Canadian Underwriter

Accessible Customer Service

March 13, 2013   by Melissa Magder

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Making Canada fully accessible to persons with disabilities is not only the right thing to do for society, but it makes good business sense. Canada has often been criticized for not having an enforced policy for persons with disabilities. This is one area in which we are behind our American neighbours who passed the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990.

While there is still no “Canadians with Disabilities Act,” Ontario has taken the lead as the first province to make itself fully accessible to persons with disabilities by introducing the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA), 2005. Through a series of accessibility laws, the province of Ontario aims to eliminate all barriers to persons with disabilities by 2025.

While Ontario is the only province so far to implement accessibility legislation in Canada, the province of Manitoba is not far behind. Manitoba has an “Accessibility Advisory Council” in place whose mandate is to make recommendations to the government on what a disabilities act should include and what strategies should be adopted to improve accessibility for persons with disabilities. Much progress has been made over the past year, culminating with a speech from the throne on November 19, 2012, where a commitment was made to move forward with accessibility-rights legislation. As two provinces have now made accessibility a priority, we may very well see other provinces taking similar steps in the future.

Despite these steps forward by various governments, many business owners are not up to speed on these legislative developments and what they must do to become compliant. In Ontario, there are serious (and likly non-insurable) penalties for non-compliance with the new law, which also poses potential liability risks for businesses with disabled clients. The deadline to be in compliance with the first of the five standards under this law passed on December 31, 2012, providing brokers with an excellent opportunity to connect with clients and discuss this particular risk.

As business owners themselves, brokerage owners, too, would be well-advised to review policies and practices at their own firms to see where they stand on the issue of accessibility. 

Good for Business

The business case for accessibility in Canada is compelling. Research shows that Canadians with disabilities have an approximate spending power of $25 billion annually. Currently 15.5% of Canadians have some form of a disability and this number is expected to increase to 20% over the next 20 years, due in part to the aging population. There is no question that accessibility leads to increased profitability.

Accessible customer service is about effectively communicating with and servicing persons with disabilities in a manner that takes into account their disability. By reducing barriers and providing accessible customer service, businesses can expand their client base. When persons of all abilities feel like valued customers, they choose that business over the competitor’s—and the message carriers over to family and friends. Furthermore, accessibility creates a positive public image, a factor that is becoming more influential in this age of social consciousness. 

Compliance in Ontario

The Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) was passed by the province of Ontario in 2005. The Act is comprised of five standards to be implemented between 2008 and 2025. The objective of these standards is to eliminate all barriers to persons with disabilities in Ontario. The focus of these five standards is:

  • Customer Service: ensures that persons with disabilities receive the same level of customer service to which we are all entitled,
  • Employment: creates equal employment opportunities for persons with disabilities,
  • Information and Communications: businesses must create, provide, and receive information and communications in ways that are accessible to persons with disabilities,
  • Transportation: make all forms of public transportation in Ontario fully accessible to persons with disabilities,
  • Built Environment: make all buildings in Ontario fully accessible to persons with disabilities. 

The Customer Service Standard is the first standard to be introduced under the AODA. The goal is to ensure that persons with disabilities receive the same level of customer service to which we are all entitled. Public sector organizations were required to comply with this Standard by January 1, 2010. Businesses in Ontario that have one or more employees must have complied with the Customer Service Standard by January 1, 2012. This includes organizations headquartered outside of Ontario but have an office in Ontario.

The Customer Service Standard applies to all businesses that have one or more employees operating in Ontario and provide goods or services directly to the public or to other businesses. Both large and small organizations must comply with this law. Financial penalties for offences under the Act can be in the thousands of dollars – up to $100,000.00 per day for an organization and $50,000 per day for an individual.

Businesses that serve Ontarians but do not have an office in Ontario are not legally required to comply with this legislation. However, many have decided to, at minimum, train their staff on how to provide accessible customer service to persons with disabilities as a “best practice.” These businesses also want to maintain the same standard of service excellence as their competitors, many of whom may have provided accessible customer service training to their employees because they have offices across Canada and trained all employees, not just those working in Ontario. Many national organizations chose to do this as they felt it did not make good business sense to provide better customer service to Ontario customers with disabilities than customers with disabilities residing in other provinces. Also, an ever increasing number of organizations with offices in Ontario that hire vendors from outside Ontario to service their Ontario clients, are insisting that employees of these vendors participate in an accessible customer service training program. 

Requirements of the Customer Service Standard

Organizations with fewer than 20 employees must: create an accessibility policy and implement a customer service plan; and provide mandatory training for staff who deal with customers on accessible customer service (according to the legislation, customers include front-line customers as well as third-parties such as suppliers, distributors, etc.).

Organizations with 20 employees or more must: create an accessibility policy and implement a customer service plan; provide mandatory training for staff who deal with customers on accessible customer service (same definition of customer as noted above); document the above in accessible formats that are available to the public upon request; and submit an online accessibility report to the Ontario Ministry of Community and Social Services

Businesses in Ontario with more than 20 employees were required to report to the government on their compliance activities related to the Customer Service Standard by December 31, 2012. Businesses of all sizes and across all sectors are subject to random audits and inspection.

Seeking assistance from an AODA expert is the ideal way to help ensure you meet the legislative requirements quickly and effectively. If your clients’ businesses (or yours) are not yet compliant, now is the time to act to avoid potential fines and penalties and seize an opportunity at the same time. 

Melissa Magder is director, HR and intercultural training, at proLearning innovations, an AODA solutions provider for small and large businesses in Ontario. For more information, email or call 647-847-1853.


Copyright 2013 Rogers Publishing Ltd. This article first appeared in the January 2013 edition of Canadian Insurance Top Broker magazine.

This story was originally published by Canadian Insurance Top Broker.