Employers in Ontario may need to start thinking more about making their workplaces accessible to employees with disabilities. As of January 1, 2014, organizations regulated by the province must comply with new rules under the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA), which seeks to remove barriers for persons with disabilities. The AODA, enacted in 2005, sets out guidelines, to be phased in progressively, with the goal of making the province accessible by 2025.
Starting this year, the new requirements mean that private and non-profit organizations with 50 or more employees must comply with the following regulations as part of the AODA:
• Create a multi-year plan to remove accessibility barriers within the organization;
• Establish policies to help achieve accessibility goals and inform employees and customers about them;
• Consider accessibility in the design of kiosks;
• Make new websites more accessible; and
• File an accessibility report.
"The deadlines are different for different employers," says Darren Cooney, manager of public education and partnership at the Accessibility Directorate of Ontario in Toronto. "The intent of the law was to recognize different capacities of different types of organizations. The public sector could lead by example, and then the private sector could pick up on our example."
Looking ahead, employers of large private and non-profit organizations will have two years to meet the AODA requirements that relate specifically to employment standards, while small organizations will have until 2017. This covers all aspects of employment, including: recruitment, assessment and selection of applicants for jobs; informing employees of supports; communication with employees; individual accommodation plans and return-to-work processes; performance management; career development; and redeployment.
While the laws coming into force in 2014 do not focus on workplace ergonomic requirements, the AODA requirements should get employers thinking about accessibility, notes Kathy Kawaja, Canadian Certified Professional Ergonomist and principal ergonomics consultant at Human Factors North in Toronto. "Employers need a lot of awareness before they’re going to do something," says Kawaja. She suggests employers "think ahead" when it comes to accommodating workers with disabilities. "So whether they are retrofitting their current office space, or could be an industrial establishment, or maybe they’re moving to a new building," she says, "it’s thinking about all this in procurement or planning."
When accommodating a worker in a wheelchair or scooter, the first thing that an employer should do is consult with the employee, recommends Ian Parker, a wheelchair user and senior advisor of direct funding at the Centre for Independent Living in Toronto. The organization helps people with disabilities learn independent living skills and integrate into the community. "Ask them [employees] what their needs are, because it’s different for everybody when you get down to the fine-tuning," he says, adding that it is important to keep communication open at all times, in case further difficulties arise.
In terms of specific measures that can be taken to make the workplace accessible to employees in wheelchairs, the sidewalk outside the building should have curb cuts, and accessible parking and an accessible drop-off area near the door should be made available. The entrance should have level access and an automatic door. "Lever handles on the doors make them much easier to handle than doorknobs, or for people with poor hand function, remote openers that will open the outside door or the office suite door," notes Parker. Elevators should have buttons that a worker in a wheelchair can reach, and the hallways should be wide enough — about 90 centimetres, according to Kawaja — for a wheelchair to pass.
Although the setup of the work station will vary depending on the individual worker, in an office environment, Parker says it is important to have a printer that is not too high and tables and desks that are at a good level for people in wheelchairs to get underneath, while still being able to reach the surface. "We have some adjustable-height desks here that we use," he notes. "By pushing a button, they can go up or down, and that’s extremely useful because they can be used by somebody different just by raising it or lowering it." In his office, Parker uses Dragon Naturally Speaking, a voice-activated computer software.
"Speech recognition software is getting much better," says Kawaja. "But in the past they haven’t been very efficient." She notes there are other options that can help people with varying abilities who use computers at work. "There’s something called word cue. It basically guesses what your next word is, similar to what our smartphones do now. So there’s less typing," Kawaja says. For people with Parkinson’s disease, who may have hand tremors, foot switches can be used. Voice macros can also be employed for functions that the user does frequently. By giving an auditory command, the worker can tell the computer what to do, eliminating mouse and key strokes. "So let’s say you go to Google as your homepage a lot. A voice macro would be ‘go to Google,’ and then your computer just goes to it."
Besides physical immobility, such as being confined to a wheelchair, employers should also be aware of other disabilities, such as cognitive and perceptual impairments. "I think when it comes to accommodating people with disabilities, it really is a case-by-case basis. It depends on their disability," says Kawaja. "And then it depends on what they’re doing at their job."
As an occupational therapist with March of Dimes Canada in London, Ontario, Mary-Rose Hackbart has conducted workplace assessments in hospitals, long-term care facilities, fast food joints and manufacturing plants to accommodate employees with impairments who are returning to work from disability leave due to injury or illness.
In one case, she was asked to look at modifications for a position at a healthcare facility that required reaching overhead to dust walls and ceilings. In this type of situation, Hackbart recommends using tools with longer handles. "That sort of thing could be applied to someone without an injury too, like for all their workers," she suggests. "That would eliminate overhead reaching for everyone."
In a production setting, where several shifts of workers are coming in and out, Hackbart suggests designing equipment so that it is within reasonable reach, to minimize the amount of time spent with arms fully extended. Making the work-station height adjustable is also helpful.
"Those sorts of things, they do follow the principles of universal design," notes Hackbart. The universal design principles were developed as a guide for designing products and environments that are usable by all people to the greatest extent possible, without adaptation or specialized design. Hackbart suggests that employers may want to look at using these principles within their workplaces, which can eliminate the need for workers to request accommodations in the first place.
Universal design follows seven principles: equitable use (the design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities); flexibility in use (it accommodates a wide range of preferences and abilities); simple and intuitive use (it is easy to understand); perceptible information (it effectively communicates necessary information regardless of ambient conditions); tolerance for error (it minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions); low physical effort (it can be used efficiently and comfortably with minimum fatigue); and size and space for approach and use (appropriate size and space is provided for approach, reach, manipulation and use regardless of the user’s body size, posture or mobility).
"Let’s put it this way, universal design is best practice. The return-to-work process as part of the employment standards is a compliance; it’s going to be a requirement," says Kawaja.
Meanwhile, the province plans to continue conducting audits and inspections where warranted, as well as educating employers on workplace accessibility, reports Cooney. "Often times, we hear the fear that accommodations are going to be expensive, but the reality is that most accommodations are quite inexpensive or free," he notes.
Carmelle Wolfson is assistant editor of OHS CANADA.
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