Approximately 1.85 million Ontarians, or roughly 15.5% of the population, have disabilities. Often times these individuals experience barriers when attempting to access goods and services. Given our aging population, the number of individuals who require accessible customer service will only increase.
In response to these concerns, the government of Ontario enacted the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (“AODA”) in 2005. In doing so, they became the first province to pass legislation that will develop mandatory accessibility standards and a process to enforce these standards. The legislation created a framework for the development, implementation and enforcement of accessibility standards meant to remove barriers and achieve accessibility for all Ontarians within areas such as goods, services, accommodation, employment and buildings. The AODA defines a “barrier” as anything that stops a person with a disability from fully taking part in society because of that disability.
The Government of Ontario conducted public consultations and worked with persons with disabilities, the business community and other government bodies in order to identify five key areas in which to create standards: Customer Service, Information and Communications, Employment, Transportation and Built Environment.
The Accessibility Standards for Customer Service (the “Standards”) were the first set of standards developed and apply to any organization that provides goods or services to members of the public and has at least one employee in Ontario. Although organizations already have a duty to accommodate customers with disabilities under the Ontario Human Rights Code, the Standards create several specific requirements relating to aspects of customer service for persons with disabilities.
While designated public sector organizations were required to comply with the Standards by January 1, 2010, private sector organizations are required to comply by January 1, 2012 and failure to do so could result in significant monetary penalties.
The following is an overview of some of the key first steps towards compliance:
Policies and Procedures
The Standards require all organizations to have policies and procedures in place that govern the manner in which they provide goods and services to persons with disabilities. These policies and procedures are expected to respect the dignity and independence of persons with disabilities and should provide them with equal opportunity to receive goods and services in as integrated a manner as possible.
In some cases, employers may already have policies that outline their commitment to provide such customer service. However, the Standards require several specific topics to be included in most policies and so even existing policies will likely need to be updated. This is especially true for organizations with at least 20 employees that will be expected to have policies and procedures relating to various specific disability-related needs of their customers. If your organization has not previously crafted an accessibility policy, an external consultant may be able to provide assistance and help ensure that your organization is compliant with the new legal requirements.
Establish a Feedback Process
As one purpose of the Standards is to improve the customer service experience for persons with disabilities, organizations are required to establish a process by which they can receive and respond to feedback about the manner in which they are providing goods and services. Customers must be able to provide feedback in a variety of formats and organizations’ responses must be delivered in a manner accessible to customers. Organizations are expected to make this process known to their customers and be clear about how they will respond to concerns.
Once policies and procedures are in place, organizations are expected to train all employees who either deal directly with members of the public or have a role in developing policies, practices or procedures relating to the provision of goods or services to members of the public. This training may be conducted using internal staff well-versed in the legislation and providing service to people with disabilities, or can be provided by external trainers.
The content of the training must review the purposes of both the AODA and the Standards, and should also give instruction on various specific types of interactions with persons with disabilities. Training is required on an ongoing basis, with updates for employees as policies change or new standards are developed.
Again, the Standards place an additional obligation on organizations with at least 20 employees, in that they are expected to document their training policy and keep detailed records about the delivery of the training to their employees.
Prepare Reports on Your Activities
In addition to the increased requirements to document all policies, practices and procedures, organizations with at least 20 employees are required to make these documents available to members of the public. Additionally, these organizations are required to certify and file accessibility reports online.
Failure to submit reports that confirm an organization’s compliance with the legislation can lead to a series of actions by the Accessibility Directorate of Ontario aimed at making organizations meet the Standards. Administrative monetary penalties are a part of this process, the amount of which will depend on the size and type of the organization, its compliance history and the impact of the failure to comply on persons with disabilities. The AODA ultimately allows for penalties of up to $50,000 per day for individuals in violation of the Act and $100,000 per day for corporations.