On June 6, 2016, the Ontario government announced that changes to the Customer Service Standard under the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) will come into force on July 1, 2016, and apply to all organizations providing goods, services or facilities in the province.
The general purposes of the AODA are to change attitudes and environments in the private and public sectors toward persons with mild to severe disabilities and to relieve the burden of requesting accommodation from persons with disabilities by obligating organizations to provide accommodation pre-emptively on or before January 1, 2025. Under the Act, organizations that provide goods and services and employ Ontarians are required to take proactive steps to eliminate or reduce the need for accommodation requests and remove any barriers, meaning anything that prevents a person with a disability from fully participating in all aspects of society in the same way as a person that is not disabled. These steps include eliminating or reducing physical, architectural, information and communications, attitudinal, technological barriers, as well as policies or practices.
The Accessibility Standards for Customer Service came into force for the private and non-profit sectors on January 1, 2012. Public sector organizations in the province of Ontario had to comply with the customer service standard by January 1, 2010.
The AODA customer service standard outlines what businesses and other organizations in Ontario must do to make their goods and services more accessible to people with disabilities. Every person or organization that provides goods and services to members of the public or other third parties, and has at least one employee in Ontario, must comply; this includes law firms.
The AODA requires that each accessibility standard be reviewed five years after it becomes law to determine whether the standard is working as intended and to allow for adjustments to be made as required.
On January 29, 2016, Ontario’s Regulatory Registry posted proposed amendments to the Customer Service Standard as well as resulting revocation of regulations and minor administrative and housekeeping changes to the Integrated Accessibility Standards Regulation for public review for an additional 45 days, until March 14, 2016.
The draft Regulation amends the Integrated Accessibility Standards Regulation (O. Reg. 191/11) and consequently revokes the Accessibility Standards for Customer Service (Ontario Reg. 429/07) and Exemption from Reporting Requirements (O. Reg. 430/07) since the substantive content of these regulations would be incorporated into the Integrated Accessibility Standards Regulation.
Therefore, the Integrated Accessibility Standards Regulation now includes the customer service standard and is now Part IV.2, of the Integrated Accessibility Standards Regulation.
Key changes to the customer service standard
Effective July 1, 2016, key changes to the customer service standard (summarized by the Accessibility Directorate of Ontario with additional comments by the author) include the following:
- All employees and volunteers must now be trained on accessible customer service. Previously only staff who dealt directly with the public had to be trained on accessibility issues.
- More types of regulated health professionals can provide documentation of a need for a service animal. Doctors and nurses were originally the only ones allowed to provide such authorization, but the list now includes psychologists, psychotherapists, audiologists, chiropractors and optometrists.
- More specific information is provided to clarify that an organization can only require a support person to accompany someone with a disability for the purposes of health or safety and in consultation with the person. If it’s determined a support person is required, the fee or fare (if applicable) for the support person must be waived.
- All accessibility standards — including the accessible customer service standard — are now part of one Integrated Accessibility Standards Regulation. This means that the requirements are now better aligned to make it easier for organizations to understand their obligations.
- Private sector and non-profit organizations with 20-49 employees no longer need to document policies (does not remove compliance or reporting requirements). The definition of “small organization” is rephrased to say an organization with at least one but fewer than 50 employees in Ontario, other than the Government of Ontario, the Legislative Assembly or a designated public sector.. As a result, the definition of organization under the customer service standard of 1 to 19 employees no longer applies, and fits the definition under the Integrated Accessibility Standards Regulation.
- The definition of “large organization” in the Integrated Accessibility Standards Regulation has been changed to say that a large organization is an organization of 50 or more employees in Ontario, other than the Government of Ontario, the Legislative Assembly or a designated public sector organization. As a result, the previous definition of 20 or more employees for a large organization under the customer service standard no longer applies and fits the definition under the Integrated Accessibility Standards Regulation.
- Certain terms and definitions have also been updated and do not affect existing requirements.For example, the term “obligated organization” in the Integrated Accessibility Standards Regulation now encompasses the Government of Ontario, the Legislative Assembly, a designated public sector organization, a large organization and a small organization. Definitions for guide dog, service animal and support person have been added to the standard.
- Establishment of policies (section 80.46) clarifies that in addition to the requirement under section 3 of the Integrated Regulation Establishment of accessibility policies, the customer service standard requires that every provider must establish policies governing its provision of goods, services or facilities, as the case may be, to persons with disabilities and thus requiring a separate customer service policy or policies from the other required policies under the other standards. The policies must deal with the use of assistive devices by persons with disabilities to obtain, use or benefit from the goods, services or facilities or with the availability of other measures, if any, which enable them to do so..
The Accessibility Directorate of Ontario has prepared a Quick Reference guide to help organizations understand the changes.
What do organizations need to do to comply?
All organizations in Ontario with one or more employees must comply with the changes effective July 1, 2016.
Organizations need to update their existing accessible customer service policy or policies to reflect the changes and train all members of their organization on accessible customer service. The Directorate has indicated that the organization does not need to train members of the organization who have already been trained on accessible customer service, however, they must be informed of the changes and trained on the updates.
All public sector organizations, and businesses and non-profits with 20 or more employees must submit their 2017 accessibility compliance report by December 31, 2017. The 2017 report will include questions relating to compliance with the updated customer service standard.
Not everybody is happy with these changes.
Many accessibility advocates (i.e., AODA Alliances and the ARCH Disability Law Centres) say that the changes do not go far enough to assist persons with disabilities with the day-to-day challenges they continue to face. They also say that changes to the definition of small organizations weakens accessibility protections. By removing documentation requirements for the huge number of private sector organizations with 20-49 employees made that regulations effective enforcement far more difficult, among other issues.
“[…] organizations with 20-49 employees.. no longer need to have the policy in writing, no longer need to provide it in writing to the public on request and no longer need to keep records of its employee training on it.”
“This will make the core part of this accessibility regulation very hard if not impossible for the Wynne Government to effectively enforce for the great number of private sector organizations with 20-49 employees. The Wynne Government’s main way of enforcing, in the paltry fraction of cases where it has done any enforcement at all, has been by the Government auditing an organization’s paper records. Yet if a private sector organization with 20-49 employees no longer needs to keep any paper records, there’s nothing for the Government to audit,” said David Lepofsky, chair of the non-partisan AODA Alliance which leads Ontario’s grassroots campaign for accessibility for people with disabilities. “If a Government auditor asks if a private sector organization with 20-49 employees has the required policy on accessible Customer Service, the owner can just point to their head and say: ‘It’s in here!'”
The Ontario government responded by saying that the AODA remains a work in progress as Ontario tries to make the entire province fully accessible by 2025.
“There’s more work to be done, but steps like these (new rules) are the foundation to developing a culture of inclusion, where economic and social opportunities exist for people of all abilities,” Economic Development Minister Brad Duguid said in a statement
What do you think?