For Hans Sturzenbecher, catering to people with disabilities just makes good business sense.
His restaurant, Macy's Diner & Delicatessen in Mississauga, Ont., has been making changes to accommodate people with disabilities for the past eight years, from creating space between tables to make room for wheelchairs and walkers to enlarging the print size on menus.
Other Ontario small and medium-sized businesses will have to start making changes of their own to comply with the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, provincial legislation to be phased in over the next 10 years that can carry fines of up to $100,000 a day for non-compliance.
As of the start of this year, all businesses in Ontario are required to comply with phase one of the AODA, known as the Accessibility Standard for Customer Service. But many small and medium-sized businesses may not be up to par.
Small businesses in the province "are just starting to really get on board" with the new customer service regulation, says Russ Gahan, vice-president of operations for People Access, a non-profit organization charged with helping the Ontario government raise awareness about the AODA.
He says there's been some confusion about what the customer service standard is all about. "It's not about putting in ramps and automatic doors; that's the first thing people think. They think mobility when they think of disabilities, and what you need to do to accommodate them physically.
"What this is about is attitude change, empowering your employees to be confident when providing customer service to people with disabilities."
If you're an Ontario small business, what does that mean in practical terms? The customer service regulation has two major components.
First, all companies must create "an accessible customer service plan" that outlines how their business will provide service to people with disabilities. This includes identifying potential barriers and figuring out new ways of dealing with them.
"The example I like to give is, let's say you have a store that has a no-refunds policy and you have change rooms that are not accessible," says John Milloy, Ontario Minister of Community and Social Services. "Yes, it would be wonderful if someone could invest to make the change rooms accessible, but that may not be practical. What they might do is change their policy and say that if you're in a wheelchair or can't access those change rooms, you will be allowed to return those clothes."
Another example, Mr. Gahan says, would be how to deal with customers with hearing loss. "They may be better off not having to negotiate their terms in a noisy office where they can't hear what you're saying.
"You start to think of these things, instead of just being oblivious to them."
The second component of the regulation requires employers to train their staff to provide accessible customer service. Training topics must include how to communicate with people with different types of disabilities and how to interact with people who use assistive devices or service animals.
In addition, employers with 20 or more staff members must keep a copy of their accessible customer service plan and file reports with the ministry, indicating how and when their employees have been trained. They have until the end of 2012 to do so.
There are many businesses to go: According to the Ministry of Community and Social Services, 17 large and small Ontario businesses have filed reports since Jan. 1. Penalties for refusing to comply with the legislation can be serious – organizations can be fined up to $100,000 a day, or individuals can be fined up to $50,000 a day.
Mr. Milloy says that although the regulations are primarily about encouraging and educating the business community, the ministry will follow up with businesses that do not file their reports.
"We're obviously going to reach out to those that have not filed to urge them to take the steps necessary, and we're going to obviously be in touch with the disability community as people bring concerns to our attention," he says. "We do ultimately have fines in place and that's the last resort."
To help businesses create their accessible customer service plan and train their staff without spending a lot of money, the ministry offers several free toolkits, including a 78-page employer handbook and a 51-page training resource. There are further resources available. Mr. Gahan says People Access offers both free and paid tools for small businesses.
"The paid one includes e-learning. If you have 20 employees and you don't want to figure out how to put together a training program for them, for $149 you can have all the templates, tools, window stickers and 19 e-learning seats."
With e-learning, staff can log in and go through a 25-minute course, reading and answering questions. They can then print a certificate and show their employer they've been through the training.
Another option is to hire a consultant to come in and teach a course in-house. "A physical workshop is the best," says Suzanne Share, CEO of Access Consulting Services in Toronto. "It can be very difficult to change attitudes. I give people a good idea what it's like to have dyslexia, to have arthritis, to have temporary disabilities or long-term disabilities."
Once Ontario businesses have met the requirements of the customer service regulation, there will be more to come. The Integrated Accessibility Standards Regulation will be next – wider-ranging legislation requiring that transportation, employment and all forms of communication be accessible to people with disabilities.
According to the Ministry of Community and Social Services, these standards will be phased in over time between 2011 and 2025, to "give organizations the time they need to build accessibility into their regular business processes."
Mr. Milloy says employers should look at the AODA regulations as not only important for people with disabilities, but good for business too, particularly in a province where close to two million citizens are identified as having a disability. "I think the message really needs to be that there is an enlightened self-interest there, because people are making decisions. Where do we go for lunch? Well, here's a place that's adapting to have a customer service standard that's very welcoming.
"If I have a business, I want to be able to reach out to them and make them comfortable, because, at the end of the day, it's going to mean more dollars in my bottom line."
It's a message that has long resonated with Mr. Sturzenbecher. "The majority of my clients are seniors. When we started up, we had lots of space and good daylight, and we realized there's a niche market in our area, and it's growing constantly."
He decided to lose a few tables so customers would have extra space to get through with walkers or wheelchairs. When he saw his customers getting out magnifying glasses to read the menu, he tripled the print size. He also offers his menu online in a format that allows visually impaired customers to access it with a screen reader.
Customers with guide dogs get a bowl of water for their canine companions. As well, his staff is well-trained in assisting the patrons with disabilities that frequent Macy's on a regular basis.
"The truth is, if you cater to them and they know you cater to them, they become loyal customers."
Special to The Globe and Mail