Compliance with AODA is not just about ramps and accessible doors. Find out what it means to you

Nov 13, 2013

AODAThe Accessibility for Ontarians with Disability Act (AODA) contains a series of compliance deadlines that affect every employer in Ontario. The first deadline affecting private sector employers was December 31, 2012. In September, non-compliant employers began receiving notices from the Accessibility Directorate of Ontario warning of potentially severe penalties. Workplace Safety & Prevention services (WSPS) consultants are on stand-by to help you meet current obligations and prepare for what's next.

"People think this is all about ramps and accessible doors," says Workplace Safety & Prevention Services (WSPS) consultant Jennifer Threndyle. "It's not about spending money to make your building accessible; it's about formalizing processes within an organization so that people with disabilities are included in the workplace. It's legislating common sense and decency, and it's going to impact every aspect of an employer's business."

Read on to learn more about AODA, what's expected of Ontario employers, how your workplace will benefit, and how we can help.

What AODA is

AODA is legislation that aims to eliminate barriers for people with disabilities so that they can participate fully in society. People living with a disability represent a significant opportunity and employment resource for Ontario employers. The intention is to help businesses act on this underused resource.

The act will achieve this through five standards, each having its own requirements and compliance dates. Of immediate concern to private sector and not-for-profit employers is the Customer Service Standard. Private sector and not-for-profit employers with 20 or more employees were required, as of December 31, 2012, to

  • create and document a plan for accessible customer service
  • train your staff, noting in a log who's been trained, on what, and when
  • file a report online with Service Ontario.

This report must be updated and filed again in 2015.

Private sector and not-for-profit employers with less than 20 employees are also required to create a plan and train staff. However, they are not required to file a report. Find out more about the Customer Service Standard.

"Pay attention to the requirements," advises Jennifer Threndyle. "If an audit finds proof of non-compliance, individuals and small organizations could be liable for a fine of up to $50,000. For large organizations, it's up to $100,000."

AODA's Employment Standard also imposed a December 31, 2012 deadline on all employers. The requirement: provide individualized information on workplace emergency response to any employee with a disability if the disability requires individualized information and the employer is aware of the need for accommodation. Disabilities may affect workers' mobility, vision, hearing, speech, or cognitive functioning temporarily or permanently, which could compromise their ability to protect themselves in an emergency situation.

Employers with a comprehensive emergency response plan in place may already have been in compliance before the 2012 deadline. For everyone else, the requirement presented an opportunity to upgrade an existing plan or start fresh.

Additional Employment Standard requirements take effect in 2016 and 2017.

Each of the remaining three standards - Information and Communications, Transportation, and Built Environments - has its own deadlines.

How your workplace will benefit

Marna Santo, director of human resources and administration for the Metro Toronto Convention Centre (MTCC), sees several benefits to implementing AODA. "From a customer service perspective, it makes our facility more accessible to people who might not otherwise come to one of our shows. From a human resources perspective, it encourages more external candidates to apply for positions, which opens up a whole other job bank."

But there are other less tangible but equally important benefits, says Santo. "It helps eliminate stigma and creates a more inclusive and welcoming work environment. Awareness always helps bring down barriers."

Even without AODA, two social forces - an aging workforce and a growing understanding of how mental health and wellness contributes to organizational performance - mean the need and demand for healthy workplaces that are free of physical and psychosocial barriers will only grow. AODA can help businesses respond. For instance, it supports

  • the physical work environment, including emergency preparedness planning, hazard identification, assessment and control, and access to health and safety information and personal protective equipment.
  • organizational culture, sometimes referred to as "psychosocial work environment." AODA contributes directly to such elements as respect, job enrichment and employee engagement.

"At its most basic," says WSPS consultant Kristin Hoffman, "providing a physically accessible workplace enhances the health and safety of employees and visitors. For example, ensuring someone in a wheelchair is able to exit the building in the event of an emergency is a function of accessibility as well as emergency response planning."

But providing an accessible workplace is also good for business. "A managed accessibility system, like any other system," says Hoffman, "helps businesses operate more efficiently and productively, and address challenges and opportunities more confidently as they arise. We're just better prepared when we have processes in place."

Research backs up the potential business benefits of accessibility. A study conducted by the Martin Prosperity Institute concluded that AODA's accessibility standards may increase Ontario's gross domestic product per capita by $49 to $653 per year. Two sectors in particular were pegged for growth through greater public accessibility alone. Over the first five years, AODA standards could increase sales in the retail sector by $3.8 billion to $9.6 billion, and in the tourism sector by $400 million to $1.6 billion1.

One workplace's approach

The first step for MTCC's Marna Santo was to visit the Ministry of Economic Development, Trade and Employment's AccessON website. "The AODA Wizard tool was a fantastic starting point for us," says Santo. "The tool walks users through the requirements and asks key questions. From our answers, it generated a report that identified key requirements for our organization and their related deadlines. The tool enabled us to create a road map, and we were able to identify key members of our team to create an action plan."

