Toronto Star June 18, 2010
The costs and benefits of greater accessibility
By Carol Goar
Five years ago, the Ontario government passed landmark legislation requiring all public and private buildings, forms of public transportation, types of consumer service and sources of information to be fully accessible to people with disabilities by 2025.
“This makes Ontario the first jurisdiction in Canada to develop, implement and enforce mandatory accessibility standards,” said Social Services Minister Madeleine Meilleur.
There was a flurry of praise from disability advocates and complaints from municipalities and businesses, fearful of the cost. Then the initiative dropped out of sight.
But work continued behind the scenes. Committees drafted the accessibility standards in each area, sought comment from concerned Ontarians and submitted their final recommendations to the government.
This year, the crunch comes. The province will implement the new standards.
In anticipation, the Liberals commissioned a report on the economic benefits of being a barrier-free province. It asked three research organizations — the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto; the Adaptive Technology Research Centre at the Ontario College of Art and Design; and the Institute for Competitiveness and Prosperity, to do a joint study.
The report, entitled Releasing Constraints: Projecting the Economic Impacts of Increased Accessibility in Ontario, was released this week. Its main conclusion: “There are opportunities for non-trivial economic gains to be achieved for individuals, organizations and the province as a whole through the implementation of the standards.”
This perspective has been missing from the polarized debate between those facing barriers and those facing the expense of removing them. It fills an important gap in public knowledge.
But it isn’t a cost-benefit analysis and it isn’t a guide to the future. What the government asked for — and got — was a look at one side of the balance sheet.
Here is what the project team found:
• Making workplaces accessible will increase the province’s labour force participation rate; improve the incomes of people with disabilities; and boost Ontario’s gross domestic product by up to $600 per capita.
• Removing barriers to schools, colleges and universities will improve educational attainment, raising Ontario’s per capita GDP by a further $200 year.
• There will be savings in health-care and social assistance costs as more individuals with disabilities become self-supporting.
• The retail and tourist sectors will expand as Ontarians with disabilities can travel and shop.
The province is well-positioned to develop clusters of accessibility-focused businesses, capable of serving global markets. It also has a head-start on training workers with the skills to prepare Canadian and international businesses to compete in an era when accessibility is legally required.
“What we have learned,” the authors say, “leads us to conclude that every day that people who want to learn cannot, that people who want to work do not, and businesses that wish to serve these markets must wait to see what will be required, Ontario is losing extremely valuable contributions from its citizens.
“Releasing the constraints that limit full participation in the economy will create a significant force for economic growth.”
It is an intriguing thesis. But it rests on several debatable assumptions. The first is that all organizations affected by the new rules will respect them. The second is that there are entrepreneurs capable of turning 268 local suppliers of everything from assistive devices to building redesign expertise into a handful of forward-looking clusters ready to meet rising global demand. The third is that Ontario will stay the course for 15 years, despite changes of government, financial pressures and shifting priorities.
Right now, most Ontarians are unaware their government is poised to set mandatory accessibility standards covering the places they work, shop, learn and entertain themselves.
What they need most is practical information about what to expect, how to adapt, how to manage the costs and how to make fairness a smart strategy.