The role of government was once seen as simply being able to maintain public security and public order. That concept justified the existence of a standing army, police forces and the provision of infrastructure such as roads, bridges and canals. Anything beyond those basics was seen as an interference in the private lives of its citizens and a lessening of their freedoms.

It will be interesting to see how the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, 2005 (“Act”) will be viewed as it comes into effect over the next three years.

It is likely that businesses will be surprised when the full import of this legislation and its regulations become clear. Indeed, it would be prudent for businesses to begin planning and budgeting now for the required changes. For those who do business in this province, this legislation could have a significant impact on their bottom line, as it attempts to control how they interact with people with disabilities.

What is unclear from the legislation is how this law will actually change peoples’ perception and treatment of the disabled and whether such changes will be for the better.

Application

In general, the Act applies to all providers of goods and services, with special provisions applying to the public sector and businesses with 20 or more employees. The Act’s Customer Service Standards will come into effect by regulation between January 1, 2010 and January 1, 2012. These standards are the first of five sets of standards contemplated under the Act and are the focus of this article.

Customer Service Standards

These customer service standards apply to all organizations (public and private) that provide goods or services either directly to the public or to other organizations in Ontario and that have at least one employee in Ontario. Listed below are the standards, as listed on the relevant Ontario Government website, that are required:

  1. Establish policies, practices and procedures on providing goods or services to people with disabilities.
  2. Set a policy on allowing people to use their own personal assistive devices to access your goods and use your services and about any other measures your organization offers (assistive devices, services or methods) to enable them to access your goods and use your services.
  3. Use reasonable efforts to ensure that your policies, practices and procedures are consistent with the core principles of independence, dignity, integration and equality of opportunity.
  4. Communicate with a person with a disability in a manner that takes into account his or her disability.
  5. Train staff, volunteers, contractors and any other people who interact with the public or other third parties on your behalf on a number of topics as outlined in the customer service standard.
  6. Train staff, volunteers, contractors and any other people who are involved in developing your policies, practices and procedures on the provision of goods or services on a number of topics as outlined in the customer service standard.
  7. Allow people with disabilities to be accompanied by their guide dog or service animal in those areas of the premises you own or operate that are open to the public, unless the animal is excluded by another law. If a service animal is excluded by law, use other measures to provide services to the person with a disability.
  8. Permit people with disabilities who use a support person to bring that person with them while accessing goods or services in premises open to the public or third parties.
  9. Where admission fees are charged, provide notice ahead of time on what admission, if any, would be charged for a support person of a person with a disability.
  10. Provide notice when facilities or services that people with disabilities rely on to access or use your goods or services are temporarily disrupted.
  11. Establish a process for people to provide feedback on how you provide goods or services to people with disabilities and how you will respond to any feedback and take action on any complaints. Make the information about your feedback process readily available to the public.

Organizations that employ at least 20 employees in Ontario are subject to the following additional requirements (once again from the Ontario Government website):

  1. Document in writing all your policies, practices and procedures for providing accessible customer service and meet other document requirements set out in the standard.
  2. Notify customers that documents required under the customer service standard are available upon request.
  3. When giving documents required under the customer service standard to a person with a disability, provide the information in a format that takes into account the person’s disability.

Enforcement and Costs

How much these requirements will cost business to implement is unknown at present, but if the penalties built into the Act and its regulations for failure to comply are any indication, it certainly won’t be inexpensive. Presumably, the government committee that formulated this legislation considered this very issue and set the penalties accordingly.

Anyone guilty of an offence under the Act faces fines on conviction of up to $50,000 per day on which an offence occurs or continues to occur. Directors and officers who fail to live up to the duty imposed by the Act to take reasonable care to prevent the corporation from committing an offence under the Act are also liable for fines of up to $50,000 per day. If the rationale is to make it more expensive to disobey this law than not, then it appears that the costs to obey the law will be significant, given the amount of the fines imposed for disobedience.

Brave New World

Some will argue that in the western world, we are currently in the throes of a period of unprecedented government intervention in the everyday lives of its citizens. Businesses that adapt to this will survive, if not prosper. Those that do not will drown in a sea of red tape, government regulation and coercion. Businesses that begin now to plan and budget for these changes will stand a better chance of being in the former, rather than the latter group. Employee training, developing a plan for compliance with the Act and setting aside funds to finance these activities are the first steps in adapting to these fast approaching changes.