Governments can only do so much when it comes to improving the lives of people with disabilities, John Tory says.
The frontrunner to be Toronto’s next mayor told an audience he would be a powerful advocate for the disabled if elected, but private companies are often ahead of governments in hiring people with disabilities, and provide more jobs than governments can.
“People have to decide to do the right thing,” argued the former Rogers CEO, who said many citizens simply aren’t aware of the challenges people with disabilities face and need to be told.
In contrast, rival candidate Olivia Chow, speaking to an overflowing crowd Monday, Sept. 22, at Ryerson University’s Tecumseh Auditorium, stressed the city government’s power to change the lives of the disabled for the better.
The city can, when it signs contracts or buys from suppliers, require those companies to hire or train people with different abilities, Chow said, adding she also wants all city projects to reach its Disability Issues Committee for comments while they’re still in an early stage.
That advisory committee would start issuing a report card and an action plan for improvements each year, with the city itemizing how much each item will cost.
“If they don’t tell you, then it won’t get done,” said Chow.
Doug Ford, another candidate, was invited but told organizers he couldn’t attend.
Tory, also a former Progressive Conservative leader for Ontario, said governments have made “halting” progress towards accessibility, with long government timeframes for goals leading to postponements.
“We’ve set targets that proved to be moving targets, and those are not good,” he said.
The most talked-about moving target at the debate, entirely about disability issues, was the TTC’s schedule to make its subway stations fully accessible.
Though the city’s transit authority in recent years made its bus fleet wheelchair and scooter friendly, it must still retrofit 17 stations by 2025 to comply with a provincial law, the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act.
The TTC committed itself to retrofit nine stations by 2018, but this year – though the pledge remains on its website - the money for the work was withdrawn during the budget process, said David Lepofsky, chairperson of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance said.
Lepofsky asked Chow and Tory whether they would “make whoever took it away put it back” and make sure the withdrawing of funds doesn’t happen again.
Chow promised to meet the province’s deadline, but said the Scarborough subway extension was “eating up all the TTC budget,” and she would replace the project with a less-expensive light-rail line to fund the station retrofits.
Tory said it was “ridiculous” to say the accessibility money was redirected to the extension. All three levels of government agreed to build it, he added, promising to speed the retrofitting work, perhaps by “shaming” other governments to contribute more.
Debate moderator Helen Henderson asked candidates for specifics on increasing the city’s supply affordable housing, since most people with disabilities rent, and many, she said, are “forced into homes that are inadequate, unaffordable and, most tragically, inaccessible.”
Chow said she supports exclusionary zoning requiring 20 per cent of residential units to be affordable, including some fully accessible, with approvals for such projects coming within a year.
Tory said city taxpayers can’t bear the burden of constructing affordable housing alone, but the city’s housing authority and Parking Authority can sell land to builders who would put up affordable housing, including accessible units.
Some of the hundreds jammed into the space on Monday, many watching sign language interpreters or real time captioning, called for services Toronto doesn’t yet provide, such as captioning and sign language interpretation during all televised city announcements.
One downtown woman said she’s struggled with learning disabilities and mental illness, and been turned away from employment programs because she can’t handle full-time work. She asked for a program that can handle people in her situation, “because these people end up in hospitals, jailed or on the street.”
A woman from the west end, who is legally blind, said members of “disabled families” need access to a full range of city programs too. “We don’t just need to be cared for; we also do a lot of caring ourselves,” she said.
Neither candidate made clear how the city can fund large numbers of improvements its residents with disabilities and their families might want, though Chow brought up her proposed municipal land transfer tax increase for people buying homes for $2 million or more.
Both Chow and Tory resisted the idea of having all residents pay more in property taxes to fund improvements for people with disabilities. Ari Goldkind, another mayoral candidate, later said this meant both had “shunned their responsibilities to people who need help the most.”
“They pretend that we’re an overtaxed city,” said Goldkind, a lawyer who wasn’t invited to join the debate, but said for “50 cents a day” – the average amount he said residents would pay through a five per cent property tax increase - the city could be more caring and compassionate towards the disabled.