As of January 1, 2010, many public sector organizations in Ontario must be compliant with the “Accessibility Standards for Customer Service”, a regulation enacted under the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, 2005. The “designated public sector organizations” that must comply with the regulation include universities, hospitals, public transportation organizations, and various designated provincial boards, commissions, authorities and agencies.
While designated public sector organizations are the first organizations required to be compliant with the Accessibility Standards for Customer Service, private businesses, non-profit organizations and other service providers with at least one employee must become compliant by January 1, 2012.
ACCESSIBILITY STANDARDS FOR CUSTOMER SERVICE
Accessibility Standards for Customer Service is the first of several standards expected under the legislation and stipulates how affected organizations must meet customer service standards under the legislation. The requirements include, but are not limited to, the following:
- establishing policies, practices and procedures governing the provision of goods and services to persons with disabilities;
- making reasonable efforts to ensure that all such policies, practices and procedures are consistent with the core principles of independence, dignity, integration and equality of opportunity;
- allowing persons with disabilities to enter their premises accompanied by a service animal or support person, unless a service animal is excluded by law (the regulation also governs other aspects of accompaniment by service animals and support persons);
- giving notice of a temporary disruption in facilities or services that allow persons with disabilities to benefit from their goods or services;
- training all people who interact with the public on the organization’s behalf, as well as those persons who are involved in developing the organization’s policies and procedures, on a number of topics, including:
o how to interact and communicate with disabled persons;
o how to interact with disabled persons who use an assistive device or require the assistance of a guide dog, service animal or support person;
o how to use available equipment or devices that may help with the provision of goods and services to a person with a disability; and
o what to do if a disabled person is having difficulty accessing the organization’s goods or services.
- establishing a process a) by which people can provide feedback on how the organization provides goods or services to persons with disabilities, and b) describing how the organization will respond to such feedback and take action on complaints; and
- maintaining documents containing the general policies, feedback processes, and training materials (including policies and certain training records) developed pursuant to the requirements of the Accessibility Standards for Customer Service, as well as providing such documents to any person upon request.
Designated public sector organizations are required to file accessibility reports with the Accessibility Directorate of Ontario by March 31, 2010.
EMPLOYMENT ACCESSIBILITY STANDARDS
The Employment Accessibility Standards Development Committee has released its final proposed standards, which seek to improve access to employment by the disabled. These are currently under consideration, but have not yet been implemented. The standards would require employers to proactively identify, remove and prevent the establishment of barriers that hinder the participation in the workplace of persons with disabilities (in addition to fulfilling the obligations that employers in Ontario currently have under the Ontario Human Rights Code). Current minimum standards being considered would require employers to:
- Develop inclusive employment systems and procedures;
- Make accommodation for persons with disabilities during the recruitment, assessment, selection and hiring stages;
- Provide individualized accommodation to support employees with disabilities;
- Respect the privacy of information related to the accommodation of potential and existing employees; and
- Provide disability awareness training to employees.
CONSEQUENCES FOR NON-COMPLIANCE
The Directorate can make compliance orders, as well as impose administrative penalties on employers who are in breach of the Accessibility Standards. Designated public sector organizations still have time to become compliant before they face penalties or fines. A director has yet to be officially appointed, and a Tribunal has not been designated. The Directorate has also indicated that it does not plan to conduct investigations or issue fines until at least April 1, 2010. Moreover, the Directorate will likely first pursue a compliance strategy that emphasizes education rather than enforcement through fines and penalties. Current policy is that monetary penalties should only be levied as a “last resort” on those who ignore the directions issued by the Directorate.
HOW SHOULD ONTARIO PRIVATE SECTOR EMPLOYERS PREPARE?
Ontario private sector employers should begin reviewing their existing practices, policies and procedures to determine if they are compliant with the customer service and employment accessibility standards or to permit them to make the necessary changes before the requirements begin to apply to their organization beginning January 1, 2012. Current hiring practices, accommodation assessments, systems and procedures should be reviewed and the development of disability awareness training should be considered. The Ministry of Community and Social Services Employers has produced a “Compliance Manual” that can provide guidance to companies regarding the development of customer service accessibility practices, policies and procedures. This publication is available on the Ministry’s website at http://www.mcss.gov.on.ca.
The above synopsis is not an exhaustive description of the requirements under the Act. The full text of the Act and its associated regulations can be found here.