In recent years, the proportion of complaints citing the ground of disability has been reaching 50% or more of the Commission’s annual caseload. Although a large majority of complaints are in the area of employment, the Commission regularly receives inquiries and takes in complaints from persons with disabilities alleging that restaurant facilities and services are inaccessible.
In 1999, the Commission began a public consultation on disability issues which led to the release in March 2001 of its substantially revised Policy and Guidelines on Disability and the Duty to Accommodate. In 2000, the Commission also undertook a public consultation on the rights of older persons in Ontario. During both consultations, the Commission heard that persons with disabilities of all ages and older persons often face barriers in accessing facilities and services such as restaurants.
In June 2001, the Commission released its consultation report Time for Action: Advancing Human Rights for Older Ontarians. One of the recommendations of this report called on the provincial government to amend the Building Code to incorporate the best principles of barrier-free design.
The Commission subsequently released its Policy on Discrimination Against Older Persons Because of Age (the “Age Policy”) in June 2002. Similar to the Commission’s Disability Policy, the Age Policy states that those who are responsible for the provision of services to the public must take positive steps to ensure disadvantaged persons benefit equally from those services. This means providing services in a manner that is inclusive and accessible from the start and also providing accommodation, subject to the undue hardship standard.
At the launch of the Disability Policy in March 2001, the Commission indicated it would be engaging in ongoing efforts to promote accessibility of services and facilities in Ontario. The Commission announced that it would be approaching businesses to assess the accessibility of services and facilities for persons with disabilities.
Accordingly, in May 2001 the Commission began its inquiry into restaurant accessibility pursuant to its mandate under section 29 of the Code. The Commission sent letters to 29 major restaurant chains in Ontario to ask about the degree of accessibility of their premises, what standards are used, and what objectives are set for achieving accessibility in the future. Despite a follow-up letter in September 2001, many of the chains failed to respond.
It became clear when the Commission reviewed the responses received that restaurant chains were setting their standards for accessibility based only on the Ontario Building Code that was in effect at the time of construction or renovation. It was learned that, for the most part, neither the Human Rights Code, nor the Commission’s Disability Policy, nor other available barrier-free design standards were being considered in setting standards for accessibility in restaurants. This has also been the Commission’s own observation based on inquiries received and complaints filed regarding this issue.
As well, the Commission presented an in-depth submission to the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing in March 2002 outlining the need for reform to the barrier-free access requirements in the Ontario Building Code. The submission describes priorities for change as well as the human rights principles that should be reflected in a revised Building Code (see Appendix I).
Continuing with its efforts, the Commission engaged an expert consultant on disability issues and barrier-free design to conduct an accessibility audit in August 2002. The audit focused on the physical premises and services of seven select restaurant chains totaling 28 locations across the province.