The Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act: A Refresher for Nonprofits

This blog post recaps a webinar on the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA), presented by Accessibility Ontario CEO, Constance Exley. While this post focuses on Ontario, it provides practical accessibility tips that you can implement in any province or territory! Watch the full webinar here.

Why is Accessibility Important?


Accessibility is important for everyone - not just individuals with disabilities. For example, when buildings are wheelchair accessible, it benefits parents with strollers. Or when a TV program has closed captioning, it benefits patrons watching in a noisy bar who can’t hear the audio.


In Ontario and across Canada, accessibility is becoming increasingly integrated into all parts of life, ranging from accessible communications to how we design public spaces. And it’s only going to become more prevalent as our population continues to age.


In 2013, there were 1.7 million people over the age of 65 in Ontario, and this number is increasing rapidly. In fact, the Globe and Mail reported in September 2015 that for the first time, there were more seniors than children in Canada. And because the chance of acquiring a disability increases with age, the number of Canadians with disabilities is going to rise significantly too.


The Economic Benefits of Accessibility


Right now, there are 1.65 million people with disabilities in Ontario alone, which makes for 15.4% of the population. That number rises to 63% if you include the friends, families and colleagues of Ontarians with disabilities. That means the majority of Ontario's population would more likely to support businesses and organizations who demonstrate a commitment to accessibility.


Accessibility Benefits Employers too!


There are expected to be 190 000 job vacancies in Ontario by 2020, and up to 564 000 vacancies by 2030. That’s a lot of work that could be done by people with disabilities if we endeavour to integrate them into the labour force.


People with disabilities also perform higher in job performance reviews and retention, yet have an unemployment rate three times higher than abled workers. By integrating people with disabilities into the labour market, we can potentially increase employment income in Ontario by up to $618 million.


How do we define a disability?


The Accessibility for Ontarians for Disabilities Act (AODA) and the Ontario Human Rights Code share the same, extensive definition of a disability, which can be summarized as a...



  • Physical disability: disfigurement or infirmity due to injury, illness, or birth defect - including hearing and vision loss.
  • Developmental disability: A condition of mental impairment.
  • Learning disability: Dysfunctions in processes involved in understanding symbols or spoken language.
  • Any mental health disorder



Disabilities come in different forms; some are temporary like breaking a leg, while others are permanent like losing a leg. Similarly, some are intermittent like arthritis, while others are progressive like parkinson's disease.


Only 30% of disabilities are visible, such as somebody using a wheelchair. This means that most disabilities are actually invisible, such as deafness. 


The Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA)


“Accessibility is about more than just ramps or automatic door openers; it’s about changing attitudes and giving people of all abilities opportunities to participate in everyday life,” said Constance Exley, CEO of Accessibility Ontario.


“It’s about inclusion and making everyone feel like they belong, and understanding that people with disabilities have different needs. One of the things we can do to understand those needs is to strike up a conversation and ask, ‘How can I help? Is there something I can do?’”


Ontario is the first jurisdiction in the world to mandate accessibility reporting and training. The AODA sets clear goals and timeframes to address areas of accessibility that have the greatest impact on the lives of disabled Ontarians, such as physical, technological and attitudinal barriers. And other provinces are watching; Manitoba is working on similar legislation - the Accessibility for Manitobans Act


Who has to comply with the AODA?


The AODA was passed in 2005 and introduced five accessibility standards with deadlines that occur from 2010 up until 2021. The AODA enacts regular audits and inspections and has the authority to penalize organizations to force compliance when every other effort is exhausted. The Ontario Government doesn’t want to be punitive, and these measures are a last resort!


The AODA applies to all sectors (public, private, for-profit and nonprofit). Therefore, any organization providing goods, services, or facilities to the public and/or other organizations - and has at least one employee - has to comply with the AODA. Based on this criteria, there are only two kinds of organizations that are exempt.


  • Nonprofit organizations with no staff (i.e. they’re completely volunteer-run)
  • Self-employed consultants who are not incorporated.


An ‘employee’ is literally anyone who works for you; full-time, part-time, seasonal and contract workers all count as employees. Even if your nonprofit is a one-person team, you still have to comply with the AODA.


The AODA is the umbrella legislation of five separate standards. The first is the Customer Service Standard (CSS), and then the Integrated Accessibility Standard Regulations (IASR) that includes: the information and communications standard, the employment standard, the transportation standard, and the design of public spaces standard. This umbrella is demonstrated below.












The First ‘Half’ of the AODA: The Customer Service Standard (CSS)


The CSS requires organizations to develop a policy and plan to address how you will provide your goods or services to people with disabilities. However, keep in mind that your services themselves don’t have to be accessible; only the information you provide about your services do.


Your organization’s policy must welcome service animals into public spaces, including restaurants or cafes. The only exception is that service animals are never allowed in spaces where food is being prepared, such as a restaurant’s kitchen area. Similarly, assistive devices must be allowed in all public spaces.


Your policy must also address what you charge for support persons (someone either hired or chosen to help a person with a disability with communication, personal care or medical needs). For example, let’s say you’re a theatre company and you sell a ticket to someone in a wheelchair and they have a support person with them. You have the right to charge the support person full price, or you can give them a free ticket - or anywhere in between! Regardless, you must decide what to charge beforehand, put it in your policy, and publicly display this information.


If there’s ever any service interruption with assistive devices - like an elevator breaking down - you have to post a sign letting people know, and include how long the assistive device is out of order and what alternatives are available.


