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Ontario’s election is the most important one in 20 years, say accessibility advocates | CBC News

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Danielle Kane used to think that Ontario was a fairly accessible place.

“In a country like Canada, in a province like Ontario, I figured accessibility must be pretty good,” she said. “I see the signs for handicapped washrooms everywhere, and parking buttons. So I’m thinking, OK, our province must have things under control.”

But that all changed in 2018, when a lone gunman killed two people and injured 13 in a mass shooting on Danforth Avenue in Toronto. 

Kane was one of the victims. Her permanent injuries mean she now uses a wheelchair, and she now understands all too well the widespread barriers that exist for people with disabilities.

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Danielle Kane has used a wheelchair since being shot by a gunman on the Danforth in Toronto in 2018. Even though she lives across the street from a park, she has to take the long way around to get to it because there’s no curb cut on her side of the street. (Pelin Sidki/CBC)

“Once you factor things in like weather, snow being cleared, ice being cleared, or the lack of elevators in certain buildings or transit points or, if there is an elevator, does it work? If there’s an accessible door, does the button work?” said Kane.

“You’d be surprised how many times there’s an extra step in front of a storefront that prevents me from being able to access it independently.”

It wasn’t supposed to be this way, however.

In 2005, the Ontario government unanimously passed the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA), which calls for the province to be fully accessible by 2025.

It will fall to whichever party is elected Thursday to meet that deadline, which is why those with disabilities say this election is the most important one in nearly two decades.

But no matter who’s elected, they are unlikely to meet that legislated promise. Although some improvements have been made since 2005, many barriers remain for the more than 2.6 million people in Ontario — including 300,000 students — that the government estimates have a disability. 

Throughout his entire term, as premier, [he] refused to even meet us.– David Leposky, chair of the AODA Alliance, on PC Leader Doug Ford

David Onley, Ontario’s former lieutenant governor and a wheelchair user himself, delivered a report to the Progressive Conservative government in 2019 on what needed to be done to improve accessibility in Ontario. 

Three years later, he said little has been done to fulfil the report’s recommendations — and told CBC earlier this year it was “astounding” so little progress had been made.

Onley said he was particularly concerned that Ontario is still failing on issues like employment equity. Advocates argue that people with disabilities are underemployed, often due to misperceptions about their ability or a lack of supports in the workplace.

Other issues, he said, include social assistance and even the physical accessibility of schools and other buildings.

From social assistance to sidewalks

When Anthony Frisina ran out of milk last week, he couldn’t just dash out to the local grocery store to pick up a litre.

Frisina also uses a wheelchair, and couldn’t get a same-day appointment with Hamilton’s paratransit service.

“There’s no spontaneity when it comes to a person with a disability wanting to hang out with a group of friends,” said Frisina, a media representative for the Ontario Disability Coalition.

“You have to make plans a few days in advance to get to the desired place that you need to be.”

The City of Hamilton has ordered one-third of its paratransit fleet off the road due to safety concerns. (Supplied by DARTS)

In Hamilton, the situation has become even worse, as one third of paratransit vehicles had to be removed from service because of safety concerns. 

In Ottawa, accessibility advocates have decried a pilot project for e-scooters — now going into its third year — because many of them are left on sidewalks, endangering people with mobility and sight issues. And many companies don’t comply with accessibility standards for their websites, which include video captioning for people with hearing problems and descriptive audio for people with sight impairments. 

All in a Day8:18E-scooter project criticized amid accessibility concerns

The e-scooter pilot project may be returning despite the dangers posed to certain pedestrians

However, one advocate says that the most important way the government is failing people with disabilities is the low level of funding to the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP).

“We hear from community members who are skipping meals regularly, who cannot afford to eat fresh fruit foods at all, who cannot get the foods that they need for their own health concerns,” said Wendy Porch, executive director for the Toronto-based Centre for Independent Living.

Porch’s organization is run by people with disabilities and is designed to help others with disabilities live independently in Toronto.

One of the major barriers to accessibility, she said, is poverty. While it’s not expressly mentioned in the AODA, Porch argues that allowing people to live below the poverty line doesn’t meet the spirit of the act.

As well, there is “a complete and utter lack of accessible and deeply affordable housing for disabled people,” Porch said.

PC Leader Doug Ford was the only premier who didn’t meet with the AODA Alliance since Mike Harris, according to their chair. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC)

PCs promising nothing, refuse to answer questionnaire

The AODA Alliance is the key advocacy group for the legislation, and as it did in 2018, it sent the major political parties a detailed questionnaire asking what they would do to remove accessibility barriers.

The Progressive Conservatives have not responded, said David Lepofsky, the AODA chair and a visiting professor of disability rights at the Osgoode Hall Law School. Nor have they made any commitments in their platform.

“Premier Ford is the first conservative leader in almost two decades — indeed, the first leader of any major political party in almost two decades — who’s refused to even answer our request for election commitments,” Lepofsky said. 

“And throughout his entire term as premier, [he] refused to even meet us.”

David Lepofsy, chair of the AODA Alliance, says this election is the first time the PCs have not answered the group’s election questionnaire about what parties will do to improve accessibility. (Tina Mackenzie/CBC)

The Alliance is non-partisan, said Leposfky, arguing that people with disabilities come in every political stripe. The group is still holding out hope that the PCs will make some commitments on disability accessibility before Thursday’s election.

The PC campaign did not respond to a request last Wednesday for comment.

Greens, NDP make most specific promises

The Green Party of Ontario has the most comprehensive pledges to improve accessibility in its platform.

It’s promising to allocate funds so that schools can comply with the AODA, ensure future funding and policies are seen through an accessibility lens, enact standards under the act for education and health care and make improvements to employment and transportation accessibility standards.

It also told the alliance that it would scrap the PC policy that allows municipalities to opt for e-scooters.

The NDP is making similar pledges. In its platform it said it would “work urgently” to implement all the recommendations from the 2019 Onley report “to ensure Ontario is on the path to being fully accessible.” 

The Liberals have not made specific accessibility pledges in its platform. But in its response to the Alliance’s questionnaire, the party promised to consult with people with disabilities and come up with a plan within the first year of taking office.

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