Five Good Ideas

Five Good Ideas about shifting the culture of accessibility in the non-profit sector

Published on 05/12/2017

Join Alf Spencer, Director of the Accessibility Outreach, Education and Referral Branch at the Accessibility Directorate of Ontario, as he discusses ideas and tools to move towards a culture of accessibility. Through his five good ideas, find out how dialogue, community, youth and other elements can all work together to create a more inclusive environment for everyone.

Five Good Ideas

  1. Change the dialogue from disability to accessibility
  2. Create communities that embrace social inclusion, so that everyone can participate in all a community has to offer
  3. Create environments where everyone can bring their whole self to work/play
  4. Be creative in giving opportunities to youth to change culture
  5. Find champions who can change culture


  1. The Evolution of Accessibility
  2. NFP Governance Leadership: Creating a Culture of Accessibility
  3. Stop Gap Foundation
  4. Ted Talk
  5. Enabling Minds – Reducing Barriers to Physical Activity for People with Mental Health Disabilities

Full session transcript

Good afternoon, everyone, and first of all, Maytree, I want to thank you for inviting me. It’s a pleasure, and I think we’ve been excited at the office for about two months waiting for today. It’s really timely that we’re actually having this discussion because this weekend marked the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, so the timing is right, but I want in my comments, and I want you to think about, whether we should actually call it International Day of Persons with Disabilities. We’re going to examine five good ideas that I really think I’ve learned in about the last three years.

As all of you would know, Ontario has been on this journey of an accessible Ontario by 2025. As we’ve gone along the path of standards and laws and implementation and obligation by businesses, that’s really about AODA and legislation. But something is actually happening I think that is more remarkable than the legislation. And that is that Ontario is changing its culture. There is a definite swing to this image of an accessible Ontario. What I want to do is sort of look at it through five lenses.

First, I want to talk about how you change dialogue and the power of words. I want to talk about and challenge you to think about how we move the dialogue from disability to accessibility. I also want us to look at how we create communities that embrace social inclusion so that everyone can participate in what Ontario has to offer, and that no one is left behind.

I want to talk about how we create environments so that everyone can bring their whole self to everything they do. I think for those of you that follow the transition in the gay community, it was that mantra that actually got people to talk about people being gay and working in the workplace and being in families and all of those kind of things. I want to talk about how that can change.

I want to look at youth, and I want to talk to you about what you should be doing, and how you engage youth in your cultures, in your environments, because I think we have to. If we’re going to change culture, you have to reach out to young people because they are the leaders of the next generation.

Then, finally, I want to talk about the championing of Champions and the telling of stories, and how powerful stories are to cultural change. The context that I want to present all of this in is that I believe that a leader can tell you what the idea is, and the idea can come from the top, but change does not come from the top. It comes from the bottom. It is community. It is people that change culture. I also want you to think that cultural shift can take time. In fact, it will take a generation, and I like to look at cultural shift as a journey, not as a singular event, that it does take time.

For this session, we’re not actually talking about organizational change, but I think all of you who are working in the not-for-profit world know that society and societal cultural change, has often changed the very work that you are doing in your communities and your work. You know, as immigration came, and I remember years ago when I used to work in food banks and shelters and stuff, we actually had to change the food and the menus because society changed, culture changed, people changed. Each of you in the not-for-profit world are challenged everyday on how culture and cultural change is impacting you

To change the dialogue in the message, we have to look and recognize that the words we use set the stage, and over time in fact, we actually have to go back and look at those words. I’m going to give you an example about that in a few minutes. For example, disability describes the focus on a sector or a condition while accessibility impacts a whole society or thereof. Let me give you some examples of what’s happening in our culture today. More and more we’re not hearing the word disability. I think all of you, I would ask you to sort of nod or think about it, is I think we’re starting to hear language – varying abilities, a person has different abilities. We celebrate the difference of ability, and by changing the word to ability, we’re actually becoming more inclusive and in fact we’re acknowledging our differences in a positive way, and we’re celebrating all our abilities.

