Many of Ontario’s building owners and managers are now struggling to decipher requirements for barrier-free access in the Ontario Building Code (OBC), under the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA)
As of January 2014, all public sector as well as private organizations with 50 or more employees should have established a mandatory multi-year accessibility plan under the Integrated Accessibility Standard (IAS), which describes the actions organizations will take to prevent and remove barriers within buildings and the public spaces outside them.
With the next deadline approaching in January 2015, these employers will have to ensure their employees are trained on IAS, as major renovations on new or existing buildings will be subject to the new standards after this date. However, outdoor public spaces must be in compliance by January 2017.
As compliance deadlines vary based on size and type of organization, small organizations with one to 49 employees must have already developed principles and rules, but do not need to have an active plan in place. Outdoor public spaces for these smaller organizations must be in compliance by January 2018.
“One of the things that would work well for us as a sector would be to have more of an objective-based approach to implementation because it encourages flexibility and innovation in meeting the AODA requirements,” says Bala Gnanam, director of sustainability and building technologies for the Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA) of Greater Toronto. “Such an approach would permit the possibility of adapting the accessibility requirements to unique circumstances to achieve the same level of barrier-free objective with alternative solutions and in a practical and cost-effective way.”
He says BOMA members understand the need to make buildings more accessible, and are committed to making this happen. But the implementation timeline should allow for adequate market transformation. Certain parts of this regulation are still unclear as to when they are applicable within a built environment.
For example, should the fourth floor of a building be updated to the code if it’s undergoing minor, but not extensive, renovations? Or, would a redesign of a washroom be interpreted as a renovation, and, if so, must it comply to the regulations?
While each owner might have a different question pertaining to the unique structure of their building, Jane Sleeth, managing director and consultant with Optimal Performance Consultants, a Toronto-based ergonomic accessibility and disability prevention firm, says there are still basic aspects of IAS worth considering, including consequences of non-compliance, that some owners might not be aware of. Such mindfulness could help prompt a quicker transition.
Penalties for Procrastination
About 60 per cent of all complaints filed with Ontario Human Rights are related to disability and non-accessibility. This surpasses combined complaints about religion, culture, sexism or bullying.
However, as of three months ago, Sleeth points out that only 33 per cent of private companies in Ontario were complying with the first and most basic requirement of AODA—the customer service standard, which requires that companies train employees on what AODA means and write the plan’s policies according to that.
The possibility for brand damage increases as more companies remain open to liability. Such damage becomes public knowledge with the increased use of social media.
Financial damage is also a risk since two penalty levels will be levied. Sleeth says the directorate has hired inspectors who have the ability to levy fines and many have already visited public buildings, such as colleges, to determine compliance.
Fines against an individual can range from $200 to $2000 per diem, but inspectors can also charge fines against a corporation, which average between $50,000 to $100,000 per day of non-compliance.
When a building is fully accessible, more people can visit, work and theoretically generate and spend more money there. Accessibility’s impact on the economy is expected to become more apparent over time.
As the population ages, more individuals with disabilities will need access to shopping malls and required services, such as accountants and lawyers in office towers. Such accessible buildings will attract more progressive tenants who recognize accessibility creates opportunities for good business.
“Property owners really need to get up to speed and not rely on their HR departments,” says Sleeth. “They have a larger role now with IAS and they should be writing these multi-year plans and auditing their buildings to see what is it they need to put in place to make sure they’re in compliance.”
For buildings that don’t yet have a multi-year plan, Sleeth emphasizes that owners must be actively involved. To do that, they must understand the standards.
“IAS is about the building owners and managers, communications department, website developers and interior designers developing the plan,” she says. “A human resource department may end up making decisions that facility managers or building owners should be in charge of.”
For example, a multi-year plan should include a section about creating accessible outdoor public spaces that surround a building—i.e. it should state that accessibility features will be compulsory as part of any future upgrade. The understanding of disability as universal must be at the forefront when creating plans and communicating with tenants to solve problems.
Sleeth cites an example of a tenant who, suffering from a debilitating disease, requested that a bench be installed outside the office building. The building owner, unaware of the requirement under AODA, pushed against the request, risking liability.
“I think when people think of disability they think of the worst case scenario,” Sleeth reflects. “But a disability could be a lawyer in an office tower who has suddenly lost her vision from taking medication. You might be able-bodied now, but tomorrow that could change.”
Under the new phase of requirements for IAS, anyone participating in developing an organization’s policies, or any external individual who provides services or facilities on behalf of the organization, should understand the key areas of these regulations, such as:
• universal washrooms
• barrier-free path of travel
• visual fire alarms
• adaptable design and construction
• vertical access (elevators)
• visible suites in multi-unit residential buildings.
Rebecca Melnyk is online editor of Canadian Property Management and Building Strategies & Sustainability.