Making York accessible

University Secretary and General Counsel Harriet Lewis has been sleeping better since March 31.

That is because Lewis was able to report to the provincial government that York University is in compliance with the first set of standards to be implemented under the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA). 

The AODA, which was passed by the provincial government in 2005, provides for the accessibility of customer service, information and communications, employment, transportation and the built environment for Ontario residents with disabilities, by 2025. “AODA is very important at this time for the University because Ontario’s postsecondary institutions are part of the first schedule for compliance,” says Lewis. “Eventually the act will cover all of Ontario. The private sector is included in photo: Harriet Lewisthe second round of compliance."

Left: Harriet Lewis

Late last year, Lewis was asked to oversee York’s compliance with AODA. As part of her role, she had to complete a report to the provincial government about the University’s progress. “The report is not about being accessible; it is about meeting the requirements of the standards, which in the case of the customer service standard, require a plan for training, policy statements and so on,” says Lewis. “We were able to meet the requirements as stated, and file a report by the target date. That was in part because York already does many of the things suggested in the legislation.” 

The Secretariat Web site contains York’s statement on the University’s commitment to accessibility, which has been approved by the Board of Governors.

With start of the New Year, the Government of Ontario and those who receive substantial support from the government, including Ontario’s universities, colleges and school boards, were required to show they were working towards compliance with the first regulation (429/7) of AODA. The regulation sets out a series of standards related to customer service that ensures that goods and services offered by these institutions are provided in ways that are accessible to persons with disabilities. The legislation, which Lewis describes as being “aspirational” in nature, aims to achieve full accessibility throughout the province of Ontario within 15 years..  

The legislation will affect one in seven of us. Photo: Ontario Ministry of Community & Social Services AccessON Web site

According to AODA, interactions with students, prospective students, community members, alumni and parents can be considered services that are provided by the University and should be accessible to persons with disabilities. The legislation contains a wide-reaching definition of disability but the customer service standard focuses particularly on welcoming service animals, assistive devices and personal support workers onto campus. It also means incorporating knowledge of disabilities when communicating with someone with a disability. York has an advantage over some institutions, as it has been a leader in being an accessible place to work and study for some time, and there is already a high degree of awareness of disability and accessibility issues among staff and faculty. 

Since taking on the AODA portfolio, Lewis has been meeting with a working group comprised of campus disability and accessibility specialists and members of the administration and the faculty who will ensure that the implementation of the standards takes place throughout the institution. Leanne De Fillipis, formerly York’s associate director of employee relations, has moved to the Office of the University Secretary & General Counsel to be the go-to person with respect to coordinating the University’s compliance with the AODA standards.

Over the next few months, all York personnel who deal with “customers” will be required to take AODA training. The level of training will depend on the type and frequency of their contact with the University’s customers. The basic training is being delivered in the form of an online e-Learning course that is designed to explain the legislation and the responsibilities of the University with respect to the legislation. Composed of two modules, the second section was developed through the Council of Ontario Universities and is being rolled out across the province. 

“Every person who does have contact with our customers, including staff, faculty and volunteers, will be asked to take the training,” says Lewis. “The training is underway and participation will be tracked by the University in accordance with the legislation. Notices have been sent out to inform the community of the legislation and the training program with windows being suggested for the operational divisions.”

Lewis says the legislation also requires the University establish a system for feedback.  “This means we will be seeking suggestions on how we might better communicate and achieve the goals of the legislation. We will of course also receive and address any complaints,” she says.

The second set of standards to be rolled out by the province will likely be the Information & Communication Standard, which is expected to affect communications, from lectures and course materials to Web sites, signage and printed materials. “We are guessing that the last standard to be rolled out will relate to the built environment as funds to address the requirements will have to be planned for long in advance. It will be expensive,” Lewis says.

AODA will affect more than 1.85 million people in Ontario who have a disability, which in plain terms, equals one in seven of us. Furthermore, over the next 20 years, as the population ages, that figure will rise to one in five Ontario residents.

For more information, visit the York Secretariat AODA Web site.  

By Jenny Pitt-Clark, YFile editor