A few years ago we did a project with First Nations through the Friendship Centers. This is one of the first glimpses I had into how think changes culture. If you’ve ever had the pleasure, or the privilege, to work in Ffirst Nation communities or with indigenous people, you will know that their thought process is that of the positive. That project was not called Disabilities. The project was called Honouring All Abilities. Do you see the difference of what’s happening just in one phrase. You’ve set your mindset, not on disability, not on disadvantage, not on dis-anything. You’re talking about ability. You’re talking about positive, and you’re talking about honouring people, no matter what they bring to the situation.

Most interestingly I think, and this is again this piece of cultural change. As you know, Ontario has been on this journey for about twelve years. The federal government has really been on the journey of federal legislation for about three years. They started out calling it the National Disability Act. Within two years, they changed it to Planned Federal Accessibility Legislation. Do you see the difference, and how fast that has changed, and the rapid change that they’ve recognized?

In Ontario and its implementation of the AODA, we’ve actually changed our message three times. This is sort of one of my good ideas, and one of the things I think you need to think about in the work you do, and especially those who work where there are boards of directors, and how often boards of directors have to go through mission state examination, etc. When they go through that, you all of a sudden hear a new message. I want to talk to you about the three messages that we’ve done in twelve years. The first one was, “How may I help you?” That actually set the stage for the discussion of inclusion. Over time, that message worked for a while. Then, because we have this obligation in Ontario for businesses to report, we changed our message to that of financial impact or financial imperative.

I can tell you, and this is something else you need to think about as you’re thinking about cultural change, always check if you changed your message, check to see if it’s actually working, because when we went out the door with the financial imperative message, it fell dead in the water. Nobody wanted to hear it. Businesses didn’t believe it, and people with varying abilities thought we had left them out of the equation because we’d changed our focus to business.

So where are we today, and what is our message today? Our message today is very much about social inclusion, because as Ontarians and as Canadians, in our culture I think there are many things we believe, but we do believe in the two statements I said earlier. The first, all of us in this room, and those who are on the line, we believe as a society that everyone should be able to participate in everything our communities have to offer. We also believe that we should be able to bring our whole selves to whatever we do. What’s happening across Ontario, and as I travel and see, what’s happening is communities are defining accessibility in many, many, many different ways.

They’re not defining it by the number of businesses in their community that have handed in a report or gone online to be responsive to compliance. What they’re doing is defining it by having people come together. You know, under the accessibility legislation, we must have accessibility advisory committees. There’s about 180 advisory committees in Ontario based on size, because you have to have a population of over 10,000, but I think the unique thing, and the thing that I’ve learned, and I want to share with you, is that in those communities each community has defined accessibility in a very different way. Some have focused on parks. Some have focused on kids. Some have focused on ramps. Some have focused on something else, but the interesting thing is again that they chose their path themselves, that it did not come from the top down. It came from the bottom up.

I think as we look at this, and when I was talking earlier to one of the guests in the audience, I think as we look at accessibility, and our definition by 2025, and I’m sure everyone of you who is in the not-for-profit world has been in that discussion. Are we going to be accessible by 2025? Is Ontario going to be accessible? I would say to you, if we base it strictly on the report of compliance by businesses, we will only have half the answer. If we let neighbourhoods, if we let communities, if we let church groups, if we let sports organizations, if we let not-for-profit organizations define what accessibility means for them, we will in fact have an accessible Ontario.

All of the things, and all of the phrases that I just previously said to you, all have one thing in common. They all support a call to action. How may I help? Social inclusion. What are the advantages to business? They all ask us to consider things not only in ourselves, but the impact of how they impact for others, so again the power of language and the review of language, and the constant redefinition and understanding it, is the first thing I really want you to think about in the work you do.

As we look at communities, I think we have to look at values, and this is the second great idea. In the accessibility legislation, it’s based on four key principals; dignity, independence, integration, and equal opportunity. Is that not the very definition of who we see as ourselves? Is that not how we want to be treated by others? Is that not what you as not for profit organizations want for you organizations and for the people you serve? How do we create communities that recognize these principles and actually allow people to participate in their communities?

I’m going to give you two examples, which I hope you will remember because they also both end with the same idea in the story.