Additionally, organizations must provide a way to to collect feedback on their accessibility practices by providing contact information in multiple formats (e.g. a phone number and email address), and state the expected response time. Being open to feedback will help you discover barriers you weren’t aware of and builds goodwill between you and your supporters. It’s also beneficial for your organization to get feedback from a negative experience directly, rather than have someone talk poorly about you and harm your reputation.


Your staff and volunteers also need to know what’s expected of them when speaking to people with disabilities. They must be trained on the AODA and the CSS so they are equipped to provide respectful service and make accommodations for people with disabilities. Generally, the CSS guides employees to do the following:


  • Avoid stereotypes and generalizations
  • Learn appropriate and respectful language 
  • Ask before you help someone
  • Give the best customer service you can by getting to know the needs of disabled patrons
  • Communicate in a way that takes into account a person’s disability




CSS Differences for ‘Small’ and ‘Large’ Nonprofits


The CSS defines large nonprofits as those with 20 or more employees (including full-time, part-time, seasonal and contract).


In addition to the requirements outlined above, there are special requirements for large nonprofits. They must...


Have their CSS policy in writing (whereas small nonprofits with less than 20 employees only have to discuss and decide on a policy verbally).

Let customers know they can ask and receive a copy of that policy at any time, in an accessible format.

Report to the Ontario Government to prove you’re in compliance with the CSS.


***If you’re a large organization, and you didn’t report in 2014, contact Service Ontario to get started on that process. Everyone else needs to report by 2017, on all standards, which we will discuss below.


Customer Service Standard Compliance Deadlines


  • Jan 1, 2012 - All nonprofits


The second ‘half’ of the AODA: The Integrated Accessibility Standard Regulation (IASR)


The IASR is composed of four separate standards, and have similar requirements as the CSS: organizations have to comply with the IASR standards that apply to them, and train their employees, volunteers and contracted services on accessibility. However, there are some unique aspects of the IASR.


  • Organizations must consider accessibility when purchasing self-service kiosks (which range from point-of-sale debit machines to public-use computers).
  • Public-sector organizations must consider accessibility when procuring contracts
  • Large organizations are defined as having 50 or more employees (rather than 20 or more employees with the CSS)
  • Large organizations not only have to have their policies in writing; they also must develop multi-year accessibility plans that outline strategies to prevent and remove barriers for people with disabilities.


General Compliance Deadlines for the IASR


Accessibility Policies

  • Jan. 1, 2014 - Large nonprofits
  • Jan. 1, 2015 - Small nonprofits

Multi-Year Accessibility Plans

  • Jan. 1, 2014 - Large nonprofits


  • Jan. 1, 2015 - Large nonprofits
  • Jan. 2, 2016 - Small nonprofits

Self-Service Kiosks

  • Jan. 1, 2014 - Large nonprofits
  • Jan. 1, 2015 - Small nonprofits


#1 Information and Communications Standard


This standard requires all emergency and public safety information to be provided in an accessible format when asked. This applies to any communications medium, including websites!


You need to have alternative feedback avenues for your website, which could be a phone number to call, for example. Your website itself must follow the Web Content Accessibility Standards (WCAG).


Compliance Deadlines


Emergency and Public Safety Information


Jan. 1, 2012 - All nonprofits



Jan. 1, 2015 - Large nonprofits

Jan. 1, 2016 - Small nonprofits

Accessible Formats and Communication Supports


Jan. 1, 2016 - Large nonprofits

Jan. 1, 2017 - Small nonprofits



Jan. 1, 2014 - Large nonprofits


#2 Employment Standard


Organizations must prepare individualized workplace emergency response information for employees with disabilities. Similarly, all internal communications and workplace information must be accessible to all employees.


Recruitment has to be accessible too; during a hiring process, you must notify the public that accommodations will be made during interviews, which could include holding the interview in an accessible location. Having diversity statements in your recruitment postings, and accepting resumes in several forms, are all good practices.


All organizations need a plan to meet the needs of employees throughout their careers - this includes individualized career development plans, performance management, and redeployment.


Large organizations have to go a step further and provide individual accommodation plans, and return-to-work plans for employees absent due to a disability.


Compliance Deadlines

Workplace Emergency Information

  • Jan. 1, 2012 - All nonprofits

Small Nonprofits have the Deadline of Jan. 1, 2017 to be compliant with...

  • Recruitment, assessment, and selection
  • Workplace information
  • Performance management, career development, and redeployment

Large Nonprofits have the Deadline of Jan. 1, 2016 to be compliant with...

  • Recruitment, assessment, and selection
  • Employee accommodation
  • Return to work
  • Performance management, career development, and redeployment





#3 Transportation Standard


This standard only applies to a select few organizations, like municipalities with public transit and hospitals. All organizations providing transportation services must have accessible options for people with disabilities.


#4 Design of Public Spaces Standard


This is the most recent standard and requires all new public spaces (including public buildings) to be accessible. This excludes existing spaces, unless they are being redeveloped.



Next Steps


All the above policies are in effect for nonprofit organizations. If your nonprofit has 20 or more employees, you need to report on the Customer Service Standard now! Contact Service Ontario to get this process started.


Nonprofits have to report again by December 31, 2017, and those with 50 or more employees will have to report on the IASR standards that apply to them, in addition to the CSS, by that date. Accessibility reporting deadlines are every three years, and will occur at the end of 2020, 2023 and so on.


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