Why is the PC government blocking a critical plan to improve the lives of disabled Ontarians?
“Mr Premier, do you care?”
The question centres on an analysis of the PC government’s progress toward transforming Ontario into a fully accessible province.
The work, by Rich Donovan, CEO of Return on Disability Group, is the latest in a long line of reviews of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) that have repeatedly pointed out how successive governments have failed to implement measures under the Act or enforce the standards it mandates. The Act allows the Ontario government to implement and enforce standards around accessibility on everything from technology to the physical design of all spaces in the province. Since the legislation came into effect almost twenty years ago, it has largely been recognized as a failure by those living with disabilities in Ontario.
In his interim report, published in March, Donovan concluded the entire regime for enforcing and applying the AODA in Ontario is “an unequivocal failure”.
The reasons for this, he wrote, are “straightforward and predictable”. Donovan points to a lack of data collection by the Province and the total absence of any plan to change how “Ontario will get from where it currently is to where it needs to be.”
There are no accountability mechanisms, and “the result is a series of failures and missed opportunities that has spanned 17 years.”
The damning findings from Mr. Donovan were meant to be the first of two public reports as part of the fourth Independent Review of progress on the AODA. A final report, including recommendations and a plan for improvement was delivered by Donovan to the PC government in June. The PCs have refused to make it public.
This is a violation of the AODA, Section 41(4) which states the report must be made public. This is only the latest example of a government that has stonewalled accessibility advocates since Premier Doug Ford’s election in 2018.
“This is the first Premier in two decades who has refused to even meet with us,” David Lepofsky, Chair of the non-partisan AODA Alliance, told The Pointer. This is despite a letter sent to the AODA from Ford ahead of his election where he stated, “Your issues are close to the hearts of our Ontario PC Caucus and Candidates, which is why they will play an outstanding role in shaping policy for the Ontario PC Party to assist Ontarians in need.”
Lepofksy says Raymond Cho, Minister for Seniors and Accessibility since 2018, initially maintained contact with his organization. But for the last two years, there has been no response from Cho or his ministerial staff to the AODA’s questions or concerns.
“This is the fourth independent review, and every one of the independent reviews called on the government of the day to do a lot better and no government has kept the report secret for this long,” Lepofsky says.
David Lepofsky, chair of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance, says the PC government is the first in two decades to refuse to meet with his organization.
A request for the report filed using freedom of information legislation by Lepofsky was denied, with the government claiming its release would reveal Cabinet deliberations and noting it would soon be made public. The Freedom of Information and Privacy Protection Act (FIPPA) states a request may be denied if there are reasonable grounds to believe the records could be published within 90 days.
Lepofsky says the reasons are “transparently bogus”.
“They say they cannot disclose this report because disclosing it would reveal Cabinet deliberations. However, none of the three prior AODA Independent Reviews ever mentioned Cabinet deliberations and there is no proof Cabinet has spent so much as thirty seconds discussing the Donovan final report,” Lepofsky wrote in an AODA press release. He adds that even if there were contents of Cabinet deliberations included in the report, normal practice would be to black-out those sections and release the remainder of the document.
“The Disabilities Act absolutely requires the government to make this report public, whether or not that would reveal Cabinet discussions. The Government’s letter confirms that it intends to eventually make the Rich Donovan final report public, so that its stated concern about revealing secret Cabinet discussions is obviously a smoke screen,” added Lepofsky. “The Government vaguely says that the Accessibility Ministry anticipates that the Government will table Donovan’s final report in the Legislature ‘in the near future’ without giving a specific commitment on when it will end its foot-dragging.”
The PC government has not publicly shown concern about the incredibly tight timeline it is working under.
The AODA, passed in 2005, gave the government authority to enforce standards for accessibility across Ontario with the ultimate goal of making the province fully accessible by 2025.
It has little more than a year left, and Donovan’s interim report makes it clear that without significant change this goal will be impossible to achieve. Right now, the PC government has no plan for how it will reach this target.
“Not only don’t they have a plan, but they’re not making public the recommendations, wasting more time, when we’ve got very little time to waste,” Lepofsky says.
This lack of action from successive governments impacts the lives of at least 2.9 million people in Ontario who currently live with some form of disability.
The government has the ability to create and enforce accessibility standards around information and community; employment, transportation, design and public spaces, and customer service, but Donovan finds that for the most part they have failed to uphold and enforce these standards in any meaningful way.
The government has failed to adequately plan for the monumental task of ensuring standards are followed in Ontario. Nearly 460,000 organizations are subject to AODA standards, including municipalities, institutions, and private businesses, but the government only has 25 people tasked with enforcing these standards, leaving many of these entities tasked with self-reporting compliance or violations.
“A good example of a narrow technical investigation is website accessibility, for which 600 audits have occurred. Over 17 years. For 460,000 organizations,” Donovan reveals.
Government stakeholders told Donovan there was a “lack of urgency in the government to get this right.”
“There was almost unanimous consensus that the AODA is currently failing people with disabilities,” Donovan wrote.
Unfortunately, this declaration is not new.
Reviews of the AODA have been conducted in 2010, 2014 and 2019, all of these independent reviews appointed by the provincial governments of the day have come to the same conclusion.
In 2010, reviewer Charles Beer found there were “concerns” with how the AODA had been implemented over the first five years.
In 2014, reviewer Mayo Moran concluded “the pace of change is seen as agonizingly slow by persons with disabilities.”
Then in 2019, reviewer David Onley told the Ford government that progress toward implementing the AODA was “glacial”, leaving Ontario filled with “soul-crushing barriers” for people with disabilities.
This failure extends to the government itself, which has failed inside its own walls to make things fully accessible.
“The government of Ontario should be the North Star of accessibility in the province. At present this is not the case. Enforcement of the AODA is difficult when its owner has not complied with the standards. A rapid and substantive improvement of accessibility within the Ontario government is needed to establish credibility on this file.”
Repeated requests by The Pointer for comment on the failure to release Donovan’s report, as well as requests to obtain the document were not addressed by the Ministry for Seniors and Accessibility.
“The current state of accessibility in Ontario is poor,” Donovan wrote. “So poor, that many people with disabilities report little change in experience over the past 17 years.”
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