CAW Submission on Bill 125: The Ontarians with Disabilities Act, 2001: December 5, 2001

December 5, 2001


Submission by the Canadian Auto Workers to the Standing Committee on Finance and Economic Affairs on Bill 125: The Ontarians With Disabilities Act, 2001

Introduction

Today, the CAW is Canada's largest union in sectors such as auto assembly, auto parts manufacturing, aerospace, electronics and railway transportation. The CAW also has a major presence in several other sectors such as airlines, mining, retail and hospitality. We are Ontario's largest private sector union representing over 180,000 workers. Amongst our Ontario members, we represent over 17,000 health care workers.

Our union is proud of our long history of challenging discrimination and promoting equality. As early as 1984, the CAW has bargained joint labour-management equity programs with many employers which extend to people with disabilities. We first bargained equity programs with General Motors, and followed up with both Chrysler and Ford in 1987. Since then we have bargained programs with a number of employers.

Our negotiated programs have won awards from both the Ontario and Federal governments. CAW's successes include: language in our collective agreements providing return to work programs which include training and accommodation for workers with both work and non-work related injuries and disabilities, TTY/TDD phones to help our hearing impaired members communicate with their families and others, the right to refuse to work when being harassed based on disability. We have bargained preventative measures such as ergonomics requirements and joint labour-management committees in workplaces.

Achieving fairness in the workplace has meant an ongoing struggle both with corporations and, increasingly, with Ontario's government. If there is one thing these efforts have taught us, it is that voluntary measures do not deliver adequate change. Unless employers face meaningful sanctions, barriers will never disappear. Our submission today focusses primarily on workplace issues.

Definition

The World Health Organisation recognises disability as involving an interaction between an individual and their environment. This definition recognises that it is as critical to acknowledge that our environments can create a disability as well as they can create access. Therefore, it is critical to note that legislation should incorporate two components. First, we need to achieve a deeper societal understanding of the biomedical limitations and abilities of people with various disabilities, and second, we need to be proactive in any approach to creating access. This can only happen by changing our existing physical and social environments to achieve universal access.

Attitudinal barriers and stereotypes of people with disabilities persist. Once embedded in social practices and institutions, these sustain the disadvantageous social condition of people with disabilities. If this government envisions a barrier free Ontario, it has to ensure that all of Ontario shares the responsibility for understanding how we contribute to the creation of disability and how we can pro-actively eradicate it.

We believe it is important not to pick and choose which environments should be subject to an ODA, but rather that all of society must be accessible without limitation. The preamble to the ODA states that the responsibility rests with every social and economic sector, every region, every government, every organisation, institution and association. However, the body of the Act does not in any meaningful way incorporate the private sector. We are looking for systemic change that can only happen if societal institutions are universally subject to the same rights and obligations that an Ontarians with Disabilities Act can and should provide.

Status of People With Disabilities

Statistics Canada tells us that Canadians with disabilities living at home make up approximately 13 per cent of the working age population; that is people between the ages of 15 and 65. Just under 50 per cent of these people are employed, compared to over 70 per cent of people without disabilities. This exclusion from the workplace contributes to lower income levels and poverty for people with disabilities. The poverty rate for women with disabilities who were employed full-time full-year in Canada was 10.2 per cent; among Canadian women with disabilities who were not employed at all, the poverty rate stood at 45.4 per cent - nearly five times higher.

The connection between disability and poverty is clear. In Ontario, 31.6 per cent of women aged 15 to 64 with disabilities are poor, compared to 16.4 per cent of women without disabilities. A similar pattern was observed among men. The Ontario poverty rate for men with disabilities was 29.7 per cent, compared to 13.6 per cent for men without disabilities. It is important to note that women with disabilities are doubly disadvantaged. Consequently, in this era of extreme affluence, barriers to the workplace are perpetuating a downward fall for people with disabilities towards the bottom of the economic ladder.