The first is the community of Orangeville. It’s about 12,000 people. It’s probably the most accessible town in Ontario. Power of words first. The very first thing in the mission statement for the mayor, the council, and everyone in Orangeville is we will be an accessible city. What a powerful way to use words to ensure culture change. In Orangeville, everything they do they talk about accessibility. One of the best examples in Orangeville, their town hall, if you’ve ever been there, has a theater in it. I had been to several, because I get invited all over the place, I’d been to several theaters where they had accessible entrances to theaters, and they had accessible seats, but Orangeville was the first place I ever went where they had accessibility to the stage for actors, and that’s when I went, “Wow. There is cultural change. There is taking it one step further.”

The other cool thing about Orangeville, and this is demonstrating to everyone that we want a community where everyone can participate, there is a councillor in Orangeville, Gail Campbell, and Gail has been an elected official for over 35 years. She was on a school board, and then has been elected for 28 years as a local councillor. Gail was the first recipient of the David Onley award. She gave as her, she was given a stipend for winning and she gave it to the town, and to her committee to decide what they should do with it. In the center of the town of Orangeville is a statue that’s carved out of wood, and it has four people of various abilities holding up a globe. The name of the statue is Inclusion. What do you think the culture of that community is when the center of the town has a statue that’s called Inclusion?

The next place I want to talk about is Brant County. Not only is it a great place, but I live there which probably makes it even greater, but that being said I want to talk about what they’ve done as a community. They decided that they were going to make everything they possibly could in the community accessible. They turned all the decision making to parks and stuff, and the changes to the Gretzky Center, which they took from a small arena into a huge sports complex, all based on community input, but in the county of Brant as you’re driving through Brant county, there are flags that say, “Accessible Brant.” What do you think the culture of that community is? What do you think the generations old, young, varying abilities, what do you think … how they have used words, they’ve used invite, and they’ve said to their community, “We all believe in this, and we all support it.” That’s how you change culture.

You know, I’ll give you another quick example of how things change over time. Five years ago I went to the Wasaga Beach, it was the first opening of a Mobi Mat. Do you know what a Mobi Mat is? It’s the Mat that takes you to the beach. It was the first one. In fact, the Lieutenant Governor David Onley, we went together. We celebrated. It was a great deal. Now, in five years and this was an example of changing cultures and how you share stories, in five years Mobi Mats are commonplace. They’re in every place that has water. The most interesting one is now in Port Dover. Not only does the Mobi Mat take you to the water, it takes you along the water shore, so you see cultural change build by learning from each other.

The thing that’s interesting though, is they became commonplace in five years. This year, I saw for the first time a power station on a trail. And I predict that in five years power stations on trails will be commonplace. Is that not a better measurement for deciding whether if we’ve had cultural change or whether we’re becoming an accessible Ontario? One of the things, and getting back to this learning, you know I’ve learned in the last few years, as we’ve looked at accessibility legislation, I can tell you we’ve changed transportation. We’ve changed employment. We’ve changed customer service. We’ve done some changing to information and communication, but the greatest change and the greatest demonstration of cultural change is the design of public space, because it is in the public space that we meet as groups. It’s where we don’t want anyone left behind.

You know, last week I got a picture sent to me from a city that for the first time ever had a Santa Claus parade with an accessible area for people to go and watch the parade. You know what, five years ago they weren’t even thinking that, and I will tell you that in five years if we share that information around, you’re going to see every parade, whatever the community does, you’re going to see more and more and more of that. The thing I want to talk about now is how we take social inclusion, change it in culture, and recognizing the work we do. I want, because it’s the time of year it is, I want to demonstrate for all of you in the not-for-profit world, a phrase that changes the way we think.

I’m going to give you this example, because I think it’s an interesting one. Many years ago we had what we called Red Feather campaign, and many organizations that are in this room were part of Red Feather. Really Red Feather was a way to put a feather in your cap and say, “Oh I donated. I did something.” Then we went to Community Chest and sort of got this idea that we’d come together as a community and we would share in what was donated. Cultural change. Evolution. Interesting to me though now, we call it the United Way. Do you see over a period of time the change in culture? Because all of a sudden it isn’t about sharing finances. It’s a way of thinking. It’s a way of doing. It’s a way of coming together. It’s a way of impacting on communities. Very different than Red Feather. Probably two generations, but a really good example.

