Going Beyond the AODA: Accessibility in Arts & Culture

by CHO MIN

CHO MIN is a creative content producer and researcher. She is currently the Interviews Editor at the Puritan Literary Magazine. Pitches and submissions can be sent to [email protected].

ACCESSIBLE DOWNLOAD: Going Beyond the AODA: Accessibility in Arts & Culture


I was hopeful. The café was on a list of accessible coffee shops in Toronto. It was close to an accessible subway station and according to an internet search, the washroom had a power button and a grab bar, and the café interior had an open layout with ample room to maneuver mobility devices. But after walking through the automatic front doors I was met with a door closed shut—literally. I turned to the friendly face behind the counter.

“Is the second door after the front door not automatic?”

“Hmm? Oh yes, it’s not. You’d have to turn the handle.”

“Oh, I see. Sort of defeats the purpose of having an automatic front door, though.”

A pause. A dawning look of realization.

Disappointed, I crossed off another location off of my list. It was the third one I had checked that day.

The Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (hereby the AODA) came into effect June 2005 and set a deadline to create a fully accessible Ontario by January 2025. Almost two decades have passed and the deadline lingers in the near future. Accessibility has made its way into the mainstream consciousness with corporations, not-for-profit organizations, and government institutions announcing action plans to fulfill commitments to the AODA. Public transportation, universities and colleges, even Primetime TV have made public announcements regarding accessibility, positioning Ontario and Canada as a world leader in accessible design and innovation. However, after a province-wide tour of town halls and think tank discussions, the honourable David C. Onley concluded his 2019 review of the AODA by stating:

When the AODA was passed in 2005, there was legitimate hope that real changes, real solutions to grinding, soul-destroying daily battles with the system would soon occur. That has not happened, and it is clear from the hundreds of people we heard from that Ontarians with disabilities want results, not more promises or, worse yet, odious virtue signaling that Ontario is a ‘world leader in accessibility’. In some narrow areas we are, but for the most part, we are not. This government can change that and your fellow citizens with disabilities are asking you, pleading with you to do so.

My search for an affordable, accessible space to conduct a roundtable discussion on accessibility highlighted one of the many challenges an ableist society poses for so many people. The act of entering space. The experience made me confront my own privileges and luxuries that I had taken for granted. The experience also augmented the gratitude I felt for the participants who generously offered their time and knowledge. Christine Karcza, Kim Fullerton, and Sean Lee are just some of the names in the Arts & Culture industry who have paved the way for a thriving disability-led arts movement. In this roundtable discussion, they offer their experience and insights into the AODA and more importantly, into the interesting, critical work that is being done by disability-centred practices.

I would like to acknowledge that many more voices could have been a part of this piece. This discussion is not the first nor will it be the last of its kind. I would also like to thank Tangled Art + Disability for graciously offering their space for this interview.

—CHO MIN, Interviews Editor


This conversation has been edited for clarity.


CHO MIN: How has the AODA impacted the Arts & Culture industry? Are there any success stories you would like to share?

Christine Karcza: Yes, the AODA has definitely helped to make some important changes. For example, the Toronto Fringe Festival developed its current accessibility policy and operations over the last six years. Luminato has also made accessibility a priority. The Fall for Dance North Festival raised awareness by featuring a performance by Madeleine Mansson, who uses a wheelchair and Peder Nilsson. All of these organizations developed their policies due, in part, to the AODA. Legislation can be a trigger to start the process and when legislation is done right, the basics are done right, and then we can look to go beyond compliance. The AODA has raised awareness and can be the spark that gets the gears going. What we are missing is enforcement along with a strong commitment from the government.

Legislation can be a trigger to start the process and when legislation is done right, the basics are done right, and then we can look to go beyond compliance.

Sean Lee: I agree, the AODA has helped to create a foundation. If you don’t have the basics then you can’t experiment because you might not understand why or what you’re experimenting with. In smaller arts spaces, however, the scope of what the AODA does is not very much. For me what has really sparked change was the excitement for disability arts and the desire for disruption in an ableist world.

CK: What is also coming to the surface is that organizations are really thinking about hiring persons with disabilities. Before the focus was on growing the audiences and now, we are realizing that there are also jobs in the cultural world that can be filled by persons with disabilities.


