The Ontario government enacted the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) in 2005 to ensure Ontarians with disabilities are able to obtain full access to goods, services, accommodations, employment, buildings and premises. On January 1, 2012, the first set of obligations under the AODA, many of which have been binding on Ontario's public sector since 2010, will become binding on private sector corporations and organizations operating in Ontario.
The AODA promotes accessibility by authorizing the government to create legally binding "standards" in collaboration with persons with disabilities and industry representatives. Four standards have been developed to date: the Customer Service Standard, Transportation Standard, Employment Standard and Information and Communication Standard. Provisions of these standards come into effect at varying times, as will be discussed below. A fifth standard, known as the Built Environment Standard, is presently under development. The Built Environment Standard will seek to ensure that persons with disabilities are able to access newly constructed or renovated buildings and premises. Notably, each of the standards operates in addition to the Ontario Human Rights Code, which remains in effect.
The customer service standard
The standard that currently has the greatest impact on Ontario employers is the Customer Service Standard, which will become binding on private sector organizations on January 1, 2012.
The Customer Service Standard applies to every person or organization with at least one employee in Ontario that "provides goods or services to members of the public or other third parties." Although the term "other third parties" is not defined, the government has indicated it refers to organizations that may supply goods or services to other businesses rather than to the public at large. For example, a manufacturer who provides goods to wholesalers must comply with the Customer Service Standard when interacting with employees of the wholesaler in the same manner as a retailer who provides goods directly to the public.
The Customer Service Standard imposes several specific requirements on organizations to ensure the goods and services they provide are accessible to their individual customers or to the employees of their corporate customers, as the case may be.
Policies and practices
First and foremost, the Customer Service Standard requires organizations to create policies and practices that set out how they will provide goods and services to persons with disabilities, including policies that set out whether assistive devices (e.g., wheelchairs or Braille readers) will be provided to customers and, whether or not assistive devices are provided, how employees of the organization will respectfully interact with persons who are using assistive devices while accessing the organization's products and services. The organization must inform its customers of these policies and must provide them to any interested person on request, in an accessible format it required.
Notification of interruptions in services
The organization must also take steps to alert persons with disabilities to an interruption in the organization's ability to provide goods and services. At a minimum, the organization must post a notice of the disruption, the reasons for it, and alternate facilities or services that can be used instead. The organization's policies must set out the steps the organization will take in the event its facilities or services are disrupted.
Service animals and support persons
If the organization allows the public or other third parties onto its premises, it must allow them to bring service animals (e.g., guide dogs) and support persons onto the premises with them. If bringing animals onto the premises is illegal, for example, for health reasons in certain types of food-related operations, the organization must provide other measures that will allow the customer to access its goods and services.
Of course, policies and practices are often only as good as the people who implement them. As a result, the Customer Service Standard requires organizations to train their employees on how to serve persons with disabilities in a respectful and dignified manner. Training must include (but is not limited to):
- How to interact and communicate with persons with various types of disabilities;
- How to interact with people who use assistive devices or, if applicable, service animals/support persons;
- How to use equipment or devices available on the organization's premises that help disabled persons to access goods and services; and
- What to do if a person with a particular type of disability is having trouble accessing goods or services.
Training must be provided as soon as the employee starts working and must be done on an ongoing basis. Details about the training should be documented. Specifically, the date and time the training was held, the topics discussed during the training session and the attendees at the training should all be recorded.
Finally, the Customer Service Standard requires organizations to create a written feedback procedure to allow members of the public to provide feedback about how the organization serves or provides goods to persons with disabilities. The organization must be flexible in how it accepts feedback, recognizing that individuals with disabilities may need to provide feedback by alternate methods.
Upcoming obligations under other standards
Although the Customer Service Standard is the only accessibility standard that will apply in its entirety to private sector organizations on January 1, 2012, certain obligations under other standards will also take effect on that date.
In particular, under the Employment Standard, organizations whose employees have disabilities that may necessitate emergency response measures must provide those employees with appropriate emergency response information in a format that can be read or understood by the employee in light of his or her disability.
In addition, under the Information and Communications Standard, any organization that produces emergency information for the public must ensure it is provided in an accessible format, if requested. For example, a large-font version of the emergency information may be appropriate for the visually impaired. An organization must also be receptive to requests for alternate formats of its emergency information from members of the public with disabilities.
The majority of the remaining obligations enacted under the Employment Standard and the Information and Communications Standard, as well as the Transportation Standard, will not become binding on private sector organizations with 50 or more employees until 2016 and private sector organizations with fewer than 50 employees until 2017. However, by 2014 employers will be required to create a written policy outlining how the obligations imposed by the various standards will be complied with up to and including the 2017 implementation date. Training in respect of the policy will be required.
Although the various standards establish regulatory requirements for the practices and policies of organizations in Ontario, their fundamental focus is on ensuring persons with disabilities are able to fully participate in employment, transportation, accommodation and access to goods and services. Each organization should review its own particular facilities and operations to determine what steps will be required to accomplish this laudable goal.
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