Good evening. My name is Marie Bountrogianni, and I'm dean of the G. Raymond Chang School of Continuing Education at Ryerson University. I would like to thank the standing committee for inviting me here to comment on Bill C-81.
I would also like to congratulate Minister Qualtrough and the standing committee on the excellent progress made to date on the bill. I believe that most Canadians would agree that national accessibility legislation is a matter of equality and human rights.
It was my distinct pleasure to serve as cabinet minister in the legislature of Ontario from 2003 to 2007. The highlight of my tenure as minister came in June 2005, when the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, or AODA, received royal assent and came into force. The bill was voted in unanimously in the Ontario legislature. That doesn't happen very often.
I have since had the opportunity to share my experiences developing the legislation and advising representatives from public and private organizations in Japan, Ukraine and New Zealand.
My team and I learned some very important lessons while we were writing the AODA. I'm pleased to share some of these lessons with the committee this evening in the hope that they may help inform Bill C-81.
When I first began university at the University of Waterloo in 1975, co-op placements at that university were limited for women because some of the engineering firms did not have female washrooms. When they were asked why, the answer was that it wasn't worth the expense. Can you imagine, now, our daughters being told anything like that?
This memory of a less equitable time helped inform our mantra towards an accessible Ontario. I thought to myself, “Imagine 30 years from now when people will say there was a time in Ontario only 30 years ago when people complained about the price of a ramp for wheelchairs, the cost of making a washroom accessible or having to hire people with disabilities”.
Following meetings with disability community members and representatives from businesses, we found that they agreed that Ontario's businesses should be accessible; however, business owners were unaware of what a difference a few accommodations could have on their bottom line. During one of these meetings, one of the representatives from business said, “Minister, as a businessman, you are scaring me, but as a father of a daughter with a disability, you are not moving fast enough.” This father's heartfelt sentiment helped inspire my determination to push forward. It also captured the challenge.
During the consultation phase, we studied Great Britain's Disability Discrimination Act and were taught three critical lessons. We would need a clear deadline for an accessible Ontario. There would need to be regulations established through which to enforce the law, and public education would be key for creating awareness about the bill. When we set the 2025 deadline for an accessible Ontario, many criticized that timeline was too long; however, it gave us time to ensure that we were getting it right.
The government is meant to set a positive example for its constituents. I, therefore. support the fact that Bill C-81 is focused on enforcing accessibility in areas that the federal government can regulate. I am hopeful that other Canadian businesses will follow suit. However, I would like to urge the government and the committee to consider setting a firm deadline for a barrier-free Canada.
It has been over 13 years since the AODA came into law, and Ontario still has a lot of work to do to reach its goal of becoming a fully accessible province. Just last week, the Ontario government partially lifted the freeze they imposed in June on the AODA standards development committees. The employment standards development committee can now resume its work recommending revisions to the AODA's employment accessibility standard. Premier Doug Ford also appointed a minister for seniors and accessibility, which I think is a promising step towards promoting compliance with the legislation. I will be meeting with that minister soon.
As identified in Bill C-81, I believe that appointing an accessibility commissioner, a Canadian accessibility standards development organization, and a chief accessibility officer would be heading in an excellent direction for enforcing compliance.
I was recently honoured, as I have been twice before, to participate in the third review of the AODA. This year’s review was led by the Honourable David C. Onley. Some of my feedback could be helpful here.
One of my most pressing recommendations for the AODA is for greater emphasis on web accessibility. At the Chang school, we believe that unlocking accessibility in online environments is an important step towards facilitating equal access and opportunities for people with disabilities. Through collaboration with the Government of Ontario’s enabling change program, the Chang school is currently developing five accessibility courses to help professionals in Ontario—and anywhere, quite frankly—learn how to develop and design accessible websites and web content. These are MOOCs. In other words, they're free for anyone who wishes to take them. They have been very successful. Most free courses have a huge dropout rate. This one doesn't. These modules are very successful.
We're looking to unveil a new website next year, which will be fully accessible.
Our research also identifies a province-wide gap related to accessibility in the post-secondary education market. In order to reduce the 16% unemployment rate among Ontarians with disabilities, we believe that revisions to the AODA need to champion accessible technological innovation and advancement, as well as post-secondary educational offerings that promote accessible and inclusive environments. I believe this can be generalized across the country.
Last year, the Chang school partnered with Ryerson’s digital media zone to launch the accessibility project. This project awarded up to $25,000 and funded 17 projects for students to develop apps and other technological processes, like wearable technologies, to remove barriers faced by people with disabilities and aging populations. I'm proud to say that many of those who were awarded these grants had disabilities themselves. They are developing incredible products.
We were also recently pleased to collaborate with the CNIB to offer two courses in our certificate in entrepreneurship and small business to people living with visual impairment. We're still learning. Even though our courses are accessible, enrolment wasn't and neither were the books, so we had to scramble. Even though we thought we were the experts of the school, we still have a lot to learn. We similarly introduced a new leadership in accessibility and inclusion program this past September.
I believe that these examples help clearly demonstrate that partnership and collaboration are critical for realizing a barrier-free Canada. In technology in particular, we can close the unemployment gap between people with disabilities and people without. We can't really be employed without knowing technology today. It is a major barrier for many.
In closing, I would like to encourage the standing committee to advocate for an appropriate budget for public education on Bill C-81. I believe that awareness is crucial for ensuring compliance with the legislation. I still have people asking me, “What is the AODA?” There will most certainly be push-back, but I urge you to push forward.
Again, I thank the standing committee for having invited me here. It is an honour.