Ontario has no technical or service benchmarks aimed at creating standards for accessibility. The lack of standards makes it difficult for people to know what is required. -Centre for Independent Living in Toronto
The Transit Survey conducted by the OHRC in 1999 revealed that levels of access to transit services for persons with disabilities, older persons, and families with young children varied widely across the province. The update to the Transit Survey conducted in the summer of 2001 indicated that this continues to be the case. Persons with disabilities, older persons, and families with young children should have equal access to existing transit services, regardless of their location in Ontario.
Standards also create certainty and clarity for transit providers. They can play an important role in motivating and sustaining improvements to transit accessibility. As one submission pointed out, rights should not be dependent on the goodwill of strangers.
The call for standards was a major theme in the responses to the OHRC’s Discussion Paper. While respondents differed on how standards should be created and enforced, there was a broad consensus on the desirability of some type of standards for accessible transit services.
Currently, there are no standards for accessible public transit services in Ontario. There are some guidelines and standards in the Building Code that would apply to subway or bus terminals. However, this applies mainly to physical disabilities, and only to new buildings, or to renovations in certain limited circumstances.
Many responses to the Discussion Paper pointed to the standards for accessible transit set in the United States by the ADA. This legislation sets out detailed standards and timelines for the accessibility of both conventional and paratransit services. For example, the ADA sets benchmarks for paratransit services, requiring that they have comparable hours of service, fares, geographic services areas, waiting times, and levels of service as conventional transit services, and that there be no priorizing of trips. The passage of the ADA in 1990 has resulted in significant improvements to the accessibility of transit services in the United States, in a period of just over 10 years.
Although there are many in Canada who like to criticize the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), any person with a disability who has travelled in the U.S. knows that the built environment is changing, slowly but surely to become more inclusive. And what is more exciting is that, in almost every case, the benefits go beyond the disability group for whom the changes were intended. Announcements and displays at shops and stations not only help the blind and deaf, but are also invaluable for orienting strangers and people who cannot read their location. Seniors are freer because ramps have been built and heavy doors electrified.
-Transportation Action Now
A number of respondents felt that significant progress on accessible transit would occur only when there were clear, enforceable, legislated standards in place. They therefore advocated the passage of an ODA that would contain many of the significant features of the ADA. Submissions described an effective ODA as setting out clear standards for accessible transit services, having timetables for implementation, and including an enforcement mechanism.
The importance of the involvement of persons with disabilities and older persons in setting any standards was also emphasized in several submissions. As the CILT submission pointed out, persons with disabilities know what is best for them.
Some transit service providers emphasized the importance of flexibility in any standards developed, in order to reflect the diverse needs of local communities. For example, Kingston Transit pointed out that it has a high population of seniors per capita, as well as a large percentage of wheelchair users per capita, compared to like-sized cities. Kingston Transit therefore recommended the use of local action plans, which could give cities the ability to set local targets, local priority setting, realistic time frames, and some flexibility with regard to funding capacity at the local level.
Standards may be appropriate, but it must be recognized that each community has different transportation services, which meet (or attempt to meet) the unique needs of the population in that area. Standards should consider and allow for flexibility by service providers to properly serve their communities.
-Toronto Transit Commission
Transit service providers also strongly stated that new standards must be accompanied by increased funding from government. Otherwise, transit service providers could find themselves unable to meet commitments to all of their users and stakeholders.
[L]egislated standards without funding will cause an undue hardship on the transit industry. If we accelerate the pace toward full accessibility without significant operating and capital financial support from all levels of government, we would be required to increase fares to a level that would ultimately be the demise of public transit as we know it today. Instead of enhancing the availability of transit for all, the exact opposite would be true. Our ability to respond to the economic, social and environment objectives would be compromised, and would contravene our vision of providing efficient, effective and affordable transit service that is available to all citizens in an environmentally friendly manner.
A number of submissions contained suggestions for steps that could be taken in the absence of any legislated standards. CILT suggested that perhaps the Canadian Standards Association could be asked to do a study of what is needed, and produce guidelines and measurements. The Canadian Red Cross suggested that the OHRC could take a partnership role in facilitating the development of Accessibility Guidelines that would provide service providers with common, province-wide benchmarks or minimum service requirements on which to base conventional, complementary and paratransit service delivery for persons with disabilities and older Ontarians. It was suggested that these Guidelines would cover such issues as common build practices, attendant requirements when transporting persons with mental disabilities, accommodation requirements for walkers and wheelchairs, eligibility criteria, etc.
Since the consultation period on the Discussion Paper closed, the Ontario government has passed the Ontarians with Disabilities Act (“ODA”). The ODA differs significantly from the ADA. The focus of the ODA is on accessibility planning and standard setting. Section 14 of the legislation requires every public transportation organization in Ontario to prepare a yearly accessibility plan, addressing the identification, removal and prevention of barriers to persons with disabilities in the organization’s bylaws, policies, programs, practices and services. This accessibility plan must be made available to the public. While municipalities are required to take accessibility into account when purchasing goods or services (s. 13), no such requirement applies to transit services.
The government will develop guidelines for the preparation of accessibility plans. These guidelines may exempt organizations, including public transportation organizations, from their application.
Section 19 of the Act mandates the creation of an Accessibility Advisory Council, which shall advise the Minister of Citizenship on the implementation of the ODA, programs of public information, and accessibility of services provided or funded by the government.
The government has the power to adopt codes of conduct, guidelines, protocols or procedures as regulations, and to require compliance with them.
As well, any building project funded by a government funded capital program must meet or exceed the accessibility requirements of the Building Code and regulations.
While requiring transit providers to plan for accessibility, there are no provisions within the ODA requiring the implementation of plans, or the ultimate achievement of accessibility.
Section 3 of the ODA states that nothing in the Act, its regulations, or standards and guidelines set under it, diminishes in any way existing legal obligations to persons with disabilities. In other words, the Ontario Human Rights Code, including the duty to accommodate persons with disabilities and the undue hardship standard, as outlined in the OHRC’s Policy and Guidelines on Disability and the Duty to Accommodate, continue to apply. The Code will continue to operate as the major enforcement mechanism for the rights of persons with disabilities.
The ODA has potential to assist in the creation of standards, through the power of the government to develop guidelines. Unless this power to create guidelines is exercised, however, the ODA is unlikely to result in the creation of the kinds of standards for accessible transit that have been envisioned in submissions to the OHRC. Without enforceable guidelines, services across Ontario will likely continue to exist as a patchwork, and access to transit will vary from municipality to municipality. Benchmarks for excellence and improvement in accessible transit services will not be available for the assistance of transit providers or patrons.
The requirement under the ODA for all transit providers to develop publicly available, annually updated, accessibility plans will mark a step forward in this area. A number of transit providers have already taken this step and have plans in place, but several do not. It is essential that plans set out accountability structures and timelines, if they are to be effective.