A team response has been critical to MTCC's ability to manage AODA compliance given the size and scope of the facility. It has 1,000 full-time and casual employees, and 650,000 square feet (60,400 m2) of public space composed of multi-purpose ballrooms, 66 meeting rooms, and a performing arts and meeting theatre. Since it opened in 1984, the facility has hosted more than 40 million guests at hundreds of intimate and large-scale galas, conventions, tradeshows and public events.

MTCC's AODA team comprises representatives from areas of the organization that can best help MTCC meet its compliance requirements: engineering, customer service, marketing, and human resources, which has responsibility for health and safety.

"Once we had a team in place, says Santo, "we had Jennifer Threndyle come in and make a presentation. It was really helpful. Because the regulations are performance based rather than prescriptive, there's no single checklist that can tell you exactly what you have to do. Instead, you have to address ‘any current barriers to accessibility.' So how do you prove that you've done this? It makes identifying all the possible barriers a real challenge for any workplace."

One solution for MTCC's team was to go on a walk-through with Threndyle. "We were able to look the facility through her eyes, and get a better understanding of what accessibility really means."

"During the walk through," says Threndyle, "I was pleased to see that many of the things I would point out at other facilities had already been addressed."

"Compliance is a lot of work," acknowledges Santo. "And to make sure we're getting it absolutely right, we want Jennifer to come back and audit our process."

Managing your compliance

Santo offers these suggestions based on MTCC's experience.

  • Ensure senior management support. I report directly to the vice president of human resources and administration. Once we had conducted a gap analysis through the Wizard, MTCC's executive committee was informed of the requirements, including deadlines, and drove support down through the organization. It's been great to have their backing. They receive updates at their monthly meetings.

  • Assign a champion. Here at MTCC there are two of us, myself and Ray Culliton, assistant director, event coordination. Between the two of us, we're the ones most involved on the team.

  • Assemble a compliance/implementation team. Because there are so many areas to be addressed, you have to share the workload. The physical environment, employment standards, emergency preparedness, website content, self-serve features - even our parking garage and ABM machines have their own compliance requirements. We also have to make sure that contractors' staff working on site are also trained on providing accessible service. Since they're in our workplace, we're responsible for their compliance too.

  • Ensure decision-makers understand what's involved. The team brought all department heads together in one room for a discussion on what we had to do. Jennifer provided a high-level overview so that everyone understood the requirements.

  • Create a flexible team structure. Team composition will fluctuate according to what aspect of AODA you're working on. We have a core team, and because our plan has to be reviewed annually they're the ones who review it.

  • Construct an ongoing process to manage compliance. Without it, you're just applying a band-aid approach. You'll get bogged down and the process isn't going to work.

  • Bring in outside help as needed. The amount of information that you have to sift through is overwhelming, so it really helps to have someone who can walk you through everything at the beginning. Jennifer also helped us identify gaps in compliance that we might not have caught on our own. It gives us a comfort level that we're doing everything we're supposed to be doing.

  • Network. Just being able to reach out to fellow colleagues, being able to discuss what we're doing, and having each other as a resource is wonderful.

From a process perspective, Kristin Hoffman and Jennifer Threndyle add this advice: build on the processes and skills you already have in place. "Meeting your requirements under AODA and the Occupational Health and Safety Act involves similar or parallel approaches to policy development and implementation," says Hoffman. "Both require a policy. Both require assessing the current state, identifying opportunities for improvement, and developing an implementation plan. This is why both often fall under the responsibility of people like Marna Santo who coordinate disability management programs and health and safety."

"What this means in functional terms," says Threndyle, "is that you can often adapt existing processes to fulfill your AODA requirements. Applying an integrated approach to AODA and health and safety program development will help you reduce costs while increasing organizational effectiveness."

How we can help

For basic information on AODA, visit the Ministry of Economic Development, Trade and Employment's AccessON website.

WSPS offers a range of services to help businesses meet their AODA obligations. Examples include:

  • on-site assistance in meeting Customer Service Standard compliance requirements, including policy development and training
  • on-site assistance in meeting compliance requirements for all five accessibility standards

To learn more about these offerings, call or email WSPS's Customer Care Centre:
T  905-614-1400
TF  1-877-494-WSPS (9777)
customercare@wsps.ca.

Also in the works: WSPS workshops on AODA compliance taking place in early 2014. Watch for more information in future issues of WSPS Network News and on the WSPS website.

Additional reading

Footnotes

1 Releasing Constraints: Projecting the Economic Impacts of Increased Accessibility in Ontario, Martin Prosperity Institute (Rotman School of Management), 2010