The path to an accessible culture must be carved out by the people: Ontario's five lessons for New Zealand

Making development accessible is key for success, explains Dr Marie Bountrogianni, former Minister of Children and Youth Services and Minister Responsible for Accessibility in the Canadian provincial government of Ontario. 

Twelve years ago, the Canadian province of Ontario, home to 14 million people and our nation’s capital, Ottawa, did something extraordinary: for the first time in Canada, we passed legislation enshrining accessibility for all. As the Minister of Children and Youth Services and Minister Responsible for Accessibility in Ontario’s government, I authored and oversaw the enactment of The Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, or AODA.

The purpose of the AODA is to remove all barriers to public services and spaces. The ultimate goal, is for people with disabilities to have automatic access to transportation, education, healthcare and job opportunities. Right now, even in the most advanced countries, this is not the case. To get there, the desire to do right by one another must be deeply felt – this kind of change benefits everyone, but has to be led by the citizens. 

The ideal of accessibility is one in which nobody has to ask ‘is it accessible?’ Anyone with any impairment, temporary or permanent – to their mobility; their physical or mental health; their hearing or vision or speech; even a pregnant woman or a parent wrangling small children has an accessibility need – can access any public service or facility. At any given time, 25% of Ontarians and Kiwis are in this category, and the same proportion of visitors or tourists.

Like New Zealand, Canada is a diverse country with a spirit for change and progress. Previous visits have shown me New Zealanders’ desire to do right by their fellow citizens, exemplified by the inspirational work of Minnie Baragwanath and Be. Accessible, the Blind Foundation and many others.

How, then, can New Zealand accelerate its own accessibility movement by looking to the Ontario experience? Here are five lessons:

1. Take a long view

Being accessible takes time, and the AODA was given a 20-year timeline when it was introduced in 2005. The good news is, you can always see progress: New Zealand’s co-hosting of the 2011 Rugby World Cup had the social change organisation Be.Accessible, led by Minnie Baragwanath, deployed trained teams to conduct holistic accessibility assessments of venues and key public places, buildings and businesses in all 12 host cities to determine how accessible they were for disabled people. Improvements were made and relevant information was posted and advertised in a variety of forums.

With a national framework supported by legislation so much more can be achieved, and change is afoot. I am the guest speaker at a major Auckland event at the end of February where the Access Alliance, a new coalition of organisations working to make New Zealand 100% accessible, will launch the Access for All campaign. The campaign is asking all parties in Parliament following the 23 September election to come together to introduce the Accessibility for New Zealanders Act. The Ontario example is proof that it’s possible that by my next visit to New Zealand, this law will have been enacted.

Minnie Baragwanath.

2. Look at the economic case

In Ontario as in New Zealand, the population of senior citizens is swelling. Baby boomers, the wealthiest generation in history, are now entering their 70s and developing disabilities, but they’re retired and they want to spend. Making it easy for them to do so is economically smart. By making restaurants and hotels accessible we have made travel easier for seniors and more lucrative for businesses.

More generally, serving the needs of people with disabilities is an opportunity to generate substantial revenue for the economy. People with disabilities want to travel, they want to go to hotels and restaurants. They want to work and pay taxes.

3. Change is driven by the people, so ask more of your services

After politics I served as President of the Royal Ontario Museum, which I made fully accessible by including facilities for children with disabilities and tours for the blind and hearing-impaired. For example, special exhibits offer people who can’t see sculptures they can touch, and assistive communication technology allows real-time face-to-face communication between a visitor who is deaf and museum staff members.

Wonderful sites such as the Auckland War Memorial Museum receive public money, and taxpayers and ratepayers should not be shy about demanding that some funding be directed towards creating full accessibility. Ultimately, change is driven by people. Look at all levels of government, and to philanthropy, for going beyond the requirements of the law, as I did with the Royal Ontario Museum.

4. The right kind of government support is essential

The accessibility movement has to be citizen-led but there must be some state investment, for example appointing a Minister for Accessibility. In New Zealand there is a Minister for Disability Issues, with the Office of Disability Issues functioning as a unit within the Ministry of Social Development. To begin with, I believe the term ‘Accessibility’ should be used as opposed to ‘Disability’. 

It is not just about citizens and the state – don’t forget the role of corporates, which are profit-driven but also people-centric, and recognise a good economic case when it’s put in front of them. A praiseworthy local example is the Be. Accessible Fab 50, a group of top New Zealand businesspeople and political and social leaders who are championing accessibility by implementing in their own organisations. It’s a strategy of compassion, but it also helps attract and retain talent and customers. Citizens can push organisations to push government towards an accessible future because citizens with disabilities have every right to access services.

5. Be shameless about stealing from others

We’ve all had that experience when travelling of encountering a public site or service – a particular transport system, a special piece of architecture – and thinking, something like this would be great at home. I ‘stole’ ideas from the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia. They were accessibility leaders 12 years ago.

Dr Marie Bountrogianni is a former Minister of Children and Youth Services and Minister Responsible for Accessibility in the Canadian provincial government of Ontario. She authored and oversaw the enactment of The Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act in 2005. Ms Bountrogianni is the guest speaker at the 27 February Access Matters Forum and Campaign Launch, where the Access Alliance of seven local disability organisations will introduce the Access for All campaign.