On Thursday, May 21, 2015, internationally celebrated as Global Access Awareness Day, the interim Chief Commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, Ruth Goba, released an important public statement on disability accessibility. She explicitly endorsed the AODA Alliance's call for a strategy to ensure that the 2015 Toronto Pan/ParaPan American Games leave behind a legacy of increased accessibility of stores, restaurants, and other tourism/hospitality services.
"In several statements, the AODA Alliance has called for the Games to have a disability accessibility legacy. We support this call, and believe the legacy should include improvements made before the Games begin, and steps to overcome barriers that we learn about during the event."
The AODA Alliance isdelighted that they have received this support. The Ontario Human Rights Commission is the Ontario Government's official watchdog on human rights issues, including on the human rights of people with disabilities.
The Government has declared that a major role of the Ontario Human Rights Commission is to speak out on human rights issues, to set important directions for the public and private sector to follow.
The Alliance urges the Government to now listen to and quickly act on the advice of its own human rights watchdog. Were the Government to disregard this, it would set a poor example for other public and private sector organizations that the Commission addresses with its policy statements on diverse human rights issues.
The AODA Alliance has led a vigorous campaign since August 2013, to press the Ontario Government to ensure that the 2015 Games leave behind a strong disability accessibility legacy, including, for example, significant increases in accessibility of tourism and hospitality services like restaurants, hotels, taxis, and public transit, and increased accessibility of para-sporting programs across Ontario. So far, with the 2015 Games only
49 days away, the Ontario Government has still announced no plans for such a legacy.
Although the Games are fast approaching, it is not too late for last-ditch focused Government action on this issue. The AODA Alliance now has good reason to believe that money could be available to help, if the Government will show the strong leadership on this issue that we need.
On May 21, 2015, former Ontario Premier David Peterson, chair of the 2015 Games, reportedly made a public statement on the 2015 Games. According to a public tweet on Twitter by widely-respected journalist Steve Paikin, Peterson announced that the Games are on schedule, and are 56 million dollars under budget. Steve Paikin's tweet stated:
@Steve Paikin: "Everything is on time and $56m under budget," says Peterson.
The AODA Alliance then tweeted:
"@spaikin so why not spend some of that $56 million on unkept promise of #accessibility legacy in tourism/hospitality? #aoda"
It is certainly not enough that the Games' sporting facilities and athletes' village be fully accessible. For the many people with disabilities who want to venture beyond that bubble, there is a strong need for tourists and athletes with disabilities, as well as their friends and family members who accompany them, to have a wide array of accessible options of places to eat, to stay, to shop, and to get around.
The Alliance remains profoundly concerned that Toronto and the other communities hosting the Toronto 2015 Games are simply not ready to effectively accommodate the needs of tourists and athletes with disabilities who venture out of the small bubble of the sports stadiums and athletes' village. If tourists and athletes with disabilities want to eat in our restaurants, shop in our stores, visit our tourism sites, take a taxi, ride public transit, or even find a place to go to the bathroom, they will run up against the many pervasive barriers which have impeded Ontarians with disabilities for years.
Back on August 28, 2013, the Wynne Government unveiled its plans for the legacy of the Toronto 2015 Games. Yet it then announced nothing about disability accessibility, especially in the context of increasing the accessibility of tourism and hospitality services in Ontario. To fill this gap, on October 1, 2013, the AODA Alliance released our own detailed and constructive proposal for a positive tourism/hospitality accessibility legacy for the Toronto 2015 Games. We have spent many months urging the Government to act on this, without success.
In her September 25, 2014 Mandate Letter to the Minister responsible for the Toronto 2015 Games, Michael Coteau, Premier Wynne commendably set as a priority for him: "Working with stakeholders to make Ontario a more accessible and barrier-free tourist destination." That direction has not been turned into effective action.
In yesterday's public statement, the Human Rights Commission warned:
"At the same time, Ontario runs a very real risk of not meeting its own human rights standards when accommodating people with disabilities."
It is still not too late for the Ontario Government to step up to the plate.
We urge the Government to launch a last-minute blitz to help get stores, restaurants and other hospitality/ tourism providers to rally at the last minute.
It does not take long for a restaurant to order a Braille menu, or make sure its menu is posted in an accessible format on its web site. Even ramps to bridge a few steps at the front door can be put in place relatively quickly.
A serious blitz could be deployed to ensure that restaurants do not block people with disabilities with service animals, and hotels don't try to charge them an illegal pet fee.
The Ontario Government can also help by taking steps to get municipalities not to impede local businesses, like stores and restaurants, who want to do the right thing by installing ramps at their front door. Sadly, the City of Toronto has still not withdrawn its efforts to force the Signs Restaurant to remove the accessibility ramp at its front door. Such destructive municipal conduct can scare stores and restaurants away from doing the right thing.
The Ontario Human Rights Commission's May 21, 2015 statement commendably referred to the problem of municipal by-laws that impede the provision of accessibility. It correctly emphasizes that the Human Rights Code prevails in such situations. We have made this point over and over regarding the City of Toronto's attempt to force the Signs Restaurant to remove its front door ramp. The Commission stated:
"In some cases, we have to ask whether accommodations that reflect the spirit of the Human Rights Code are okay, even if they may conflict in a small way with a municipal rule or practice. When accommodation and Code requirements conflict with other requirements, it's time to look more closely at the rule or practice, to make sure the rule itself does not discriminate."
The Mayo Moran AODA Independent Review Report recently highlighted the importance of the Government using the Toronto 2015 Games to increase the accessibility of Ontario as a tourism destination.
We are not aware of any public announcement by the Ontario Government on accessibility, to show new action on May 21, 2015 as Global Access Awareness Day. Yet the Government claims it is "Number One" in the world on taking action on accessibility. We urge the Government to try to live up to those words, by acting on the Ontario Human Rights Commission's statement. Its cutbacks on the AODA's enforcement are especially counterproductive. We need the Government acting now to ensure that tourism/hospitality providers are obeying the law.