Now, I want to talk about something that is very near and dear to my heart, and one of the things that I want you to think about when you think about bringing your self to a situation. Sport is something that brings all of us together. It is a commonality amongst Canadians. We either play, we watch our kids play, or like me, you lay on the couch on Sunday afternoon and you watch the NFL go by, but it is what we do. As an aside, I see many women in the room, and there are some men, but I will tell you, one of the things that fascinates me, if you bring a group of women together they will inevitably ask you how you feel. If you bring a group of men together, they’ll ask you how the Leafs did last night. It is a really good example of how you need to use sport and how, depending on who you’re appealing to in your audience, how you get the message across.

Let’s look at the Pan Am games, and the impact they’ve had on culture in a very short period in this province, because it wasn’t that long ago that we had the Pan Am games. I want to demonstrate this, and the use of sport, in messaging to people. Over 23,000 volunteers were trained for the Pan Am games. Those 23,000 people were trained on accessibility, and social inclusion. They went home, the first day after training, and they told 23,000 other people about the need for social inclusion and accessibility. Those 46,000 people went out and told another 46,000, and before you know it the whole of Toronto was celebrating these 23,000 people wandering around in the worst god awful colour uniforms I’d ever seen in my life, but people were proud to wear them, and we were proud as Torontonians to recognize the contribution these people were making to their community.

We also got the legacy of the buildings and we did get awareness, but something else happened. Because the Pan Am games were here, we had never talked about them being games for people with disabilities. Never came into our voices. Never talked about it, because all of a sudden, we had concrete examples of ability. You know, one of my sons is a basketball player. He’s actually, I’m bragging here, but he’s an elite player, but he says to me, “I can’t do that.” I said, “What do you mean you can’t do that?” He said, “I can bounce the ball and I can hit the net, but I can’t wheel a chair while I’m doing it.” All of sudden, we started to recognize, in a very different way, people’s abilities.

Two years later, we celebrate Invictus games. This is an example of cultural change. You know, when they were in Florida, and if you saw them on TV they could hardly take pictures because there was nobody at the games. Anybody tells you Florida was a success, it wasn’t. There was nobody at the games. In Toronto, we sold out of wheelchair basketball. We sold out wheelchair rugby, and we put tennis right down in front of City Hall. At lunch hour there were tons of people watching people with ability, not disability. Huge, huge difference. I’m watching the time here, but I do want to talk about youth, because I think it’s really important for all of you to think about how you engage youth in the work you do.

You know, it’s youth that got us to use seat belts. It was the kids who said, “Put the seat belts on,” because they had to do it in the backseat, you had to do it in the front seat. It was kids who actually got us to stop smoking. It was mothers who got us to not drink and drive, but it was kids who got us to not smoke. The best example of cultural change that a kid can bring to you is the whole issue of Blue Box. Here’s the example, going back to my first statement. Leader. Blue Box when it first came out was a miss. It was going nowhere. Then, all of a sudden, the government of the day said, “We’re going to do Blue Boxes in schools.” They were trying to salvage a bomb, but what happened was, and cultural change and the power of youth, kids came home every day and said, “Why aren’t we recycling? Why aren’t we recycling? Why aren’t we recycling?” Kids changed that culture.

We also know that kids do not see colour. They’re not homophobic. They’re not ageist, and they actually see ability, not disability. If you see kids on the street, they don’t care if Johnny is deaf. They don’t care if Mary has autism. They care that they’re kids, and they bring those kids into everything they do. One of the most powerful ads on television right now is the ad by Canadian tire and the basketball. If you haven’t seen it, go online and see it. The kids in a wheelchair, and when he comes outside to play basketball, all the kids have made something that looks like a wheelchair and they’re all playing. That’s the power of kids.

