My perspective - Open eyes, open doors


By Kate Jackman-Atkinson

Neepawa Banner & Press

Barriers don’t look the same to all Manitobans. For many, a barrier can be as simple as a step or a 12 point font. With the goal of improving accessibility across the province, the government introduced new legislation, which as of Nov. 1, applies to all organizations and levels of government in Manitoba.

The Accessibility Standard for Customer Service, part of the Accessibility for Manitobans Act (AMA), came into effect in three waves. It began with the provincial government in 2016. The following year, the public sector was required to meet the standards and now, it’s law for all private companies, small municipalities and not-for-profits.

The Customer Service Standard doesn’t require organizations to undertake costly renovations or invest in expensive technologies. At its core, the standard sets out to make people within organizations aware of any barriers associated with their operations and develop ways to ensure that they can serve everyone. The standard requires that organizations meet the communication needs of customers, clients or members; allow assistive devices, such as wheelchairs, walkers and oxygen tanks; welcome support people; welcome people with service animals; ensure accessibility is maintained as intended, such as making sure ramps and wide aisles can be used; let customers know when accessible features and services are not available; invite customers to provide feedback and train staff on accessible customer service, including reasonable accommodations under The Human Rights Code of Manitoba.

The impact of barriers isn’t trivial. Government figures indicate that almost one in six Manitobans are impacted by some kind of disability that creates challenges in how they live, work and play. The barriers they face also have an impact on their friends and families. Being inclusive isn’t just the right thing to do, it also makes good business sense; why would you want to shut out potential or existing customers?

Most of us are fortunate to not face permanent disabilities, but most of us have temporarily experienced just how hard it can be to do businesses if you have challenges when it comes to mobility, vision or hearing. Like many Manitobans, I have had experience navigating a stroller or wheelchair through too narrow store aisles, using crutches to get around uneven surfaces and having trouble reading something because I forgot my glasses. A little bit of a different perspective can change your whole outlook on the physical environment.

The legislation has made people step back and truly look at how they interact with the public; that’s not a bad thing. Many buildings in rural Manitoba were built before design features like wide doorways and single levels were the norm, there are a lot of barriers hiding in plain sight and often improving accessibility can be a simple case of increased awareness. The new legislation doesn’t require buildings to be brought up to today’s standard, only that service providers have a plan to work around their limitations and ensure that staff are trained. It can be as simple as ensuring there is no clutter to make access harder, or having a plan to bring service to an individual who can’t get to a public area of a business. Some changes are extremely easy, for example, if customers take a number for service, a service provider should display the number being served, as well as calling it out.

The government has made it easy for organizations to comply and through the Accessibility Manitoba website, provides helpful resources, like a sample policy, training tools, checklists, frequently asked questions and a list of barriers and ways to overcome them. We’ve got nothing to lose by making sure our doors are truly open, and a lot to gain.