AODA Uncertainty Leaves Companies Asking, 'What's Next?'
With the Jan. 1, 2021 Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act deadline for website compliance fast approaching, there are many questions about what that deadline actually means. Will I be fined? Are there penalties? What should we do?
With not enough action and no sense of urgency, too many are treating the New Year as a starting point, not the end point of an accessible journey that started years ago. A lack of clarity from those responsible for AODA only serves to undermine the intent of the legislation.
And, in the end, the people who need support the most are the ones who will suffer, perpetuating inequitable access to the broader community around them.
But first, some history.
Back in early 2013, when we started blogging about AODA compliance and enforcement, there was a lot of misinformation out there -- often intentionally spread by less-than-scrupulous companies looking to make a buck off of fear. So we did what any responsible company would do. We asked questions, we went to the source, we got involved, and we have shared our knowledge with our clients and through this blog. Whether or not you’re a client of ours, our goal has been to make this information freely available so that you can make decisions based on information, not fear-mongering.
What if my website does not comply with AODA requirements by 2021?
Unfortunately, the Chicken Littles are back at it again, rushing around telling people that Jan. 1, 2021 is coming and, with it, AODA Armageddon.
While I’d like to say that’s just not the case, I don’t know if I can. Because I don’t know.
I should know. I mean, I’m chair of our city’s Accessibility Advisory Committee. I’m part of an employer’s roundtable that was created by the very Provincial government that instituted AODA. I have friends in low places, but I can’t get any answers.
And I suspect that’s because there are few answers to be had.
I tried getting answers, both through the front door and the back door of the Ministry of Seniors and Accessibility. And the responses were identical -- a form statement with nothing behind it.
“We recognize that this is a challenging time and that many businesses have been impacted by the COVID-19 outbreak.
The Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) is a law that helps reduce and remove the barriers that persons with disabilities may face in everyday life by establishing standards for accessibility. We continue to encourage compliance with all appropriate AODA requirements as you adapt operations during these difficult times.
The Ministry for Seniors and Accessibility continues to monitor and assess the impacts of the COVID-19 outbreak, including the effects on compliance procedures.”
With all due respect to my colleagues in the ministry, that’s a whole lot of nothing.
I continued to push back and received the following update. And if it seems vague and form-lettery to you, you’re not alone:
“By January 1, 2021, all internet websites and web content for any private or not-for profit organizations with 50 or more employees, as well as any public sector organizations must conform with WCAG 2.0 Level AA, other than success criteria 1.2.4 Captions (Live) and success criteria 1.2.5 Audio Descriptions (Pre-recorded). The deadline for this requirement remains the same.
Recognizing that this is a challenging time for many organizations, the ministry’s Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Division (AODD) can provide organizations experiencing difficulty with an extension to comply with this requirement through a workplan.
The workplan will document the tasks you identify that need to be completed and their corresponding timelines.
If you would like to establish a workplan with extended timelines, please contact [email protected] with your request. A Senior Compliance Analyst will contact you to confirm and formally establish your workplan.”
So… if you’re not going to make the deadline, you can submit a workplan for extended timelines. But if you don’t and you’re not compliant, what does that mean? Crickets.
Accessibility in Ontario
Being immersed in the accessibility world for the better part of a decade now, it’s been frustrating and eye-opening -- and not in a good way. Despite all the great work we’re doing as a society to reduce discrimination and promote inclusion, ableism is still the one thing that appears to be socially acceptable.
When we talk about removing systemic barriers, disability gets overlooked. And it’s everywhere. From neighbourhoods that don’t want sidewalks because of aesthetic concerns, to companies looking to reduce the number of accessible parking spaces because they don’t have any disabled employees, to governments refusing to implement accessibility into parkland despite proven spin-off benefits to conservation efforts, to -- of course -- websites that are still largely inaccessible because of costs and resourcing, it’s not hard to see where the barriers are.
I honestly fear that AODA is nothing more than a paper tiger at this point. Despite the best intentions of those who crafted the legislation, despite the hard work behind the scenes that people in various levels of government have put into it, and despite the incredible dedication of advocates who have been banging drums left, right, and centre trying to get people to listen, here we are just months away from a compliance deadline with little in the way of compliance.
And that goal of Ontario being a fully accessible province by 2025? That’s a pipe dream.
So Why Make Your Site Accessible?
So should you be worried if your website isn’t accessible by 2021? Maybe? I don’t know.
But here’s what I do know
- AODA is complaints-based;
- Up to now, the government has been committed to working with non-compliant companies collaboratively, instead of punitively;
- Accessible web design aligns with best practices in search engine optimization and mobile/responsive development;
- Accessibility efforts aren’t only for those with visible or non-visible disabilities, but also benefit all members of our community. Need examples?
- Curb cuts, initially intended for people in wheelchairs, are pretty darn handy for people pushing strollers, or seniors with mobility issues;
- Plain language principles, which are the foundation of accessible content, increase accessibility across the board and are particularly useful for those for whom English isn’t a first language;
- Automatic doors can help to control energy waste;
- SMS texting was initially designed as a way for deaf people to communicate without speaking -- it’s safe to say that tool is used far more widely today.
I don’t deal in “shoulds.” There are those who will lean on accessibility as the right thing to do and that people “should” do it. And while I agree that we should all hold tight to the ideal of inclusivity in everything we do, I’m also experienced enough to know that idealism doesn’t move the needle for organizations -- especially when it comes down to resourcing and money.
The business benefits of embracing universal accessibility are just so numerous that it’s hard to understand why you’d resist. From making content more accessible and findable to all, to providing a built environment that allows all to fully participate in all the events, activities, and purchasing opportunities that a community provides, you have to actively look for reasons not to be accessible.
But what does Jan. 1, 2021 look like? I honestly don’t know.
My recommendation is always going to be to meet the compliance requirements set out by the government. Jan. 1, 2021 isn’t a start date -- it’s an end date for a process that was started in 2005 through tri-partisan support with the intention to provide equitable customer service, employment, information and communications, transportation, and design of public spaces. It was and is intended to be a roadmap that ensures that all Ontarians are able to equitably participate in all aspects of society.
We shouldn’t be submitting workplans now -- that should have been a component of AODA compliance years ago, so that we wouldn’t be where we are today.
Nearly 16 years later, we still have people who are forced to stay home on snowy days because the minimum threshold for snow removal still is too much of a barrier for their wheelchairs; we still have educational barriers that preclude people with disabilities from pursuing their career goals; we still have people who have to participate in a call-100-times-a-day “lottery” to book accessible transportation three days in advance.
And we still have websites that don’t allow users to fully access content. That last one should be simple and we’ve had years to get it right. I think the benefits outweigh the expense, but when it comes down to answering the question of “What happens if we’re not accessible in January?”
I can advocate for doing your best and I would recommend submitting an extension request via the government’s workplan. Beyond that? The truth of the matter is that I just don’t know.