The Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA), which strives to create an ‘accessible Ontario’ by 2025, is now in the process of phased implementation.
By now, all public, private and not-for-profit organizations in the province should be in compliance with the first accessibility standard, the customer service standard (CSS).
Up next are the standards for integrated accessibility regulation (IAR), which encompass accessibility standards in three areas: information and communication, employment and transportation. Last year, the Ontario government posted the final regulation for the IAR. The first of several compliance timelines will come into effect Jan. 1, 2013, for public sector organizations with 50 employees or more. By Jan. 1, 2015, public sector organizations with fewer than 50 employees and all private or not-for-profit sector organizations will also be expected to begin meeting compliance requirements for the IAR.
It is important for all professionals to know each of the AODA standards operates alongside the Ontario Human Rights Code whereby the code has primacy over the accessibility issues in Ontario.
For organizations now in compliance with the CSS, now is the time to plan to meet the next requirements under the more complex IAR standards.
Given the complexity of IAR requirements, organizations should assign cross-departmental responsibility as these standards will impact human resources, IT, marketing and sales, communications, website and software design, interior design, facility management and diversity plans. The next steps mandated under the IAR standards also require allotting capital and operating budgets specific to each of these departments and to each of the compliance requirements for accessibility. Further, the IAR standards will require managers charged with the disability management processes in the workplace to commence integrating their processes and programming with the AODA and accessibility processes.
The first deadline for CSS for private employers was passed Jan. 1, 2012. Many organizations who worked on CSS compliance did not know or did not include accessibility of emergency information. This should have been reviewed and updated for every workplace, public space and organization in Ontario.
The IAR standards, specifically within the Employment Standard for Jan. 1, 2012, state that emergency procedures and plans have to be available in accessible formats upon request. All employer organizations are now obligated to provide individualized workplace emergency response plans for employees with a disability in a format that can be understood by them. This does not require employees to disclose the nature of their disability. Rather, it requires employees, tenants and the public to review the current emergency response plan and ask if they understand it and if it meets their requirements. For new employees and those returning to work following an acquired disability, this same process will apply in each case.
The other obligations enacted under the Employment Standard and the Information and Communication Standard, as well as the Transportation Standard, will become binding for private sector organizations with 50 or more employees in 2016. Private sector organizations with fewer than 50 employees will need to be compliant by 2017.
By 2014, however, all employers are required to create written policies outlining how the obligations in each of these standards will be complied with. Some of the documentation and planning required of organizations includes the development, implementation and maintenance of policies that outline how these accessibility requirements will be achieved.
Organizations with 50 or more employees will need to establish, implement, maintain and document a multi-year accessibility plan outlining the organization’s strategy to meet the IAR standards. This plan will need to be posted on a firm’s website and be provided in an accessible format upon request. The plan will also need to be reviewed every five years.
By now, every firm should have provided training and education for all employees, designers, receptionists, students, facility managers, administrative assistants and managers in the area of customer service standards, with an emphasis on how to work with clients, customers, co-workers and the public with various disabilities.
With the IAR standards, an organization will need to further train employees on the requirements of the regulations as well as those of the Ontario Human Rights Code. The training will need to further describe how to work with and assist both clients and co-workers with disabilities as well as outline the organization’s accessibility policies and procedures.
Accessible websites, intranet and other social media
Marketing and communications departments and web designers will need to become familiar with the World Wide Web consortium’s web content accessibility guidelines (WCAG).
As organizations update and develop external web pages and websites, internal intranet pages and other related web-based communications, consideration and design of applications, text, images, forms and downloadable files will need to meet the WCAG for accessibility. Communications departments, web designers and others will need to consider client end-users and internal users of the web and intranet to allow full accessibility to people who have hearing loss or use devices such as screen readers, magnifiers or specialized keyboards.
Accessible formats and communication supports
Communications, marketing and human resources departments or consultants will need to review all internal and external communication materials. Going forward, as part of the integrated standards, these will need to be provided in accessible formats. Organizations must also provide communication support when requested by employees or prospective employees. Possible options include large print policy manuals, accessible electronic formats, captioned audio tracks, sign language interpreters, and signage and wayfinding.
Similar to the CSS, this regulation requires the provision of accessible formats and communication in a timely manner and at no additional cost to the employee, customer or third party.
Accessible feedback process
At this point, organizations should have written policies and processes in place for receiving and responding to feedback from customers and visitors as per the CSS. The integrated standards specific to employment and communication dictates accessible feedback systems be extended to the internal feedback from employees, managers, consultants, designers and tenants, if requested, in the format the individual requests.
The integrated standards employment requirements will require organizations to provide equal opportunity throughout the employment life cycle for paid employee positions. This requirement addresses the recruitment, testing and interviewing, hiring, employee accommodation (incorporating an organization’s existing disability management and return to work programs), performance management and career development.
Organizations with 50 or more employees must develop and have in place a formal process for the development of written individual accommodation plans for new and existing employees. The process for the development of these plans is specific within the new IAR standards and must include the way in which the employee will participate in the development of the accommodation plan.
Organizations with 50 or more employees must have a return to work process for employees who have been absent from work due to a disability and require disability-related accommodations in order to return to work. These formal plans will need to be considered for these same employees anytime there are performance reviews, career development, advancement opportunities or lateral moves to alternate jobs.
Olga Dosis is Optimal Performance Consultants’ (OPC) strategic accessibility consultant and author of the OPC-AODA E-learning Tools. Jane Sleeth is OPC’s ergonomic and universal design consulting expert. Jane and Olga can be reached at [email protected].