New disability regulations ill-considered

On Sept. 30, the Waterloo Region Record ran a story highlighting the fact that, within three months, every employee in Ontario must have received special training on providing customer service to people with disabilities. Judging from the various reactions to the story, it would seem that I am not the only one who missed the memo. However, as it turns out, this law is not a new one.

Established six years ago, the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) is a five-part bill, the latest section of which comes into effect Jan. 1, 2012. Sadly, when I finished reading the bill, I was left with a curious feeling of disappointment. I feel like this bill, created with the intent of empowering Ontario’s disabled has, in some ways, fallen short. I am afraid that the implementation of the latest aspect of this law, the Customer Service Standard, will serve instead to propagate negative attitudes towards people with disabilities.

The majority of my fears come as a direct result of the implications this law will have on business owners, particularly small business owners. Under the AODA, all businesses are required to provide government-outlined accessibility training to all their workers, both paid and volunteer. Once a year, the business must file a report stating that this training has been done. Should this form not be submitted on time, or should there be any inkling that the company is not living up to the set standards, the ministry of community and social services reserves the right to conduct searches without warrants or notices, providing the search occurs within daylight hours. The ministry is currently insisting that they want to work with corporations, not penalize them, for not adhering to this law, but the numbers tell a slightly different story. Should a corporation be convicted of failing to comply, the fines have been set at $100,000 per day of incidence. Consider now that this law joins its over 500,000 brother and sister laws applying to small businesses ranging in topic from noise restrictions to water backflow valve checks. Even with the best of intentions, this law stands poised to become just another layer in the endless pile of paperwork.

My core concern is this: that the complexities of this law will ultimately change the attitudes of the working public towards peoples with disabilities. We are taught from our infancy that all people are to be treated with equal care and respect. Nonetheless, such a law only serves to heighten our awareness of differences within the human race. As such, people with disabilities will no longer be served out of a spirit of genuine care, but rather with a begrudging attitude. A very real and serous issue when combating racism is the idea of “face respect,” when outwardly adhering to the social norms of racial tolerance act as a smokescreen for private racist feelings. It is not inconceivable to believe that this attitude could easily carry itself into the workplace, as people begin to treat a disabled customer like a valued customer, yet view them as a liability. Should such an attitude develop, it would be incredibly difficult to reverse.

My next proposition is one that I make extremely cautiously. Simply knowing someone with a disability can never come close to living with a disability yourself, having to face the daily hurdles placed upon your path. However, based upon observation and conversations with people with disabilities around me, my second fear is that this bill will have a negative impact on the way people with disabilities view themselves. We can count back centuries of people who have overcome various disabilities, both mental and physical. Ludwig von Beethoven, Terry Fox and Steven Hawking are only a few.

Such people are an inspiration for everyone, but I daresay they are an even bigger inspiration for someone coping with a disability. Only through such positive, affirming messages can people with disabilities increase their self-confidence and esteem. No one can ever become empowered by being perpetually reminded of their weaknesses. Sadly, I feel like the Customer Service Standard does just that. Like the proverbial big brother stepping it to finish his smaller brother’s fights, the Ontario government is stepping into a quest for respect that, in my mind, those with disabilities were making significant progress. With the majority of this law focusing on limitations and weaknesses, it carries with it the potential of discouraging people who have already made great strides towards living with their disability.

Altogether, I feel like the portion of this law that will soon be enacted is treading on dangerous ground. As an entire society, we must take great care that the inevitable flurry of last minute training sessions and paperwork does not shift our paradigm towards people with disabilities. Absolutely every customer who walks through the door must be treated with equal care and respect – a respect that exists not simply because it is law, but because we genuinely want it to exist.

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