Ontario Public Service workplace.
In addition, under the Harris Government, the Legislature enacted an unprecedented law requiring the destruction of government data which could have helped achieve a barrier-free Ontario Public Service, and which was collected under the Employment Equity Act. Since taking office in June 1995, the Ontario Government has failed to take any meaningful government-wide steps to remove workplace disability barriers which had previously been identified by various ministries' employment systems reviews. Under the previous Government, each Ontario Government ministry had undertaken an employment systems review, at public expense, as part of the Ontario Public Service employment equity initiative. Management Board has not directed the ministries to take any steps to remove barriers which these reviews discovered. Most of the reviews are believed to be collecting dust, ignored. The Ontario Government's failure to take meaningful steps to eliminate systemic barriers within its own workplace is especially problematic, in light of the fact that in a May 5, 1995 election press release, Premier Harris promised to "help employers develop plans to ensure equality of opportunity in their workplaces and remove any systemic barriers to employment, particularly for persons with disabilities". Not only has the Ontario Government not done this for private employers; the Ontario Government has not even done this within the Ontario Public Service.
(vi) Downloading of Provincial Obligations to Municipalities
The Ontario Government's massive downloading of services (traditionally funded through income tax) to municipal governments (which rely on the property tax base) will have a negative impact on these services which are extremely important to people with disabilities. As discussed above, transportation will be affected. Other areas concerned include social assistance, accessible, affordable housing (already a major problem for people with disabilities), and long term care. By downloading these services without providing adequate funding, the provincial government has turned its back on its obligations to people with disabilities.
In 1995, the Federal Government contemplated a comparable move. It proposed off-loading major federal disability programs onto the provinces. The Federal Government is now retreating from this. It did so after major public condemnation. It also responded to a Federal Disability Task Force which documented the need for consistent and strong universal standards. The Ontario Government's off-loading onto municipalities suffers from the same serious problems as had the proposed Federal Government off- loading. Just as the Federal Task Force recommended a strong federal presence in the disability field, backed by a proposal for a new Canadians with Disabilities Act, the Ontario Government needs to maintain a strong provincial presence in the disability field, backed by a strong Ontarians with Disabilities Act.
(vii) Privatization of Public Services
The Ontario Government's plan to privatize services of the Ontario Government will also have a negative impact on persons with disabilities. If privatization is to occur at all, it must be done with strong legislation in place to ensure that the companies that take on these services remove barriers to people with disabilities, and that they create no new barriers. To date, the privatization initiative does not include any policies, procedures, safeguards or measures to ensure that the Ontario Government employees with disabilities who lose their jobs during privatization will enjoy private-sector retention of their services, a barrier-free work environment, or accommodation of their disability work-related needs. The Ontario Government has not announced any policies, procedures or safeguards to ensure that those private sector bodies who are chosen to take on responsibilities for delivering off-loaded public services will plan to ensure that persons with disabilities will be able to avail themselves of those services in a barrier-free way.
(viii) Education and Training Cuts
Provincial changes in education and training have created enormous new barriers that will make it difficult for children and adults with disabilities to obtain equal educational opportunities. The Ontarians with Disabilities Act would develop specific measures to achieve a barrier-free education system at all levels. This conflicts with steps taken by the government such as cutting funds to universities which lead to increases in tuition and less money available for necessary supports for students and staff with disabilities. They have not taken any steps to ensure that these cuts do not have an adverse impact on staff or students with disabilities.
The Ministry of Education has been encouraging the purchase of new computers in schools across the province. However, they are not requiring that the schools, using public funds, purchase computers that will be accessible to students with disabilities.
(ix) Social Assistance Cuts
Changes to the social assistance system have led to the loss of benefits by people with disabilities despite the government's promise in the "Common Sense Revolution" that "Aid for seniors and the disabled will NOT be cut." Although the rate for people on Family Benefits was not cut when the general welfare benefit was chopped by over 20%, many people with disabilities were affected. For example, a welfare mother who has a child with a disability in Ontario had her benefits cut 20%. She is also required to participate in the workfare program despite the lack of child care facilities for children with disabilities. Her child will suffer as a direct result of these cuts.
