Cost Shouldn't Be an Excuse

But some wonder how far back retro-fitting facilities should go

Posted By Sean Meyer

March 18 th, 2009

The idea of equal access for the disabled people in Ontario might be a notion everyone can support, but the issue of how we can afford it is one that creates a lot of disagreement.

The Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) came into effect in 2005 and will eventually spell out what needs to be done by private and public businesses to achieve equal access for everyone. The legislation will establish standards with respect to goods, services, facilities, accommodation, employment, buildings, structures and premises on or before Jan. 1, 2025.

Roger Khouri, chairperson of London's accessibility advisory committee, is visually challenged and knows first-hand the obstacles he has to overcome in his day-to-day life. Mr. Khouri also understands there will be significant costs to implement the standards created by the legislation.

However, he also says cost should never be used as an excuse to not correct the inequality between the able-bodied and disabled communities.

"I think this is a very good step forward," Mr. Khouri says. "The Ontarians with Disabilities Act (the ODA created in 2001) was a good first step; it called for the creation of committees like mine. The AODA was built upon the ODA. It certainly sets ambitious targets for full accessibility. It will set up standards, goals to reach. It's trying to correct many, many years of our inaccessible society. It is something new and it is bound to raise eyebrows."

The act applies to people, businesses and other organizations in Ontario in both the public and private sectors and will focus on five specific areas: customer service; transportation; information and communications; built environment; and employment.

To show what these changes could cost the City of London alone, a report by the city to Madeleine Meilleur, minister of community and social services, states the cost to deliver just the recommendations – as they currently stand – in the area of information and communications services could fall between $13.5 and $39 million.

Gerry Macartney is someone definitely concerned about the costs involved in making London fully accessible.

Mr. Macartney, the London Chamber of Commerce's chief executive officer and general manager, says he accepts the money need to be spent moving forward in a more accessible world. However, he also questions whether making retroactive changes is realistic.

"Future costs are one thing," he says. "If you have to build in your costs, consumers will pay the price. But to retroactively issue standards, how far back do you go to accommodate people with disabilities?

"This is of course the worst of all times to get into this. Government will tell you there is no good time, if we put things off, they will never happen. But I believe they are looking at reaching too far back into the past."

Government, certainly that at the provincial level, is fully behind not only the AODA legislation, but also the spirit in which it was written.

Chris Bentley, Ontario's attorney general and London West MPP, says the AODA will benefit everyone in the long-run and adds people have to remember the changes aren't being called on to take place immediately.

"We need to make society more accessible," Mr. Bentley says. "When the legislation was being worked on we had members of the disabled community, business, the community all involved. All three groups supported the legislation. It's not as though we are doing this all today or tomorrow, there is time to adjust to the changes.

"We're all very concerned with the costs involved. But a lot of the changes will take place over time, leading up to 2025. Renovation, reconstruction, over those years a lot of the new standards would be incorporated anyway."

Mr. Macartney is less sure the private sector will be able to accommodate the kinds of changes that might be coming.

"You won't be able to budget ahead for it, we don't know yet how it will all end up," he says. "How much can anyone afford? Nobody is going to fight over future development. Going backwards is going to be the tough part. We are talking about hundreds of millions of dollars. I think the act is noble in intent and design. I see it being inevitable over time. Buildings go through rebuilding every 20 or 30 years. As new buildings are built, it is totally understandable they should be built to satisfy the standards. I don't think anyone would argue the challenged deserve equal access. But people are going to have to look and see what is viable for them, their business. That's the sad truth."

Mr. Khouri says he does agree, in the case of the physical property standards, that some buildings face greater challenges than others. He also believes the issues can be dealt with.

"There are valid concerns," he says. "Not every small business can afford what some of the standards might be set up to be. A lot of places you couldn't really make easily accessible. Steps for example. Every step is like 7 1/2 inches high or less per step up. If you had 12 steps up to the front door of a business that would be 84 inches of run. So how do you do that in some places? How do you find the space?"

While accepting some business may face unreachable costs to make their buildings full accessible, Mr. Khouri says people can find the way – if they are willing to look.

"We're going to have to get creative. Maybe you can make the front door accessible so you have to look at the back door. Maybe you need a doorbell someone can press and a staff member has to come out and help him or her in. I recognize there are physical limitations. If a business considers the standards an undue hardship then they can make a case to the human rights code. But there are also a lot of grants and subsidies to make places accessible. People just have to look."

Mr. Khouri has a few examples in mind.

"There's an accessible traffic signal system at Oxford and Richmond. You push a button and it starts to beep, telling the person when to cross. That's an example of taking an existing system, the traffic light, and implementing something to improve it. London Transit has an automated system for announcing stops, and it's great, but if you had your bus driver announcing stops, would the system cost as much? Sometimes the cost of accessibility is used as an excuse. Those in charge may not have seen another, cheaper way to do it. There are going to be growing pains correcting past mistakes. But certainly accessibility has to be considered going forward."

Mr. Bentley says another point to consider when discussing the importance of equal access is the reality people are living longer and that over time, more and more people will benefit from an accessible society.

"We're a society that's not getting any younger, we're living longer," he says. "It has been said one in five people will face some form of mobility challenge by 2025More and more people will be living with mobility-related challenges. For us all to live to our potential, we would have to accommodate that. Business will want to make sure and benefit from the purchasing power of a maturing population. That means we have to be equally accessible."

Article ID# 1481929

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