In 2005, The Ontario Public Service (OPS) enacted the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA). Their goal is to create an accessible Ontario for everybody. The AODA aims to improve accessibility standards and provide opportunities for all people to participate in all aspects of life.
Enforced by the Ministry of Community and Social Services, employers are obligated to follow AODA. Contraventions of the Act can be very costly to employers, in the form of both fines and lost revenues. Corporate penalties for non-compliance to the AODA can reach a maximum of $100,000 per day. Yes — per day. This is in addition to a potential loss of revenue.
The AODA by The Numbers
Ignoring the AODA is not just costly if you get caught. It is estimated that by 2031 the aging population and the disabled population together will represent 536 billion dollars in income in Canada. They will spend 9.6 billion dollars on retail and 1.6 billion on tourism. Does your business want a cut of that revenue? Without accessibility for all Ontarians, it will be impossible for people with disabilities to patronize inaccessible establishments, resulting in lost revenue potentially in the billions.
It is estimated that 360,000 businesses in Ontario are expected to be in compliance with the AODA. These businesses need to meet the needs of everyone in the population in order to attract spending power. If you think that online shopping is a cure-all for accessibility, remember that there are AODA guidelines for websites as well, to increase readability for the blind or seeing impaired, subtitled videos for the deaf, specific font sizes for those with diminished reading ability, etc.
The AODA is about more than physical accessibility, although that is a big piece! AODA includes customer service standards, an attitude shift, changes to how information is communicated, organizational changes, accessible physical and architectural structures, and special allowances for support people and animals.
Historic Abuse of People with Disabilities in Ontario
An unnamed Ontario employer made a very costly error when they chose to ignore the AODA. The employer was known to employ up to ten individuals at any given time that had intellectual disabilities. These individuals performed tasks similar to employees without intellectual disabilities. The only difference? The employer paid the workers with intellectual disabilities $1.25 per hour, while they paid the rest of the staff minimum wage or above.
In 1999, Mary Schmidt* was hired at the rate of $1.25 per hour. She has an intellectual disability. Mary was pleased to be working, felt very productive and proud of the work she was doing and looked forward to work every day. She was so happy with her job, in fact, that she worked for ten years for the employer. Her guardian was aware of the wage disparity but assumed it was legal since the employer was known to frequently hire people with intellectual disabilities. It wasn’t until Mary was let go suddenly, without cause, after ten years of loyal service that her guardian started questioning the practices of the employer.
Originally concerned with being wrongfully terminated, Mary and her guardian obtained council. It was during a meeting with them that Mary and her guardian realized that Mary’s pay rate was illegal. Although the AODA was contravened, Mary’s employer was actually charged with violating the Ontario Human Rights Code, an even more serious offence. They had to pay Mary $142,000 in back wages, $19,000 for the wrong termination, and $25,000 for injury to her feelings, dignity, and self-respect.
Trying to get a “deal” on the wages of a person with an intellectual disability ended up costing this employer dearly. The owner of the business was forced to file personal bankruptcy. Unfortunately, despite winning her ruling, Mary hasn’t fared well since. She has been unable to obtain steady employment since losing her job, a common problem among intellectually disabled adults. While AODA aims to improve the outlook for the 66,000 unemployed intellectually disabled adults in Ontario, there is still progress that needs to be made.
A New Standard in Customer Service
An Ontario restaurateur was found guilty of not accommodating a customer diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder with germaphobia; under the AODA, disability includes mental health diagnoses. The complainant frequented an establishment where he was given special accommodation, including being seated in a specific booth each time, having the booth wiped while he watched and before he sat down, and having his water served with no lemon or straw. Staff were happy to accommodate him and did so until new management took over. It was then that the new manager called the complainant “high maintenance” and told him that “he knows why police shoot crazy people like you.”
The complainant in the case was awarded $12,000 because the restaurant owner failed to act in accordance with AODA, which stipulates that reasonable efforts must be made to accommodate in a manner that respects dignity and independence.
The AODA and Customer Service Excellence
The AODA highlights ways in which customer service standards can be changed in order to better serve adults with disabilities in Ontario. Below are just a few of the recommendations made in the AODA:
- Never touch or handle assistive devices without permission
- Never move a person in a wheelchair without permission
- If you do have permission to move a wheelchair, place it in a dignified position (not facing a wall, not in an awkward area, etc.)
- Allow service animals
- Never interact with service animals
- Speak directly to the customer – not the support worker or translator
- If you are unsure of the best way to communicate – ask!
The AODA Training
The AODA has been implemented in sequential phases across the province, starting in 2005 with an end-date of 2025. Employers must make adjustments both to their customer service standards and also to the workplace, in order to accommodate any disabled Ontarian who may be employed (now or later) by the establishment.
All employees and volunteers, no matter paid or unpaid must have completed training on the AODA. There are many online training resources available in order to learn more about the AODA, how it affects your business, and how you can accommodate clients. OSG provides online AODA training for employers to ensure their workplaces are up to date. Implementing policies and procedures which provide accessible goods and services to customers will increase customer satisfaction and essentially provide an accessible workplace for employees.
The province of Ontario has a goal to be fully accessible by 2025. Of the 360,000 businesses expected to adhere to the AODA, yours can’t afford not to make the changes necessary to accommodate all Ontarians. The AODA benefits everybody by creating a safe, healthy, and accessible province for all.
Written by Jennifer Miller | Curriculum Development Coordinator