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May I Help You? Understanding Ontario's New Regulation on Accessible Customer Service

By Sara Best |

We all know that providing quality customer service is key to success in any business. But in Ontario, quality service for customers with disabilities isn't just good business practice any more – it's the law.

Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA)

In June of 2005 the Ontario government passed the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA). The legislation allows the government to develop and enforce mandatory, province-wide standards for accessibility.

The first of those standards, the Accessibility Standards for Customer Service, came into effect on January 1, 2008 and by January 1, 2012, every business in Ontario that provides goods or services to the public, and has at least one employee, will have to comply.

What will you have to do to comply?

By January 1, 2012, Ontario businesses and organizations will be required to:

  • Establish a set of policies, practices and procedures on providing goods or services to customers with disabilities. These need to reflect the core principles of independence, dignity and equality of opportunity.
  • Allow customers with disabilities to use their own personal assistive devices to access your goods and use your services.
  • Communicate with a person with a disability in a manner that takes into account his or her disability.
  • Train staff, volunteers and any other people who interact with the public on your behalf, or are involved in developing your policies, practices and procedures, on a number of topics as outlined in the customer service standard.
  • Allow people with disabilities to bring their guide dog or service animal with them to areas of your premises that are open to the public. If the service animal is excluded by another law, use other measures to provide services to the person with a disability.
  • Permit people with disabilities who use a support person to bring that person with them and, where admission fees are charged, provide notice ahead of time on what admission, if any, would be charged for that support person.
  • Provide notice when facilities or services that people with disabilities rely on to access your goods or services are temporarily disrupted.
  • Establish a process for people to provide feedback on how you provide goods or services to people with disabilities. Explain how you will respond to any feedback and what action you will take on any complaints. Make the information about your feedback process readily available to the public.

Not only will Ontario businesses need to comply with the new standard by 2012, but businesses with 20 or more employees will also have to file regular reports with the government on their compliance. Businesses will be able to complete and submit their reports online with a simple-to-use electronic form.

Businesses with fewer than 20 employees must comply with the standard but will be exempt from having to report on their compliance.

What happens if you don't comply?

Under the AODA, the government has the authority to conduct inspections to ensure compliance. Failure to comply could result in fines as high as $50,000 per day for individuals and $100,000 per day for corporations.

What is it going to cost?

The cost of implementing the new standard on accessible customer service will likely be minimal for most businesses.

Most of the requirements can be met with no-cost solutions such as simply asking customers with disabilities how you can best help them, being patient, and not making assumptions about what a customer with a disability may or may not be able to do.

A small amount of employee time (likely one hour or less) may have to be dedicated to meet the training requirement.

In order to support businesses as they learn about the standard and what they'll need to do to comply, the Ontario government has developed the website. The site offers up-to-date information on the standards, tips on no-cost and low-cost solutions to make your business more accessible today, as well as some tools and resources to make compliance easier.

Just the beginning

The Accessibility Standards for Customer Service is just the first of five standards being developed under the AODA. Work is currently underway on four other standards in the areas of:

  • Transportation
  • Information and Communications
  • The Built Environment
  • Employment

Each of these is expected to be rolled out in the next few years and each will have a direct impact on Ontario businesses. Ontario is the first province in Canada to pass such tough accessibility legislation but expect other provinces to soon follow suit.

According to Statistics Canada there are currently 4.4 million Canadians (14.3% of the population) living with a disability. And with an aging population that number in growing. It's a market that no business "big or small" can afford to overlook.

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