What is the AODA?

The Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, 2005 (AODA), is a bold piece of Ontario legislation that aims to enforce full accessibility for all Ontarians with disabilities by 2025. It covers both the public and private sector, including retailers. To make goods and services accessible to people with disabilities, the AODA requires changes according to a set time frame to the following areas of operations: customer service, communications, employment, transportation, buildings, structures and premises.

Which retailers are covered by the AODA?

Any retailer with at least one employee in the province of Ontario is covered. As you will see from below, the AODA can affect a retailer’s operations and employees outside the province of Ontario as well.

Customer service

By now, retailers should have complied with the requirements of the Customer Service Standard, which requires a retailer to prepare an accessible customer service plan; make the plan available to the public; train employees who deal with the public on accessible customer service; train employees who develop the retailer’s policies, practices and procedures on accessible customer service; and establish a feedback process for receiving and responding to feedback from customers and the public about the manner in which services are being provided to those with disabilities. Retailers with at least 20 employees are also required to report compliance online on the ServiceOntario website as of December 31, 2012 and December 31, 2014.

All of this makes sense. In fact, it is doubtful that many retailers want their sales associates to turn away a customer because the customer has mobility issues, a hearing or visual disability, or relies on a support person or some type of assistive device, such as a wheelchair, walker, cane or seeing eye dog.

The unanticipated effect of the AODA is that it can govern the conduct of employees who are not located in the province of Ontario. This is because the Act is directed at protecting the consumer in Ontario. The Act does not have any regard for the location of the retail employee or the company providing the service to the Ontario consumer provided the company has at least one employee in Ontario. While there are no legal rulings to date, given the wording and purpose of the legislation and the position taken by the Ontario government, it appears that there can be significant consequences outside of Ontario.

If customer service is being provided to an Ontario individual from a call centre located outside of Ontario or located outside of Canada, or if a consumer in Ontario phones a foreign location to discuss an online order, the Act seeks to govern that service provider’s conduct. Some companies have already trained foreign call centre staff who service Ontario. This means that a retailer selling into Ontario and serving Ontario consumers needs to train its staff on accessible service, regardless of where the employees are located, if they are providing online, written or telephone assistance to Ontario consumers. The retailer should also have consumer information available in alternative formats for individuals with disabilities. This can include reading things out loud over the phone to a consumer who cannot read documents or online information, using accessible electronic formats such as HTML and MS Word, large print, text transcripts of visual or audio information, or even simply repeating, clarifying or restating information. In some cases it may be appropriate or necessary to provide information in Braille or through a Teletype (TTY) service.

The Customer Service Standard also requires a retailer to train staff members who are involved in developing the company’s policies, practices and procedures on providing goods and services to the public. These individuals may work outside of Ontario; for example, in the company’s corporate offices either elsewhere in or outside of Canada. Similarly, the managers or supervisors of the staff who provide the customer service may be located outside of Ontario and should also receive training on accessible customer service.

Online retailing

This is where things get interesting. As noted above, one of the goals of the AODA is to ensure that information and communications are available in alternative formats for consumers with disabilities.

If a retailer prepares a new website or an existing website undergoes a significant refresh, the site and any web content published after January 1, 2012 must conform to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 Level A. A new website means either a website with a new domain name or a website with an existing domain name undergoing a significant refresh. While ‘significant refresh’ is not defined in the legislation, it could include a change in how users navigate through a website or a major update and change in the content of the website.

The WCAG refers to the World Wide Web Consortium Recommendation of December 2008 titled, “Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0”. This is an international standard for making websites and web content accessible to a broader range of users with disabilities. WCAG 1.0 was developed by a team of worldwide experts and released in 1999, while WCAG 2.0 was released in 2008. WCAG provides guidelines to make web content accessible to those with low vision, deafness, hearing loss, blindness, learning disabilities, limited movement, photosensitivity and the like. For example, suggested modifications could be the use of alternate text for images, making the website navigable with just a keyboard, and ensuring that consumers who use an e-reader can use drop down boxes to enter contests and purchase goods online. Generally speaking, the simpler your website, the easier it is to make it accessible. A simple website has good contrast, does not have a busy background or flashing figures, avoids video and audio, and navigation is internally consistent.