CHO MIN: Shifting gears, have you had a chance to read the David C. Onley Report? What are your thoughts?

Kim Fullerton: I am not surprised by the findings. Everything from the report we know from our current experience and the work that we do.

SL: The thing is, the arts community is always trying to go beyond the AODA because the AODA is just a set of standards and really the bare minimum. We really want to go beyond compliance to a set of checkboxes.

CK: I agree that we want to go beyond compliance, but the frustration is that we haven’t gotten down the basics. People still can’t get jobs, transportation is still unpredictable, the elevators don’t work, and people still can’t get into buildings. We have some wonderful, creative technology that’s going forward but in the same token, we haven’t gotten the basics done. That’s what the AODA was supposed to do. I agree with David Onley completely. The main problem is the lack of enforcement.


CM: On that note on enforcement, I find that the language of the AODA focuses a lot on the process of creating standards but not a lot on the implementation and enforcement.

KF: There is legislation on enforcement but there is a lot of confusion about compliance. In the arts world, an organization has to comply in certain ways depending on its size and the number of employees—

CK: —whether the organization has less than 20, less than 50, or more than 50 employees.

KF: Yes, so people aren’t sure how and if they have to comply. There is a lack of clarity around this.

SL: I don’t believe there’s been any fines placed for not following the AODA. We would have heard about that if there were any instances. The AODA was meant to have more “teeth” but so far, it hasn’t actually enforced any fine. That’s something to flag.


CM: The Toronto Arts Foundation recently published a report on the affordability crisis in Toronto. How do affordability and financial insecurity affect the disabled community? How does affordability and accessibility relate?

SL: We have a lot of artists concerned about ODSP and doing important activism work to make sure that things don’t go backward in terms of progress that was made.

CK: Affordability applies not only to artists and arts workers but to patrons and those who support the arts. I recently worked on a relaxed performance where the theatre did lower the price of tickets but there were still many people who would have liked to have brought their children, family, and friends but could not afford the tickets. Theatres rely on audiences, on top of grants, to keep them going. So, the affordability crisis affecting patrons is a major challenge.

KF: It has become harder and harder to have a studio or any kind of workspace because of the unavailability of affordable studio spaces. On top of that, professional development often gets overlooked for artists with disabilities. The notion of professional development and continued education is so entrenched in the able-bodied world that one rarely even thinks of it. Going to workshops and talks or being able to get into an exhibition to see work and find out what peers are doing, having access to curators to have a conversation—these things are cut off for disabled artists, especially members from the B/blind and low vision community and the D/deaf and hard of hearing community.

CK: And opportunities for networking too.

KF: Yes, absolutely. Cuts and the lack of resources also make it difficult for organizations to include necessary services.

CK: Yes, for example, what happens when a stage is inaccessible, but an actor needs a ramp? What happens if a dressing room is inaccessible?


CM: This leads me to my next question. What are the challenges that are unique to the Arts & Culture industry in implementing accessibility standards? And on the flip side, where does the industry do exceptionally well?

CK: I think the big challenge from my perspective is funding and lack of resources. And the positive is the willingness of the arts community to share its information with other people. The arts community has always been very open and supportive.

SL: Overcoming attitudinal barriers is a challenge that we taken on at Tangled Art + Disability. What is important to know is that you have to centre a disability politic when you are engaging with disability arts. The very fact that spaces are beginning to recognize disability arts as a movement, as its own artistic practice, is really vital to how other people can see themselves being represented. Practices and aesthetics can get built in ways that queer folks and racial justice communities have built. Disability has always been a little behind in terms of being recognized as its own movement. And now we are getting to that place where disability arts is beginning to flourish. One of the difficulties isn’t necessarily around the standards of the AODA but dismantling the attitudinal barriers that have remained and the stigmas of being a disability artist. At Tangled Art + Disability, we recognize that disability is a site of political engagement—all the ways we experience the world can be applied through a disability lens. We also recognize how ableism affects all of us and not just some of us. Disability arts can shed a light on how the world has been constructed to exclude others. Disability arts is this exciting arts movement that is gaining traction.

What is important to know is that you have to centre a disability politic when you are engaging with disability arts. The very fact that spaces are beginning to recognize disability arts as a movement, as its own artistic practice, is really vital to how other people can see themselves being represented.