How are you involving kids in the decisions that you’re making as an agency, as a community, and as a board of directors. Give you a couple of examples here. One is the Stop Gap. Many of you will know StopGap. It’s a tremendous program. We did a project last year, which I’m going to share with you for a couple of minutes. In StopGap, they have, if you don’t know it, it’s ramps that are really great colours. There’s also, and this is also about cultural change. If you’ve ever seen a StopGap ramp, they’re not beige. They’re not gray. They’re fuchsia. They’re lime green. They’re bright orange. They’re bright, bright, bright. What they say is, they don’t say “Ramp”, they say “Welcome”. Because when you put that in front of your store, you’re inviting people with buggies and wheelchairs, etc. But what you’re really doing as a business is saying, “I welcome you. I want you in my store.” There is a place in Stratford, Ontario just did a revamping of their main street. Two businesses on this street where they revamped so that they could level into the stores, two businesses said their profits have gone up 50% year over year in one year.

You can see what those kind of things are, but the neat thing about the Stop Gap project is we did it with kindergarten kids. We took kids, the kids learned about accessibility. They learned to talk about differing abilities, and then we took them into the stores and got them to do assessments on the stores, and then they came back and told the guy, the store owner, whether he needed a ramp or not. That is definitely the power of kids.

Okay. Now, I’m going to end with telling you two stories about champions, and I’m sorry I’ve run out of time, but I do want to share with you why you need champions, and why you need the power of stories. Two years ago we ran a program, we offered a recognition award through the Clerks and Treasurers of Ontario, and we recognized 101 champions across the province, and I want to tell you the story of two people.

The first, his name is Ben and he was a kid with a disability living in a little town called Formosa. Ben is one of those kids that doesn’t, he just knows he has abilities that are different than your abilities. He wanted to join the Formosa Lions Club. First of all, sorry he wanted to join the 4H club, and they’re going, “4H. I don’t know if you belong here.” He said, “Well, I want to belong.” He designed a training program for kids in 4H on accessibility. It’s now one of the badges you can get at 4H. He then wanted to join the Lions Club, and they were ambivalent about having a kid who was different than their members, and he did a whole training program to the Lions Club on why they should accept people of varying abilities. Then, he finally sees a need in his town, a personal need. He needed a job, so he developed a program where he provides a taxi service to people needing to go to doctors’ appointments and churches. He only offers two types of rides, but there’s a guy, there’s a story, and when you hear those stories you understand accessibility. You understand social inclusion, and you understand ability.

The next one is a fellow named Andrew. He was my favourite of all the champions. Andrew had a son born with disability. He wanted his son to play in the park with all the other kids. Most people would go down to City Hall and they’d say, “I want a park. I want you to pay for it. I want it in my neighbourhood.” Not Andrew. He went to his friends and he went to the Service clubs in his town of Fergus, and he raised in Fergus, and if you know the size of Fergus, and if you’re in the not-for-profit world, you know how hard it is to make a buck or raise a buck. He raised $300,000. Now, not only did Fergus get a park for the kids to play in, but so did Elora. He managed to take and take it further, but the story isn’t about the parks.

This is the story and this is one of the great ideas. By involving people on the ground, everybody owned the park. Every kid who had gone to a bake sale, every kid who had a skipping rope contest, every kid owned the park. Every kid in Fergus and Elora believe that they own the park, therefore everyone in the community should be included. No one should be left behind, and everyone should be able to bring their whole self to that park.

On that note, I will end with just summing up. I hope you’ve understood the power of words and the examination of dialogue. I hope all of you believe that you’re creating communities that embrace social inclusion. I hope you’re creating environments where everyone can bring their whole self to everything they do. I hope you understood the need to involve young people in your organizations, and I hope if you’re not the champion in your culture or your environment, that you find one and you proudly tell the story. My final word is this, the world evolves every day. Society grows and culture changes. It is our job to ensure it changes and to embrace it. Thank you very much.

Alf Spencer

Director of the Accessibility Outreach, Education and Referral Branch

Alf Spencer is Director of the Accessibility Outreach, Education and Referral Branch. As Director, he is responsible for educating Ontarians about the advantages of inclusion, and developing a network of strategic partnerships that helps Ontario organizations become accessible by 2025. He has overseen the implementation of over 50 community projects related to creating awareness of accessibility issues including programs for early childhood educators, elementary school teachers, and post-secondary-students and professionals. His approach to community development has touched all aspects of social inclusion from places of faith, to workplaces and sporting events.