The elimination of the drug card for people who are able to work but require drug benefits will also impact on people with disabilities. The Trillium Drug Program is not a substitute for many people since it requires a large up-front co-payment which will not be affordable for people with disabilities.
(x) Cutting Ontario Programs Especially Harmful if Done Before Passing the Ontarians with Disabilities Act
Each of the cuts, described above, individually inflicts serious harm on Ontarians with disabilities. Taken together, these cuts produce a broader impact which seriously concerns the ODA Committee.
The Ontario Government is going about its business backwards. Its overall program of cuts, downsizing, and off-loading will be especially harmful to people with disabilities precisely because the Government is implementing these initiatives before it develops and enacts the Ontarians with Disabilities Act. It should instead enact the Ontarians with Disabilities Act first. Only after this is done should it go about planning its cuts.
Many, if not most of the barriers which persons with disabilities now face exist because governments, private employers, school boards, public transit services and the like did not design and operate their services, facilities and programs with any prior regard to the needs of persons with disabilities. People with disabilities frequently point out the barriers that unnecessarily result from this. They are repeatedly told in response by the government or private sector organization that created the barriers, "We meant no harm. We just never thought about you!" Governments are at least as prone to this common blunder as anyone else.
Before implementing major changes to Ontario Government programs and budgets, it is vital that the Ontarians with Disabilities Act be developed, enacted and fully operational. Among other things, the Ontarians with Disabilities Act would set provincial standards to ensure that the needs of persons with disabilities are fully and properly considered before government programs are downsized, restructured or off-loaded. It would require that existing barriers in these programs be identified and removed, and that any new or restructured programs be designed in a barrier-free way from the very start.
If the Ontarians with Disabilities Act is enacted only after the cuts and off-loads are implemented, the serious damage will already be done. It will cost the Government, and hence taxpayers, more to fix the problem after the fact. In contrast, if the Ontarians with Disabilities Act is passed first, it would prevent this anticipated waste of public resources. It is cheaper to prevent a barrier before government creates it. It costs more to remove a barrier after it has been built.
For example, the Ontario Government is now undertaking a massive, controversial restructuring of Ontario's health care system. Health services are especially vital for senior citizens and persons with disabilities. If the health care system is restructured before enactment of the Ontarians with Disabilities Act, there is an enormous risk that this reorganization will inadvertently produce new barriers and leave in place old ones.
It is better public policy to avoid in advance the new barriers which the Ontario Government cuts and off-loads now threaten to create. It is also better public policy to enable persons with disabilities to fully participate in government planning that will affect their lives. In this way, a strong and effective Ontarians with Disabilities Act can promote the Ontario Government's agenda towards greater efficiency in government.
If the Ontario Government does not promptly develop and enact a strong and effective Ontarians with Disabilities Act, after a full, open, accessible and accountable public consultation process launched now, people with disabilities will continue to be a marginalized and severely disadvantaged minority in Ontario society. The modest gains which they have won in the past will be superseded by the new barriers now being placed in their paths in many areas of Ontario society. The need for aggressive action to remove the old barriers, and prevent the building of new ones, is immediate.
The achievement of a barrier-free society for persons with disabilities by the year 2000 is a non-partisan political issue. No better indication of the bipartisan nature of this issue can be given than the fact that the most comprehensive legislation in the world aimed at securing a barrier-free society for persons with disabilities is the Americans with Disabilities Act, which was passed in the U.S. by a Democratic Congress and willingly signed into law by a Republican President, George Bush. This bi- partisan support for an Ontarians with Disabilities Act can and must also exist in Ontario.
The benefits of such legislation are substantial. If implemented, it would help avoid the costs which society must bear in social assistance payments to persons with disabilities when they are unable to support themselves due to the many barriers that impede their full and equal participation in the workplace. The increased employment of persons with disabilities based on their individual merit will be made much easier if the many barriers that face people with disabilities in transportation, housing, education, and access to goods, facilities and services are eliminated, as well as those now existing in the workplace. Ontario would benefit greatly if more persons with disabilities were able to be taxpayers, contributing to society through their work efforts as well as their contributions to the public revenue. As well, in addition to the employment context, Ontario Benefits when all of its citizens can fully enjoy the full range of services, facilities, goods and other opportunities.
The time for promises is over. The time for legislative action is now.
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