CK: In addition, there is a combination of issues that have stagnated progress such as getting the AODA enforced and the government cutting funding for the arts. We need to change attitudes and provide people with disabilities with resources so that they can compete in employment. A lot of things need to come together to keep moving forward.

KF: Something we also need to note is that this is an urban-based discussion. The kind of political activism and enlightenment that is happening in the cultural sector in Toronto is not happening to the same degree in other areas, especially rural and remote areas. I also think that, as Christine was saying, there is this willingness to share information and experience—really, a national discussion is happening. And different people from different cities and places come through Tangled Art + Disability for symposiums, workshops, and networking.

CK: On that note on location, there are a lot of theatres in smaller towns that do great programming, especially during the summertime. The question is, how do we make these spaces accessible? The disabled community exists everywhere!

KF: Are we braver in the cities because there are bigger numbers? Are we able to be more demanding and organize better because there are more of us? It is something to think about.

CK: Yes, we are also more connected in cities.

SL: We have artists from outside of Toronto saying that they experience a lot of isolation. They might be the only artist or the only advocate in their town or city and the AODA might be there but if no one is willing to listen or enforce it, then how is it going to actually manifest?


CM: This discussion makes me think of the Accessible Canada Act that was passed by the federal government last June. What are your thoughts on the act?

CK: As of right now, the regulations are not finished yet. While it is good that the federal government has passed the act, we won’t know what impact it will have until they are done.

KF: Will it override the AODA? Will all the provinces accept it?

CK: Currently, the act only impacts companies and bodies that are under federal jurisdiction such as Canada Post. The main thing to remember is that inclusion cannot be an afterthought. For example, I was on my way to an event on a snowy day. The event site had shovelled the pathway which led to the entrance, up a flight of stairs, which was inaccessible to me. The pathway to the ramp was not shovelled. They were understaffed that day, so only what they considered as the “basic shovelling” was completed.

KF: Who gets to decide what “basic shovelling” is?

CK: Yes. It just frustrated me. They did shovel the ramp and I was able to enter the event site.


CM: This makes me recall the idea that presence is also a form of activism.

CK: Absolutely. People have to understand that disability is often an afterthought, and these are the consequences.

KF: Even for myself, there are certain spaces where I have to call in advance to reserve an accessible parking spot. Who else has to call in advance to do such a thing? The information wasn’t available on the website either. What that tells me is that I do not get the same ability to be spontaneous as everyone else.

CK: Yes, these little things are what make up life and yet are sometimes the biggest challenges.


CM: The AODA offers training and many organizations require staff and volunteers to undergo the training. However, I noticed that compliance is never really checked.

KF: Where I am within the visual arts world, I don’t think it really thinks about the AODA at all. We go beyond it. For example, Christine, Sean, and I were all part of ArtsBuild Ontario. ArtsBuild decided to take the bull by its horns and apply for funding because it was a provincial organization. We created a series of webinars and workshops that addressed resources and strategies for accessibility in the cultural sector—not just the visual arts, but all the sectors in Arts & Culture. The arts have always been creating its own resources.

SL: One thing I found with the AODA training model is that there is a real “us vs them” mentality and that comes from it not being necessarily disability-led. This idea of compliance means that people don’t have to think critically about accessibility or understand its purpose. I’ve seen DIY art spaces that don’t have the funding, but to me, are much more accessible because they consider all the different ways people can be imagined and they try to be as transparent and welcoming as possible. Even if they do not have all the resources to enact everything they wanted, these spaces have really thought about how to invite other folks in and how to centre disability experience. A set of standards like the AODA is necessary when you are implementing on a national or provincial scale, but a lot of folks, as Kim has mentioned, are trying to go beyond that.

One thing I found with the AODA training model is that there is a real “us vs them” mentality and that comes from it not being necessarily disability-led. This idea of compliance means that people don’t have to think critically about accessibility or understand its purpose.

CK: I think that the Arts have demonstrated that they are willing to listen to lived experience and make the environment more inclusive.

KF: I think that’s really interesting because that is in contrast to what Sean has talked about in regard to the “us vs. them” structure of many AODA workshops.