By January 1, 2021, a larger retailer with at least 50 employees in Ontario will have to ensure that all websites and content conform to WCAG 2.0 Level AA (other than the live captioning and pre-recorded audio descriptions criteria).

As you can see, the AODA, once again, has a possible effect on operations outside of the province of Ontario. If a retailer has a global website with no page targeting consumers in Ontario or Canada, I believe that the website does not need to be changed under the AODA. Having said that, other jurisdictions, such as the United Kingdom, have already implemented similar requirements for websites. However, if a global retailer has a specific page for Ontario consumers or a significant connection with Ontario, the AODA requires such webpages to be WCAG compliant, provided the organization in Ontario has control over the appearance, functionality and content of the website. Conversely, the government’s position is that where a parent organization outside Ontario controls the website, the AODA does not apply. Regardless of the AODA, expanding the consumer base through easy and broadly accessible online access is generally good business for any retailer.

The built environment

The Design of Public Spaces Standards of the AODA deal with items such as off-street parking, waiting areas and exterior paths of travel. The Design Standard most likely to affect the retailer with a bricks and mortar location in Ontario concerns service counters. Newly-constructed service counters must include at least one counter that accommodates a mobility aid through counter-top height, knee clearance and floor space. Accordingly, if a retailer is renovating retail space in Ontario, it would be advisable to consider the service counter requirements now. The Design Standard will apply as of January 1, 2017 to retailers with 50 or more Ontario employees, and as of January 1, 2018, to smaller retailers.

There are also rules concerning fixed queuing guides (i.e. fixed to the floor or the ground, as opposed to temporary guides, such as movable posts and ropes), and waiting areas, which may possibly apply to a bricks and mortar retailer. For example, a department store may have a waiting area in its customer service area.

The accessible service counter must be clearly identified with signage, such as the International Symbol of Accessibility if there are multiple queuing lines and service counters. The countertop height must be appropriate for a customer seated in a mobility aid. The person seated in the mobility device must be able to reach any objects intended for customer use, such as a point of sale terminal, and to be able to carry out tasks that need to be done at the counter, such as writing a signature.

There must be enough knee clearance for a person seated in a mobility aid if it is necessary to approach the counter (to sign a credit card receipt, a form for returns or to insert a debit card), and the floor space in front of the counter must be able to accommodate the mobility aid. Service counters include an information desk and a check-out counter, as well as outdoor service counters. If a retailer has different counters that each provide a different service, there needs to be an accessible service counter for each of the services, such as express check-out, self-service, customer service and returns. The government is taking the position that if one queuing line serves multiple counters, then all of the counters must be accessible. On the other hand, if you have multiple queuing lines and service counters, the accessible option must be clearly identified with signage.

Fixed queuing guides must be placed far enough apart to allow people using mobility devices to pass through them and turn where the guides change directions. These must also be designed to include an element that can be detected with a cane by a person with a visual disability.

When constructing a new waiting area or redeveloping an existing waiting area, where the seating is fixed to the floor, at least three percent of the new seating must be accessible, with a minimum of one accessible seating space. This applies to both indoor and outdoor fixed seating areas.

Since the rules are known, it makes sense to incorporate accessible design elements now into renovations and new construction.

Summary

In summary, while the AODA is an Ontario law, it has significant effects on retailers, including operations and activities outside of Ontario. This is because it is not directed at the retailer or the retail employees as such. Instead, it is legislation that seeks to protect the Ontario consumer. With an aging public and increasing numbers of consumers who will need assistance to access retail stores and make online sales, following the AODA can help a retailer broaden its range of customers.