Over six and a half years ago, the Harris government made a promise to enact an Ontarians with Disabilities Act ("ODA"). On October 23, 1998, an inadequate attempt to meet this promise was made with the introduction of Bill 83 which subsequently died on the order paper. We are now seeing this governments second attempt with the introduction of Bill 125.

The Limitations of Bill 125

We submit that a strong and effective ODA must:

  • Apply to all workplaces including the private sector.
  • Contain proactive measures with enforceable standards and timelines.
  • Ensure unions and their members with disabilities are central to the consultation and implementation process.

The ODA fails to adequately address the needs of people with disabilities. To remedy this, we must enact an ODA that covers every workplace, has proactive measures, enforceable standards and timelines and provides for union involvement in developing barrier-free workplaces. This is an important moment for this government. It has an opportunity to do the right thing for Ontarians. The CAW hopes that this government is able to recognize just how many lives it will positively affect with a strong and effective ODA.

The Private Sector and Exemption Accountability

According to Statistics Canada's 2000 year end Labour Force Survey, 19.9% of employees in Ontario work in the public sector. Of those, 74% work under the umbrella of provincial or municipal government. That is approximately 730,454 employees. And those public sector statistics include hospitals and publicly-funded providers of transportation. Conversely, approximately 80% of employees in Ontario are working in the private sector. That is, in the year 2000, approximately 3.97 million Ontarians were working in the private sector.

By refusing to include the private sector in any meaningful way into the ODA, the message you are sending to Ontarians with disabilities is that the private sector is off limits to them. What you are saying to this community is that you can't assure them that they will have access to 80% of the job opportunities in Ontario. It has become clear that bringing a Human Rights complaint in Ontario is an overly onerous and lengthy process for people with disabilities. We need only to look at the recent Famous Players case which took over 7 years to complete. By creating an ODA, and then essentially excluding the private sector from this Act, this government is also sending a strong message to business that they aren't obligated to do anything for people with disabilities. If left the way it is, Bill 125 will do more harm than good.

Also troubling, the ODA gives considerable authority to the government to unilaterally exempt government ministries, the broader public sector, agencies and organizations from obligations under Bill 125. The ODA imposes no limits or criteria on this broad exemption power, nor any accountability for the government when it is exercised. There is no right of persons with disabilities to appeal from the government's granting an exemption. The government is not required to give any reasons or any rationale for granting of an exemption. For example, the government could exempt whole industries from complying with the ODA without having to have a good reason or to justify its decision.

As the largest private sector union in Canada, we have spent years fighting to ensure the rights of people with disabilities are respected. Even though many employers are aware that there is a duty to accommodate to the point of undue hardship, with respect to hiring, it is still very difficult for people with disabilities to get a job. People with disabilities face profound barriers to being hired. There are further barriers to access to training and promotion for employees with disabilities. The struggle for workplace rights is reflected in the most recent statistics from the Ontario Human Rights Commission. In 2000-2001, complaints on the basis of disability made up the single largest number of complaints at over 40 per cent. Of those complaints, 70 per cent were in the area of employment.

The reactive, complaint-driven remedies are not working. It is time to become proactive.

Industry Innovation and Accessibility

As a union with a stake in the growth of Ontario's economy, we understand that this Bill has the potential to spur innovation in industry. There are two great benefits to be gained by innovating to create access. Firstly, through technological innovation in areas such as assistive device design, people with disabilities can gain greater access to society and the workplace. Secondly, more jobs are potentially created as new industries and branches of industries are expanded to meet the demands for accessible products.

We can look to the effect section 508 of the U.S. Rehabilitation Act has had on the information technology sector as one example of the benefit of legislation. Section 508 mandates all federal information technology environments must be accessible to both employees with disabilities and the public at large. It also incorporates a requirement to comply with procurement standards. This Act has spurred innovation, which in turn has created amazing advances in the information technology sector. Philosophies such as universal design and access have become integral to the creation of accessible products. Innovations such as screen reader technology, which is now sought after by both people with disabilities and those without, and text to voice synthesizers to enable sensory and voice impaired individuals the ability to talk with various programmed voices have a direct link to section 508. These innovations bring people into the workforce who were previously excluded because of their disability and they also create jobs.

