A. INTRODUCTION

The Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, 2005 (the “AODA”) is relatively new legislation passed by the Ontario legislature. It allows the government to develop, implement and enforce accessibility standards in order to remove and prevent barriers for people with disabilities in key areas of daily living. Once developed, these standards may become regulations, and thus the law, under the AODA. On January 1, 2008, the first of five anticipated accessibility standards, the Accessibility Standard for Customer Service (the “Customer Service Standard”), came into effect, with the enactment of Regulation 429/07 under the AODA. The AODA and the Customer Service Standard is the focus of this article.

B. THE AODA - LEGISLATION WITH SOME TEETH

The AODA applies to every person and organization in the private and public sectors operating in the Province of Ontario, including not-for-profit organizations, associations and charities.

Persons and organization, including their directors and officers, may be subject to liability and costly administrative penalties for failing to comply with the requirements of the AODA and the regulations made under it. For example, every director and officer of a corporation is under a duty to take all reasonable care to prevent the corporation from committing an offence under the AODA. Every director or officer who fails to carry out this duty is guilty of an offence under the AODA and is liable to a fine of up to $50,000 for each day or part of a day in which the offence occurs or continues to occur. Similarly, every organization is liable on conviction a fine up to $100,000 for each day or part of the day on which the offence occurs or continues to occur.

Under the AODA, an organization to whom a specific accessibility standard applies will be required to file annual accessibility reports with the government. The report must be certified by the individual preparing the report, or in the case of an organization, by an officer or director or other person with authority to bind the organization. It is an offence under the AODA to provide false or misleading information under such accessibility report.

C. THE CUSTOMER SERVICE STANDARD

The Customer Service Standard addresses the business practices and training needed to provide better customer service to people with disabilities.

(a) Applicability

The Customer Service Standard applies to every designated public sector organization and to every other person or organization that provides goods or services to members of the public or other third parties and that has at least one employee in Ontario. Examples of providers of goods and services include charities, associations and other nonfor- profit organizations.

While organizations may use different words to describe the members of the public they serve, under the Customer Service Standard, even if they provide goods or services to members of the public that meet their eligibility criteria, for the purposes of the Customer Service Standard, they are still providing goods or services to the public and must still meet the requirements of the Customer Service Standard. For example, a membership based soccer league that is open to the public and has one employee, is providing services to the public and must comply with the Customer Service Standard.

The Customer Service Standard also applies to persons or organizations who make goods or services available to third parties, such as other businesses, the government or other organizations. For example, a non-for-profit organization representing small business owners is providing goods and services to third parties when it provides training materials and fact sheets to its members.

(b) Employees

The Customer Service Standard applies to all not-for-profit organizations with at least one employee. There are additional requirements for providers of goods and services with more than 20 employees and designated public organizations (more on this below). For the purposes of the Customer Service Standard all full-time, part-time, seasonal and contract employees, regardless of status, must be counted. Volunteers and independent contractors, are not counted as employees.

(c) Time Period for Compliance

All designated public sector organizations listed in the AODA and its accompanying schedules must comply by January 1, 2010. All other providers of goods and service, including charities and non-for-profit corporations, with at least one employee must comply by January 11, 2012.

(d) Requirements for Compliance

The following requirements of the Customer Service Standard apply to all providers that are covered by the standard. A provider must:

  1. Establish policies, practices and procedures on providing goods or services to people with disabilities.
  2. Use reasonable efforts to ensure that the policies, practices and procedures are consistent with the core principles of independence, dignity, integration and equality of opportunity.
  3. 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.
  4. Communicate with a person with a disability in a manner that takes into account his or her disability.
  5. Allow people with disabilities to be accompanied by their guide dog or service animal in those areas of the premises owned or operated 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. Provide notice when facilities or services that people with disabilities rely on to access or use your goods or services are temporarily disrupted.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  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.

(e) Additional Requirements – 20 or more employees

In addition to the above requirements, a designated public sector organization or other provider with 20 or more employees must:

  1. Document in writing all its policies, practices and procedures for providing accessible customer service andmeet 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.

D. THE TIME TO ACT IS NOW

Organizations know that it will take time to come into compliance with AODA. There is still lots of time until it is effective, but it would be wise to start planning now.