The year 2017 marks a major milestone for the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA), and many businesses and non-profits across the province are taking notice to ensure they comply.
AODA’s accessible employment requirements took effect on Jan. 1, 2016 for companies with 50 or more employees. All remaining companies from 1-49 employees will also be subject to those same rules by Jan. 1, 2017. The only exemption is for people who are self-employed and do not have employees.
Any kind of employee-employer relationship, including full-time, part-time, seasonal, and contract, is included. Volunteers and third-party delivery services are not counted as employees.
Representatives of the Ontario Chamber of Commerce – whose member companies employ over two million people and produce nearly 17 percent of Ontario’s GDP, according to the OCC – have been criss-crossing the province speaking to businesses to help them understand how to comply and to dispel myths about the legislation.
“Companies need to understand what it means to them, but once they know, it gets a warm reception,” says Louie DiPalma, Director of SME Programs & Global Growth Fund Contact for the OCC.
“Organizations are really interested in seeing how they can improve.”
The AODA covers five accessibility standards: customer service, employment, information and communications, transportation and the design of public spaces.
There are also “general requirements” – these are common requirements that cut across standards, such as training, and accessibility policies.
The standards are being phased in so that requirements can be integrated into regular business planning.
Accessibility requirements for customer service, public safety and emergency information for staff took effect for all organizations on January 1, 2012.
This year, aside from implementing accessible employment requirements, companies with 50 or more employees also had to make all their public information accessible on request as of January1st.
Companies with 50 or more employees also have until January 1, 2017 to make their new or redeveloped public spaces accessible, including parking lots, service counters and waiting areas. Those with fewer than 50 employees have until January 1, 2018 to meet that requirement.
Companies with fewer than 50 employees were required to train their staff on Ontario’s accessibility laws by January 1, 2016 and make it easy for people with disabilities to provide feedback on request.
Employers with less than 50 employees also have until January 1, 2017 to make their public information accessible on request.
The goal of the act is to make Ontario accessible for people with disabilities by 2025, and that includes all aspects of the employment cycle, from recruitment to retention and promotion.
The employment requirements do not compel private sector businesses or non-profits to hire people with disabilities, but it is closely linked to the “duty to accommodate” provisions of the Ontario Human Rights Code.
Organizations have requirements under the AODA, and also have ongoing obligations under the Code.
“There is a misconception out there that all you have to do on accessibility is meet the requirements of the AODA standards,” says David Lepofsky, a lawyer and advocate for people with disabilities.
“The important thing for businesses to understand is they have to comply with the Ontario Human Rights Code, and the code prevails over the AODA,” adds Lepfosky.
For example, a business might look at the AODA standards and think they don’t have to meet the requirement to make all websites and web content accessible, or that they at least have until 2021 if they are a company with 50 or more employees.
“That’s wrong,” Lepfosky says. “The AODA standard may say they don’t have to do it for several years, but the human rights code prevails, and unfortunately, a lot of businesses still don’t know that.”
The AODA standards do not limit, replace or change obligations under the Ontario Human Rights Code or any other legislation. The code may require additional accommodation measures that go beyond, or are different from, the accessibility standards established under the AODA.
The AODA says that if there is a conflict between it or one of its accessibility standards and any other provincial Act or regulation, the final authority is the law that gives people with disabilities the highest level of accessibility.
French-language television station and media organization TFO decided to be more proactive after consulting people with disabilities, and identifying priority changes for website accessibility, says TFO Web Editor Valery Vlad.
“We decided some criteria of the law planned for 2021 should be done immediately, because there is a need,” says Vlad.
“When you talk to people with disabilities, you realize it is more than a question of respect, it is a question of discrimination.”
AODA’s definition of disability is the same as the Code. It includes vision loss, blindness, hearing loss or deafness, brain injury, speech impairments, diabetes, epilepsy, and developmental, learning and mental health disabilities.
The disability can be permanent, temporary - like having a broken leg - or recurring or episodic - such as multiple sclerosis and Lupus.
For the accessible employment requirements, it starts when any job is about to be posted. It should first be reviewed for any unnecessary barriers that are not related to the job that may inadvertently be contained in the posting.
Besides posting the job information online, it should also be communicated in other ways, such as by print or phone, because not everyone can access a computer.
The posting should notify employees and the public that the employer welcomes and encourages applications from people with disabilities and will accommodate their needs on request if they are selected for an interview.
Barrington Hector, a labour market facilitator for Community Living Ontario’s Ready, Willing and Able initiative, has been answering an increasing number of queries from business about what the AODA employment standard means for them when it comes to hiring and onboarding procedures.
“Businesses seem very open to talking about inclusion in the workplace, but sometimes they just don’t know how to go about it,” says Hector.
“For the people who we work with, those with intellectual disabilities, an interview accommodation might include having a support person in place,” he says, “or you might change your interviewing tactics, so that you do a walk-around interview, for instance, rather than sitting down in a room, which can be daunting and make people nervous.”
About 70 per cent of disabilities are non-visible, according to the Foundation for Philanthropy Canada (AFP). In addition, almost half of employed adults aged 15 to 64 in Ontario who report having unmet needs for workplace accommodation for their disability say their employer is not aware of the need, according to a study based on a combination of data from Stats Can’s 2012 Canadian Survey on Disability and the 2011 National Household Survey.
When all employees know what their employer has put in place to support them, people with a non-visible disability may be more likely to come forward and request accommodation.
Sometimes accommodation is required earlier, when candidates for various industries such real estate are first required to be students or consumers of training that is pre-requisite for employment.
The Ontario Real Estate Association provides all real estate licensing courses in Ontario and operates a college for training salespersons and brokers. OREA College advertises its accessibility policies on its website, and last year received 123 requests for accommodation out of 54,000 student enrollments.
“The vast majority of requests involve giving people extra time to write the exam, or a private room to write the test,” says OREA College Director Shelley Koral.
“Sometimes they need the questions read to them, or they need the use a dictionary, or require staff to help them fill in their answers to multiple choice questions, or to magnify the text,” says Koral, adding that graduates have no issue finding employment because of the high demand from real estate brokerages looking for new recruits.
In the workplace, barriers can also include organizational policies and architectural design.
AODA does not require businesses to retrofit their buildings to accommodate people with disabilities. Changes to buildings are regulated by the Ontario Building Code, and only apply to new buildings or offices undergoing major renovation.
But some argue that a pro-active attitude in favour of universal design principles benefits every employee, as well as the organization as a whole, not just people with disabilities.
Universal design principles state that everything from the way work is structured to the physical design of the building should be tailored for “the person who is least able,” says Rafael Gomez, director of the University of Toronto’s Centre for Industrial Relations and Human Resources.
“Why do we need stairs anywhere? Ramps are easier, even for people who don’t have disabilities,” says Gomez. “Even washrooms with curved entrances are easier to get in and out of, and because there are no handles, there is less chance of spreading germs.”
Gomez says companies should also consider being more flexible, such as allowing people to work from home.
“Why not accommodate people with different schedules? You’ll get more from them if you do.”
Business resources, guidelines and tools for AODA are available at www.ontario.ca/accessibility
 OCC Accessibility Works: The AODA Employment Standard for Businesses with 50+ Employees