The Accessibility Certification Project

The principles of universal design dictate that by designing for the wide spectrum of human abilities, we can create things that are easier for all people to use. In public life, this universal access benefits everyone who plans, provides, or uses products and services. Similarly, the steps to engage businesses, strengthen foundations, and promote a broader culture shift that are mapped out in Ontario’s Accessibility Action Plan will not only benefit the one in seven Ontarians who have a disability, but all Ontarians and visitors to Ontario.

In committing to this plan, the Government of Ontario recognizes that a multi-pronged strategy will be most effective in addressing the barriers Ontarians with disabilities continue to face as citizens, consumers and employees. An independent, voluntary accessibility certification-type model could be an important part of this strategy, promoting the value of accessibility beyond the current framework prescribed by the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA). The certification model will be designed and delivered by the people it will most impact – Ontarians with lived experience of barriers to accessibility, whether as consumers or businesses. This will take place through a public consultation and co-design process that will enable end users to develop a model that will best serve their needs.

While accessibility can mean something different to each individual, accessibility at a broad level means being respectful, inclusive, and providing universal access, regardless of a person’s ability. For persons with disabilities, accessibility enables inclusion in the workforce and economy. For businesses, it provides an opportunity to access a larger customer base and to increase productivity by welcoming a wide range of talent to their workforce. Estimates from the Martin Prosperity Institute suggest that increased accessibility could increase GDP per capita in Ontario by up to $600 per annum.  An accessibility certification program would serve to:

  • Reduce attitudinal barriers and promote the value of accessibility
  • Lead organizations to a better understanding of what they can do to increase their accessibility and how accessibility can benefit their organization
  • Give a wider range of people improved access to goods and services
  • Support a gradual cultural shift toward embracing the business case for accessibility, making accessibility part of daily life

Accessibility certification will not replace, change or overlap with the existing framework under the AODA.  It is not intended to be an audit of AODA compliance, but rather a voluntary opportunity for organizations to highlight themselves as leaders in accessibility and to demonstrate the level of accessibility that organizations are able to achieve. Perhaps more critical than enhanced visibility is the opportunity to drive the bar higher and to encourage even greater levels of accessibility throughout society. The certification model would not aid or verify compliance with the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act. Rather, it is intended to recognize accessibility champions and to incentivize others to move above and beyond compliance.

The Certification Spectrum

Certification refers to a “process, often performed by a third party, of verifying that a product, process or service adheres to a given set of standards and/or criteria.” As such, the term encompasses a broad range of models, differing in their scope, design, incentive structure, and leadership. Certification might be:

  • Non-institutional (i.e., reliant on crowd-sourcing) or institutional (i.e., run by a central organization)
  • Tiered or single-level; ratings-based or pass/fail
  • Sector-specific or network-wide; geographically contained or portable to other jurisdictions
  • Demographic-specific (i.e., a certain functional or interest area) or inclusive of a range

The reader should consider the findings contained in this report as a first step to determining where an accessibility model could best fit on the certification spectrum.

A Certification Model for Business

While this process is open-ended as to what an accessibility certification could look like, the choice of model should motivate businesses to incorporate accessibility into their operations and service delivery. Each business, regardless of sector or size, should see accessibility as a value and certification as viable in their context.

Through our discussions, business owners have identified improving customer service, increasing revenue, and improving branding and marketing opportunities as key motivators for change to their business model. Particularly business owners with a high degree of awareness and experience with accessibility saw a link between these key motivators and certification. Certification could help to expand their client base, diversify services, and welcome new, talented employees, in turn increasing revenue. Recognition and visibility for businesses that show excellence in accessibility is a further driver for change.  

Strengths and Challenges to a Successful Certification Model

Research conducted by Deloitte over summer 2015 identified certain strengths and challenges that apply across the range of potential certification models, based on a jurisdictional scan of 17 global comparator programs and a review of the literature on certification. The following list is not exhaustive, but is rather intended as a starting point to prompt further discussion:

Strengths

  • Credibility: in particular, the independence and objectivity offered by independent certifiers is viewed as a core strength.
  • Aligning Incentives through Multi- Stakeholder Engagement: certification programs offer the opportunity for more inclusive and sustained participation from multiple stakeholders, helping to better align incentives towards improved outcomes.
  • Increasing Awareness & Influencing Market Behaviour: certification programs can help incentivize organizations to further advance intended social and environmental goals beyond existing norms / practices.
  • Complementing and Influencing Existing & Future Standards / Regulations: certification can be used as a tool to complement existing government standards and regulation (for instance, LEED and B Corp).
  • Formalizing & Harmonizing Standards & Best Practices: certification can help to reduce confusion in the marketplace by helping to formalize and harmonize best practices.

Challenges

  • Undermining Existing Efforts: certification programs must be carefully designed and positioned to complement existing standards and efforts on the ground. Failure to do so will result in contradictions and confusion in the marketplace.
  • Potential Bias towards Top Performers & Limited SME Adoption: small and medium-sized businesses “may lack the financial and human resources necessary…and may not see the financial benefit of being certified.” Engaging multiple large and small stakeholders can help to address these challenges.
  • Eliminating Weak Performers: certification can lack consequences for weak performers. As such, it may not always be the most effective means to “raise performance at the bottom of a sector.” 
  • Free Riders: those not participating in certification may still benefit if accessibility is not clearly defined, monitored, and evaluated. 
  • Sustainability: for programs to remain sustainable, they require continuous attention and flexibility to adapt to changing circumstances. Inability to do so can reduce program relevance, legitimacy and credibility.

 

A program’s balance of any of these strengths and challenges will differ based on the design and approach of the model. A non-institutional or crowd-sourced approach can easily adapt to changing technology and regulations, but may showcase rather than actively harmonize best practices. On the other end of the spectrum, a purely institutional approach can help to formalize and align standards to a high degree of credibility. The more rigid structure, however, may contradict or distract from existing efforts and may lack the flexibility to adapt to different business types and capacity.

Based on the same jurisdictional scan of existing programs, Deloitte identified six key design considerations for a successful certification model. While each factor was given more or less weight based on the program context, successful programs (in terms of visibility, uptake, reach, user endorsement, etc.) incorporated most or all criteria in some capacity. Participants in the accessibility certification consultation process may consider how these apply to the Ontario business context:

  1. The need to engage multiple stakeholders throughout the certification development process.
  2. The need to develop a clear understanding of the underlying issue(s) and objective(s) of the certification program.
  3. The need to develop standards that are balanced, flexible and directly aligned with the underlying goals of the program.
  4. The use of a trusted, third-party certifier to provide credible, independent and objective assurances that program objectives are being achieved.
  5. The use of logos and other incentives to promote interest and uptake in a certification program.
  6. The use of a pilot program and well-defined monitoring and evaluation procedures to ensure long-term relevance and success

 

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