Following the launch of the Policy in March 2001, the OHRC initiated an inquiry under section 29 of the Code into accessibility in the restaurant industry. The objectives of the inquiry were to:
- To increase awareness and report back to restaurant industry leaders and the general public on the nature of existing barriers that prevent persons with disabilities from accessing restaurants in their community.
- To work cooperatively with restaurant industry leaders and seek their commitment to voluntarily take steps to identify, remove and prevent barriers and accommodate the needs of customers with disabilities in order to meet their obligations under the Code.
At that time, the OHRC wrote to 29 major restaurant chains requesting information regarding the standards and objectives set for achieving accessibility, and the current level of accessibility in their premises. As well, the OHRC asked how the accessibility of franchised premises was monitored and if this was a part of franchise agreements. Despite a follow-up letter in September 2001, many of the chains failed to respond. As well, when the OHRC reviewed the responses it did receive, it became clear that restaurant chains were setting their standards for accessibility based only on the OBC that was in effect at the time of construction or renovation. It was learned that, for the most part, neither the Code, nor the Policy, nor other available barrier-free design standards were being considered in setting standards for accessibility in restaurants. This has also been the OHRC’s own observation based on inquiries received and complaints filed regarding this issue.
In August 2002, the OHRC engaged an expert consultant on disability issues and barrier-free design to conduct an accessibility audit. The audit focussed on the physical premises and services of seven select restaurant chains of the original 29 restaurants contact. These chains were: McDonald’s, Country Style Donuts, Pizza Hut, Starbucks, Subway, Swiss Chalet and Tim Horton’s. Four locations were audited for each chain, totalling 28 locations across the province.
Completely inaccessible locations were avoided so that the auditors who use wheelchairs could access the premises to complete the balance of the accessibility audit.
A checklist was developed to identify critical accessibility indicators for different disabilities that would provide a quick, reliable and accurate assessment of restaurant facilities based on criteria from CSA Standard B651-M95 “Barrier Free Design” and with the OBC. It was applied only to the public areas of the restaurants audited and did not include areas used only by employees. Persons with disabilities conducted the assessment of sites.
A detailed summary of the results of the audit is set out in the OHRC’s publication, Dining Out Accessibly. Although the locations varied widely in accessibility, all of the restaurant chains audited revealed some accessibility issues. These included
- lack of an obvious and safe pedestrian route into the facility;
- inadequate accessible parking spaces;
- entrance doors that are too narrow, don’t open fully or don’t have automatic door openers;
- entrances approached by steps or with high thresholds;
- lack of well-contrasted signage, menu boards and menus;
- inadequate interior routes and maneuvering space for persons using wheelchairs;
- inaccessible washrooms; and
- high takeout or self-serve counters.
These results were shared with each of the seven chains in June 2003 to ascertain their plans and seek their commitments for achieving and ensuring accessibility in the future.
During the fall of 2003, the OHRC met with each of the seven chains audited. The OHRC asked the chains to commit to the following five steps in order to move towards meeting their obligations under the Code:
- Develop an accessibility policy and customer complaints procedure. Create no new barriers to access. Accommodate needs where barriers exist, short of undue hardship.
- Review and identify accessibility barriers across corporate-owned and franchisee facilities.
- Develop a standardized accessibility plan for future locations that is based not just on the current Ontario Building Code, but also in respect of the requirements for accessibility under the Ontario Human Rights Code and the OHRC’s Policy and Guidelines on Disability and the Duty to Accommodate, as well as upon current standards and best practices in barrier-free design. This standardized plan should be mandated for all new locations and part of all franchisee agreements, and should clearly stipulate that the requirements of the accessibility plan must be met as a condition of the agreement. Avoid opening new restaurants in inaccessible premises.
- For existing facilities, develop a plan, and remove barriers to achieve accessibility. Immediately take steps to fix problems that can be easily addressed and/or are relatively inexpensive. For more complex barriers, implement interim solutions and phase in remaining changes that are needed to achieve full accessibility. Prioritize the changes, set specific deadlines, and assign responsibilities.
- Monitor progress toward achieving accessibility and report back to the OHRC in one year’s time on achievements.
In April 2004, the OHRC reported publicly on the results of the audit and the commitments made by the seven chains, in Dining Out Accessibly. At that time, the OHRC itself made the following commitments:
- The OHRC will continue a multi-faceted and systemic approach to pursuing the issue of restaurant accessibility by engaging the restaurant industry through professional associations, as well as raising concerns with government in regards to the OBC and the Government’s initiative to review the scope of the Ontarians with Disabilities Act.
- The OHRC will continue to receive, mediate and investigate complaints involving inaccessible restaurants and other services, and where appropriate, will refer unresolved cases to a Human Rights Tribunal.
- The OHRC will report back in 2005 on the status of activities and advancements made in all these areas.
- The OHRC will disseminate these findings to other major restaurant chains and will also ask them to report back on the accessibility of their chains as well as seek their commitment to the five steps listed above.
Immediately following the public release of Dining Out Accessibly, the OHRC took steps to share this information with the restaurant industry. In partnership with the Ontario Restaurant, Hotel & Motel Association, copies of the Report were sent out to 109 restaurant businesses.
In June 2004, the OHRC took steps to contact the remainder of the 29 restaurant chains that it initially contacted in May 2001. The OHRC provided these restaurant chains with information about the OHRC’s restaurant initiative and the commitments made by the seven audited restaurant chains. The OHRC requested that these restaurants agree to the five steps agreed to by the seven chains that were audited. Meetings and discussions were held with these restaurant chains over the course of 2004/2005. The OHRC received commitments to the five steps from all but one of the restaurant chains that it contacted. A Commission Initiated Complaint was filed against that chain, which has now entered into a negotiated settlement with the OHRC.
 CSA Standard B651-M95 “Barrier Free Design” and CSA Standard B480-02 “Customer Service for People with Disabilities” (www.csa.ca)
 The OHRC initially contacted 29 restaurant chains. Seven chains were audited and made commitments in 2003. Nineteen of the original 29 chains were re-contacted in 2004. During the period of this initiative, some of the restaurants initially contacted ceased to operate in a substantial way in Ontario. As well, some of the organizations contacted by the OHRC operate a number of brands, and made commitments for more than the brand initially identified by the OHRC. The numbers of restaurants contacted and making commitments therefore do not add up.