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Ontario has an accessibility crisis. It’s time Queen’s Park acted with urgency

A recently released review found that more than three quarters of the province’s 2.9 million people with disabilities reported negative experiences.

If you need to solve a problem, but want to create a crisis instead, follow these three easy steps:

First, avoid gathering any data that might indicate the scope of the problem, as well as how to solve it. Second, don’t put anyone in charge of remedying the problem. Finally, avoid employing any enforcement mechanism, so no one’s ever held responsible for failing to do anything.

That, according to a recent review of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA), is precisely what the province has been doing for the past 17 years. The review, which is mandated by the act, found that more than three quarters of the province’s 2.9 million people with disabilities (PWD) reported negative experiences.

Those experiences, which include problems with everything from services to technology to infrastructure to emergency procedures, are a direct result of a critical lack of data, leadership and enforcement. And they have led to a situation that can only be described as a crisis.

But a crisis isn’t just an emergency situation. It’s also a turning point, a time when an imminent decision must be made, a decision that could put us on a route to recovery — or keep us on the road to ruin.

In the interest of the former, Rich Donovan, who conducted the review, declared the situation a crisis, and recommended the province take urgent steps to pull us back from the brink.

To that end, Donovan urged the province to form a crisis committee, chaired by the premier, within 30 days of tabling the report. The committee would be responsible for acting on all of the following crisis recommendations within 180 days of its formation.

To fill the void in leadership, Donovan recommended that deputy ministers identify and publish barriers to accessibility within their respective ministries, and develop plans to remove them. Should deputy ministers fail to achieve their objectives, Donovan advised docking their pay by at least five per cent.

To ensure accountability, Donovan urged the creation of a new Accessibility Agency, which would be responsible for “enforcing accessibility standards and regulation on to the provincial government itself.” And to fill the information gap, it would also be tasked with conducting research and gathering and analyzing data.

Among other crisis recommendations, Donovan advised establishing and publishing clear emergency procedures for the evacuation of all individuals with disabilities from government buildings, and ensuring that the province procures only products and services accessible to people with disabilities.

Unfortunately, the province’s response to the review has been underwhelming, to say the least. Donovan submitted his report in early June, which means it took Ontario six months — more than 180 days — to release it.

That number ought to sound familiar, since it’s precisely the amount of time Donovan gave the province to resolve the crisis. The province instead chose to squander those 180 days, virtually guaranteeing that it will fail to meet the AODA’s requirement of an accessible Ontario by Jan. 1, 2025.

Since the law was passed nearly two decades ago, there’s really no excuse for this latest delay. But the province offered one anyway, with the Ministry of Seniors and Accessibility telling The Trillium that it needed the time to prepare a “thoughtful analysis and response to [the] recommendations.”

RELATED STORIES: Ontario in a ‘crisis state’ on accessibility, unlikely to meet 2025 goal: report

It also highlighted plans to address a few concerns in the report, including modernizing evacuation procedures in government buildings and mandating that the procurement of accessible products and services.

That’s better than nothing, though it’s certainly not the response one would expect in a crisis, which is probably why the province carefully avoided declaring one. There’s also no mention of a crisis committee, which isn’t surprising since the province hasn’t even acknowledged that a crisis exists.

Yet a crisis by any other name — or by no name at all — remains a crisis. And with just one year to go until Ontario is expected to be fully accessible, the province better start treating it as one.

This post appeared as an editorial in the Toronto Star on January 3, 2024.

https://www.thestar.com/opinion/editorials/ontario-has-an-accessibility-crisis-its-time-queens-park-acted-with-urgency/article_4f00cc7e-a999-11ee-87e8-e7165cacbe82.html

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