City Infrastructure Awaits Accessibility Rules

'It's going to mean a big change in how we do things'

Posted By Sean Meyer, March 25, 2009

By Jan. 1, 2025, public and private businesses will have to comply with the standards laid out under the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA).

And while some of those standards are still in the process of being created, others have been established and await implementation across the province. The legislation will establish standards with respect to goods, services, facilities, accommodation, employment, buildings, structures and premises.

Where is London today? How much will it cost to meet the standards established by the AODA? These questions, and many others, are difficult to answer, but the City of London has at least started down a road to great accessibility.

Thomas Johnson, London's director of corporate management support, says while the cost of implementing AODA standards is a significant issue, city staff are committed to meeting those standards.

"The City of London supports the intent of the legislation," he says. "We know there will be real costs. Money has been put aside to build up a reserve for implementation. There was $250,000 put aside in 2008 for AODA costs. I believe another $150,000 this year during the budget process.

The impact of OADA is far reaching, Mr. Johnson says.

"It's how the buses operate. It's about your doorways, are they wide enough. It's playgrounds and pathways. Basically anything made by human hands will be affected. It all represents a change as to how we operate. The public sector, but the business sector too."

To date, work done by London Transit - ahead of the AODA standards - represents the city's biggest movement towards greater accessibility. London Transit has invested in what it calls smart bus technology, which makes audio and visual announcements of next stop locations, as well as putting buses into service that tip down and extend ramps for the disabled.

London Public Library is also among those leading the way with wheelchair accessible washrooms, elevators, wider book stacks and specialized computer stations.

Making an investment in technology is one way to meet the new standards, says Grant Hopcroft, London's director of intergovernmental and community liaison, but making retroactive changes to items such as entire buildings creates serious issues.

"The ongoing issue is how soon we can move forward," he says. "On a new site, it's not any different, simply a new set of standards. But we don't know about the old ones, we don't know yet what the standards are going to be. That's what is at the core of the debate.

"We know there is a need. Whether it is doorways at London Life, or at Joe Kool's, or your home. We don't know yet what most of the standards will require."

Without all the standards being yet established, Mr. Hopcroft says he is uncomfortable predicting what the final financial costs might be.

"We can't reasonably talk costs until the full standards have been established," he says. "You can redo your kitchen, make it very nice, but if it's not affordable, you have a problem. That's why it's good this process has public consultation. The numbers are mindboggling in some cases. Just in the area of transportation we are talking $14 million over 18 years. There will be real costs, but we can only guestimate what they will be."

Mr. Johnson agrees.

"One of the new areas could be washrooms," he says. "The current dimensions of a bathroom stall could be X, but the new standards are X-plus one. So we don't know yet if what we have done in the past is going to be enough. These are potentially significant costs that could be a big drain on the tax levy. Never mind the planning and the work involved. It's going to represent a big change in how we do things. But until the standards are established, we just don't know."

While the cost of implementing the AODA standards is an issue, so too is the price of not complying with it.

Roger Khouri, chairperson of London's accessibility advisory committee, is visually challenged and says the key issue is one of correcting past mistakes, not necessarily the price of those changes.

"Personally I think it is a very ambitious time frame," Mr. Khouri says. "If given more time, people would keep putting things off. It keeps people on their toes with firm targets. If people use common sense, they can build their business or provide their service very easily.

"The act is trying to impose things at a policy level, so we don't have to go back and keep changing things. Setting the standards is a lengthy, exhaustive process. But the approach is very good because you will be talking to stakeholders, businesses, lay people, the disabled, to draft the standards everyone can accept. It's a worthwhile process. It's almost a part-time job in some cases."

Mr. Khouri has learned, while dealing first hand with his own disability, is that society hasn't been quick to recognize the challenges faced by the disabled community.

"When I was in high school I thought there were things that just didn't make sense," he says. "If you go to a bank, why are the counters so high? If they were lower, an able-bodied person would just have to bend down a little. A mobility challenged person though could use the counter too.

"Another example, when I was in high school the academic counselling area was upstairs. If you were disabled, you had to book in advance to meet someone because there were no elevators. People just weren't thinking about accessibility."

While many questions remain about what is coming in the future, Mr. Hopcroft says London has - in many ways - taken a lead when it comes to accessibility.

"Customer service will mostly develop new policies and training requirements, an awareness of practice and procedures," Mr. Hopcroft says. "Those can be reasonably well integrated. We have spent money to date; we will be spending more. Real hard dollars are what we will be spending. We've been recognized for our design standards. Our facilities have employed accessible design standards, developed proactively in London, seven or eight years ago and we've updated since then. We have standards that are now being used by other cities."

To his way of thinking, Mr. Khouri says whatever standards are established by the act, they are necessary to make Ontario a fair and equal community for all.

"Does it go too far? Does it go far enough?" he asks. "From what I have seen, I believe a lot of people are satisfied things have to change. It's an attitude change. It's not about profits, it's about giving everyone the same level of service. If you need to print Braille menus, that's an expense, but you will recoup those costs. It should be about hosting everyone, so then your information has to be in a format everyone can read. If you can't read it because you can't see it or because it's a different language, then you can't order it. It will force people to change how they think. It's about educating people about the challenges the disabled face. As a person who wants to receive service, why should I have to wait?"

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