Small businesses face tough challenges adapting to access laws

Eight weeks ago, the 360,000 businesses in Ontario were supposed to have been in compliance with legislation under the Accessibility Standards for Customer Service Standard, part of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA).

No one is sure how many businesses have completed the process.

What is known is that while many businesses agree with the principle, many know little about it or what they need to do to comply.

The purpose of the Customer Service Standard is to identify and remove barriers that would prevent people with disabilities from accessing goods and services. But communication between the government andbusinesses could be better, said Lisa Lehmann, a business development manager for PATH Employment Services.

“I’m finding that businesses really don’t know much about their responsibilities and a lot of work can be done in that capacity,” she said. “More can be done to engage businesses.”

PATH Employment Services and its new program Accessibility 360 is assisting businesses wade through the paperwork each standard requires.

The Customer Service Standard requires small businesses with fewer than 20 employees to fulfill 10 requirements, including the creation of an established policy, practice and procedure manual that conforms to the principals of the legislation. The manual includes the use of assistive devices, service animals, notice of disruptions (for any renovations and a timeline), and a feedback process.

For businesses with more than 20 employees, there are three additional requirements: the manual must be documented and available, businesses must register online with the Minister of Community and Social Services, and must notify customers that all policies are available. The manuals should be available upon request.

Companies must also take the time to familiarize their employees with the standards in the policy manual.

Lehmann noted businesses could register to complete a group session ($100 to $1,000), a webinar (at the cost of $35 per person), or purchase a disc that allows employees to complete training in their own time.

“At most it’s an hour training,” she said. “We try to make the process as least cumbersome as possible for the employer and employees. For example, with the disc, employees can take an hour of their time to complete the training whenever possible.”

The disc also has a pre- and post-test for an employee to confirm they’ve completed the training.

It’s a mandatory task but it can be a tedious task for small- and medium-sized companies to complete the necessary forms, noted Cheryl Bowden, office administrator for Hamilton’s Allegra, a marketing, printing and copying company.

“It wasn’t anything I didn’t expect and we’re not in retail so we don’t have a lot of walk-in clients or delivery, but we do have to post the information and take the time to do so,” she explained.

As a company with more than 20 employees, including full-time, part-time and contract workers, Allegra isn’t big enough to have its own human resources officer to assist with completing the necessary forms.

“It takes a lot of extra time but it does need to be done,” she said. “We’ve always been accessible and accommodating with our clients. If someone is in a wheelchair we would meet them downstairs instead of in our boardroom because our building doesn’t have an elevator.”

Hamilton’s Downtown BIA marketing and communications co-ordinator Kerry Jarvi said many businesses are unaware of what needs to be done to comply with AODA.

“People don’t understand how much it will affect them,” said Jarvi. “There are changes that need to be made and they need to be made aware of the changes. Right now it’s more about educating businesses about what affects them.”

Maxine Carter, the access and equity co-ordinator with the City, noted both public and private businesses are required to implement and complete all the standards as they roll out.

“The Information and Communication Standard, along with the Employment Standard, are the next to be phased in,” explained Carter, noting the city is working to update its website to comply with the Information and Communication Standard. “(The standards) did have certain items that had to be implemented for January 2013, but those were fairly easy things to do. In my view, the public has been given an ample amount of time to complete most of the items to date.”

Some small businesses may disagree and may find some requirements difficult to complete, but the province does provide a lot of support for the small businesses and private sector, she added.

Members of the public can notify the province if they feel businesses aren’t meeting their needs as outlined in the legislation.

“The number (of people with disabilities) is always rising because as people age they do develop some disabilities,” Carter said. “Our aging population is quite significant and not just in Hamilton.”

By the year 2036, one in five Ontarians will have a disability as the population ages. Enforcement of the accessibility standards will be ensured by the Ministry of Economic Development, Trade and Employment.

Implementation of the standards will be monitored through audits and inspections, with a system in place to track compliance by reviewing the mandatory submitted reports. Companies and organizations persistently in non-compliance would face other enforcement measures, including monetary penalties or prosecution.

Though the government noted its focus is to provide assistance to organizations, a penalty can be issued with fines starting at $200, up to $15,000. This depends on the severity of impact the non-compliance could have on people with disabilities.

“Customer Services Standards is just the start and we’re really encouraging employers to start thinking about focusing on the current and future standards,” said Lehmann.

Changes to AODA began in 2005 with the implementation of different standards beginning with the customer service standard. This will be followed by information and communication, employment, the built environment, and transportation.

The goal is to make Ontario fully accessible by 2025.

Twenty years may seem like a long time, but changes within the act are huge. They include:

Timeline for compliance to AODA standards:
Customer Service Standard
Public Sector deadline was January 1, 2012
Private Sector, Non-profit, non-designated public sector businesses and organizations was January 1, 2012 with an on-line reporting of December 31, 2012

Information and Communications Standard
For the Government of Ontario and the Legislative Assembly, January 1, 2014
For large designated public sector organizations, January 1, 2015
For small designated public sector organizations, January 1, 2016

In this regard, the City of Hamilton is working to update its website by 2015.

Employment Standard
Large designated public sector organizations, January 1, 2014
Small designated public sector organizations, January 1, 2015
Large organizations (50 or more employees), January 1, 2016
Small organizations (at least one but fewer than 50 employees), January 1, 2017

The Transportation and Built Environment Standards have yet to be announced.

Originally posted in Your Hamilton Biz. 

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