The general purposes of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (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.
To achieve this goal, the Ontario government is establishing standards that are being given the force of law by being adopted as binding regulations.
The first AODA standard, the Accessibility Standards for Customer Service (Ontario Regulation 429/07) will come into force for the private and non-profit sectors on January 1, 2012. The AODA includes other standards for transportation, built environment, information and communications and employment. These are in development but not yet in force and will be discussed in future blog posts. Public sector organizations in the province of Ontario had to comply with the customer service standard by January 1, 2010.
At this point, you may be wondering, doesn’t the Ontario Human Rights Code deal with these issues? Requirements under the Code deal with individual discrimination, while the AODA is about transforming accessibility for persons with disabilities in the whole province. You should know, however, that the potential for overlapping exists and you may have to comply with more than one piece of legislation, for example, the duty to accommodate under human rights law, the Workplace Safety and Insurance Act and now the AODA. But at this time, we do not know how this will play out.
What is the customer service standard and who must comply?
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.
“Other third parties” in this instance means any other persons or organizations other than the general public with whom you do business. They can include, for example, consultants, manufacturers, wholesalers, suppliers of professional services or government agencies. The customer service standard requires that you provide the same level of service to third parties as to the general public.
Organizations must make sure that any company to which they contract out their services also meets the obligations under the customer service standard. If any company provides service to Ontario, it is bound by the customer service standard, even if it isn’t located here.
I wonder about federally regulated workplaces, must they comply with the AODA and its standards? If they are located in Ontario, I presume so, since they must comply with the Ontario Building Codes. But it is not quite clear yet.
What do businesses and other organizations have to do?
The standard provides guidance on how you can ensure your staff interacts in a positive manner with all persons with disabilities. The Regulation requires that all of the factors covered are addressed through written corporate policies and procedures, and supported by staff training and formal mechanisms to solicit feedback about service. Specifically, you will have to:
- Implement policies, practices and procedures to govern your organization’s provision of goods and services to persons with disabilities—what you intend to do, including any rules for your staff.
- Use reasonable efforts to ensure these policies, practices and procedures are consistent with the following principles:
- Allow persons with disabilities to enter your organization’s premises with a service animal. A person should be able to remain with the animal unless otherwise excluded by law. If the animal is excluded by law, you must have other measure available to enable the person to obtain, use or benefit from your organization’s goods or services. Note, a service animal is not a pet; he or she is a working animal and must not be excluded under your no-pets policy.
- Allow persons with disabilities to enter your premises with a support person and stay with the support person while on the premises. For health and safety reasons, the organization may require that a person with a disability be accompanied by a support person.
- Implement training for everybody in your workplace who deals with the public or other third parties on behalf of your organization; this includes employees, contractors, volunteers and agents, and those participating in developing your organization’s policies, practices and procedures governing the provision of goods or services to the public or other third parties.
- Implement a process and documented plan to provide notice of any temporary disruption in whole or in part in your facilities or services (e.g., elevator breakdown, power shortage).
- File annual accessibility reports with the government, specifically, the Ministry of Community and Social Services.
Your policies and practices must address the use of assisted devices by persons with disabilities to obtain, use or benefit from your organization’s goods or services, or the availability of other measures which will enable them to do so (i.e., wheelchairs, scooters, hearing aids, crutches, canes, etc.)
Respect the dignity and independence of persons with disabilities
Integrate service provision to persons with disabilities with services to others (unless alternative measures are necessary). Provide equal opportunities to obtain, use and benefit from goods and services
Communicate with customers in a manner that takes into account a person’s disability; allow a person with a disability to select and control the means of communication
Have a feedback process for customers of your organization’s goods and services; make information about the process available
Note that, while businesses and organizations with fewer than 20 employees must comply with all the requirements under the standards (except for the filing of the annual accessibility reports with the government), they do not need to prepare written documents on any of the above steps. Public sector organizations with one or more employees are obligated to meet all documentation and filing requirements.
Organizations that are not obligated to have written documentation may decide it is in their best interest to record their policies, practices and procedures anyway, either for their own reference, to prepare for growth or to demonstrate to customers their commitment to accessibility, among other reasons.
What does it mean to have written documentation?
Organizations must let their customers know that the documents required under the standard are available upon request.
They must also post a notice of their documents’ availability in an easily seen place on their premises, by posting it on their website, or by some other method that is reasonable under the circumstances.
They must also provide copies of their documents to anyone who asks for them. If the person to whom they are providing their documents is a person with a disability, they must provide the documents in a format that takes into account that person’s disability.
If your organization or business does not have the required policies and procedures in place by the deadline, you may face fines:
- For individuals and unincorporated entities, up to $50,000 for each and every day or part day that the legislated requirements have not been met
- For a corporation, up to $100,000 for each and every day or part day that the legislative requirements have not been met
There are as many “reasonable efforts” to meet the principles as there are ways to create accessibility.
You can create accessibility by changing a procedure, installing an assistive device or simply by taking individual needs into account when you offer services. Each business or organization needs to determine how to create accessibility based on its services, the type of business or organization, its resources and its options available at a given time. There is not set method found in law.
To avoid penalties, organizations should start the process early, to more easily integrate the new requirements into their day-to-day routines and activities by January 1, 2012.