As is, section 6 of the ODA has missed the boat in this area by limiting itself to making public sector "web sites" accessible when "technologically feasible". We aren't breaking any new ground here. When this government drafts an ODA that fails to ensure access to all information technology environments in both the public and private sector, all the way from procurement provisions right down to policies that incorporate the adoption of universal design and access principles, it misses a great opportunity for Ontario.

Cutting taxes doesn't necessarily spur innovation. And to us, innovation means a future for Ontario's workers. Legislating a strong and effective ODA has the enormous potential to create both innovation and accessibility as requirements for services and accommodation for people with disabilities increase.

Proactivity: Means Taking the Lead to Make Positive Change

The Ontario Human Rights Code has prohibited discrimination based on handicap since 1981. The equality guarantees of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms have been in place since 1985. An obligation to re-employ injured workers has existed under workers compensation legislation since 1989. However, the problem remains that laws based on individual case-by-case enforcement are wholly inadequate to challenge the widespread systemic discrimination currently faced by people with disabilities. If government is truly committed to removing barriers and creating access then they must ensure this ODA takes a proactive stance by ensuring effective and strong standards with clear timelines.

Demographics clearly show that today Canada's baby boom population is aging. The disabled community is the one equity seeking group that we are all potential members of. Proactive change anticipates the struggles that many of the baby boom generation will face in the years to come. It is part of the role of government to look ahead on Ontarians' behalf to see the challenges we will face down the road. It is time for proactive and positive change.

Change Requires Clear and Effective Standards

The ODA has the potential to be a positive force in eradicating barriers. However, as is, the ODA permits a confusing and complicated range of standards, guidelines and protocols to be developed and possibly, though not mandatorily, turned into regulations. There is no clear definition as to what a guideline, standard, code or protocol is, nor what the difference is between these. There is a need for clarity here. Clarity directly affects compliance.

Also, the ODA states that governments must make guidelines regarding the preparation of accessibility plans and policies. Aside from design guidelines on Government buildings, structures and premises, the guidelines, which must be made, refer only to the process, not the content of the accessibility plans and policies or their implementation. Moreover, the ODA imposes no time frame within which the government must develop, implement and measure their success.

It is important to note that the power to make regulations governing the preparation and content of accessibility plans and policies is optional. There is no requirement that any regulations ever be made regarding the preparation or content of these accessibility plans and policies. There is nothing in the ODA that actually requires barriers identified in accessibility plans to be removed or prevented. This is glaring gap in the ODA.

Consultation Must Include Labour

The CAW wants to play an active role in bringing an end to discrimination against people with disabilities. In the workplace, we can do that by sitting down with employers to review employment systems for barriers and set up a plan to remove these barriers. Legislation to remove barriers must specifically involve the bargaining agent where one exists in the workplace.

The Act should require joint workplace accessibility committees comprised of the employer and the bargaining agent. Our bargaining agents can work jointly with employers not only on barrier removal, but also on workplace policies and procedures to ensure that all people with various disabilities are represented. Employers should be required to review their employment policies and practices along with the bargaining agent where one exists and determine whether they contain barriers to people with disabilities. Plans can be made for eliminating these barriers. Unions working jointly with employers can commit to clear goals for eliminating barriers and measure the progress made.

Conclusion

Work is central to people's lives. When opportunities to participate in the workforce are denied, there are far greater prices we pay as a society. When people with disabilities face barriers to work, they have a substantially higher chance of living in poverty and facing even greater barriers.

As our social programs are increasingly becoming fragmented and inadequate to meet the needs of all Ontarians, paid work becomes even more important. It is our collective responsibility to foster participation for the greatest number of individuals in every aspect of society.


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