Business Accessibility – It’s Not About Having a Ramp

Ontario businesses must comply with new accessibility rules by January 2012. Under the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, 2005 (AODA), five standards are being developed to improve accessibility by identifying, removing and preventing barriers in the key areas of: Customer Service; Information and Communications; Employment; Built Environment; and Transportation. The Customer Service Standard is the first to come into effect, and all businesses providing goods or services to the public or to third parties in Ontario are required to comply. While the physical structure of a building plays a large role in accessibility, it is not all about the building.

These upcoming requirements do not apply to the physical structure of a business but relate to customer service and the establishment of policies, practices and procedures identifying and outlining the accommodation of persons with disabilities. While business owners may be concerned about prospective costs of complying, accessibility does not have to be costly to implement.  There are simple, cost-effective solutions to ensure your business is accessible. For businesses with fewer than twenty employees, implementation of these new accessibility standards is primarily administrative and involves the establishment of customer service policies, practices and procedures that include: policies allowing persons with disabilities to be accompanied by their service animal, support person, and / or assistive devices, and, if applicable, whether an admission fee would be waived for that support person.

Feedback and complaint protocols must also be established and identify how complaints regarding access to products and services will be responded to. A procedure to notify customers in the event of a temporary service or facilities disruption may also be required. Customer service policy and procedure documents should be made available in an accessible format (i.e. larger print), upon request.

Training of staff is another valuable requirement of the standard and can significantly improve the overall accessibility of your business. Front-line staff, employees, and contractors should be aware of accessibility policies and procedures, and taught practical, adaptive skills to effectively communicate with clients and prospective customers on your behalf. Businesses with twenty or more employees and public sector organizations should already be in compliance and may have additional responsibilities under the standard.

As well, accessibility just makes good business sense. With one in seven Canadians having a disability, accessibility ensures your products and services are available to the entire marketplace. Canadians with disabilities spend $25 billion a year, and if customers can’t access your products or services, they can’t spend. Accommodation expands reach and improves corporate perception, customer satisfaction, and consumer loyalty.

In addition to the accessibility requirements outlined in the A.O.D.A., there are other cost-effective solutions to improve overall accessibility and ensure all areas of your business are barrier-free. Simply having a pen and paper available at customer interaction points, such as a retail cashier station, can be useful in aiding communication with a hard-of-hearing individual, or even through a language barrier, with a few written words or basic diagrams. Similarly, the strategic placement of chairs can go a long way towards accommodating customers with mobility, stamina or chronic pain concerns.

Accessibility doesn’t just assist people with disabilities; a conveniently placed chair might also help an expectant mother. Wide, obstruction-free aisles are necessary for wheelchairs, but also convenient for those with strollers or shopping carts. Accessibility assists the community as a whole, and by increasing awareness of issues; you can help to make this world more accessible for all.

Most barriers exist simply as the result of a lack of awareness. An increased understanding of disability issues can go a long way towards helping to effectively identify, communicate, accommodate and service people with various disabilities, thus ensuring all areas of your business are accessible.

~ For more information on accessibility compliance and accommodation ~