Dean, G. Raymond Chang School of Continuing Education, Ryerson University, Toronto
First and foremost, national accessibility legislation is an act of human rights and inclusion. Nobody wants to live in isolation or feel forgotten by society. Through my research on employment trends, I found that a large majority of people with disabilities have a strong desire to work and pay taxes. Unfortunately, these individuals still make up a disproportionate number of people working in jobs below their skill level, a trend called mal-employment.
A poll commissioned by CIBC in 2017 found only half of Canadians with a disability are employed.
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Canada, it is time for a paradigm shift.
There is a strong business case for the Accessible Canada Act; it is a shrewd move for the Canadian economy. In an increasingly competitive global marketplace, making Canadian businesses architecturally, physically, technologically and attitudinally accessible will significantly help their bottom line. After making reasonable accommodations, business owners will also find that they can recruit from a new pool of highly skilled workers.
The proudest moment of my tenure as Ontario cabinet minister came in June, 2005, when the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) received Royal Assent and came into force. However, the most profound moment occurred much earlier in the AODA consultation process. Following a meeting between business representatives and community members, a senior executive informed me, “minister – as a businessman, you are scaring me, but as a father of a girl with a disability, you are not moving fast enough.”
His sentiments summarized the core our challenge. As indicated by Statistics Canada, approximately one in seven Canadians report living with a disability that affects their mobility, cognition, sight, hearing, learning or mental well-being. Whether we know it or not, all of us love someone who lives with a disability. It is our responsibility to help ensure these individuals feel like valued members of society.
For small-business owners, the prospect of costly modifications to their physical or virtual place of business may be especially daunting. However, I assure you that implementing these changes will come back to you in a positive way, financially. Since the Americans with Disabilities Act became law in 1990, the U.S. General Accounting Office reports that revenues in the U.S. hospitality industry alone have increased by 12 per cent. People with disabilities are not unique in that if they feel their business is appreciated, they will be repeat customers for life.
Nearly every Canadian will face a challenge to their accessibility at some point in their lifetime. Adults at the age of 65 and older outnumbered children in Canada for the first time in 2016 – a clear illustration of our country’s aging population. Statistics Canada further predicts that by the year 2031, one in every four Canadians will fall into the 65-plus demographic. Although their mobility may be limited, seniors want to stay active and engaged in their golden years and they often have monetary resources to spend on these endeavours. Consider the lucrative small-business opportunities this could present for savvy entrepreneurs. Simply integrating accessibility into your business plan could help you engage a loyal customer base.
The Chang School and DMZ at Ryerson University recently introduced the Accessibility Project – a community and grant program that champions innovative ideas, products or solutions that support people with disabilities and the aging population. Some of the funded projects include a technology that allows hands-free interaction with iOS and Android devices as well as personal computers; an adaptive, two-garment clothing line that maximizes comfort and functionality; and a smartphone app that helps people with mobility challenges identify barrier-free businesses. Many of the teams who applied for funding consisted of at least one team member who is living with a disability. Consider the unlimited potential for innovation when we empower entrepreneurs of all ages and abilities.
When the national accessibility legislation was tabled in Parliament this past June, the government called for the future appointment of a Chief Accessibility Officer and an Accessibility Commissioner. I encourage the government to stand by these appointments and to stay vigilant in overseeing the implementation of the law. Leading up to the 2025 deadline of an accessible Ontario, there has been criticism over efforts to hold businesses accountable for making the appropriate changes. Personally, I think this may simply stem from a lack of communication. If businesses were more aware of the benefits of becoming accessible, I believe that they would be much more receptive to accessibility modifications. Premier Doug Ford’s recent appointment of a Minister for Seniors and Accessibility could be a step in the right direction for addressing this information gap.
Without a doubt, I believe that the Accessible Canada Act presents excellent potential for economic growth. All Canadians will benefit when the accessibility legislation is properly implemented and enforced. Furthermore, it is a great opportunity for us to emphasize the best attributes of this great country.
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