SL: Yes, the “us vs. them” structure tends to present accessibility work as “here’s what the able-bodied person might encounter”—this approach is distancing. It is not about how ableism and disability might affect all of us, but it always makes disability this separate, isolated thing.


CM: The Onley Report suggests that a fully accessible Ontario by the 2025 deadline is highly unlikely. What are your thoughts? If not 2025, what do you see happening next?

SL: I seriously doubt we will hit the deadline, but in terms of what happens next, there is still a lot of work to be done even if the standards of the AODA gets completely followed through. If you critically engage with disability justice and disability rights, I think you find that there is always more to do. For myself, there is a really nice parallel between queerness and disability in terms of how both have been constructed. In queer scholarship, there is this idea of a horizon, this idea of how queerness is never fully here as long as heteronormativity is the default. Queerness is something that we always aspire to but never fully reach and I think that goes double for disability and accessibility. Our communities are so diverse and engaged in so many different ways that there is no way that we can just stop at 2025. We must always continue to push forward and continue to recognize the full experience of disability.

In queer scholarship, there is this idea of a horizon, this idea of how queerness is never fully here as long as heteronormativity is the default. Queerness is something that we always aspire to but never fully reach and I think that goes double for disability and accessibility.

KF: Accessibility measures need to be applied at all levels of planning, especially at stages where people create environments and programs. Everyone has to take responsibility. At ArtsBuild, for example, we talked about how many designers and architects are unaware of universal design principlesand these principles are just the bare minimum. All the schools need to be incorporating accessibility education into their curriculum.


CM: What would you like to say to artists and arts workers who are interested in learning and applying accessibility to their work and/or art?

SL: Recognize how experimenting with different practices helps to reach more audiences. The main goal of any artist is to reach people and if you open up and expand your practice, you are only going to reach more people. You are widening the scope of who might resonate with your work and that is really important.

KF: In regard to arts workers, there are so many things you can do in the art world other than be an artist. We need copywriters, curators, installers, lighting technicians, makeup artists, ushers, etc.

CK: Yes, there is no reason why disabled persons can’t do any of these jobs.

KF: If you are an arts worker and you have a disability, you need to find community. Because that is where you learn, be supported, and can become an activist if you choose.

SL: Finding community is really radical. Under the medical model, disability is an isolated, individual experience and framed in such a way that the idea of finding a community was nearly impossible. The idea of gathering and building community through disability is really important and needs to be continuously explored.

If you are an arts worker and you have a disability, you need to find community. Because that is where you learn, be supported, and can become an activist if you choose.

CK: What I would say is just start. When people see so many barriers, it is easy to feel immobilized, but I would say, just start, build community, and explore. Building community is important because it is easy to feel discouraged and the disability experience can be very lonely. And oftentimes one feels tired of all the struggle.

KF: Societal structures often conspire to keep individuals isolated from others. All the medical things that so many of us have to deal with makes one think that they are the only one who has to go through it.

CK: I would also say take care of yourself. Physically, emotionally, spiritually.

photo of a sunset over a body of water


Christine Karcza’s I can do this! attitude, shaped from managing the challenges of her own disability, engages others to push their boundaries, question their attitudes, and implement innovative solutions to enable inclusion. She is a dynamic speaker who demonstrates passion, possibilities, and the belief that all life choices should be made without barriers. With a past career at the Ontario March of Dimes, the Ontario Provincial Government, and RBC Financial Group, she has built a business delivering on policy compliance (and going beyond compliance) with the AODA, customer service training for the untapped market of people with disabilities, community engagement strategies, audience development, and creating multi-year customized accessibility plans. Christine is a Senior Fellow at Massey College, a recipient of the Adrienne Clarkson Laureateship, and has received the Diamond Jubilee Medal and Volunteer Service Awards from the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, the Province of Ontario, the City of Toronto, and the Ontario March of Dimes.

Kim Fullerton is the founder and CEO of Akimbo Art Promotions which offers digital promotional services for hundreds of Canada’s most important cultural organizations. She has worked in the Canadian visual art sector since 1983 as an artist, curator, writer, administrator, publicist, art consultant, and entrepreneur with extensive experience in cultural organization, gallery management, and audience development. She has organized numerous exhibitions as an independent curator and written for magazines, catalogues, and newspapers.

Sean Lee is a part of a new generation of artists, curators, and arts leaders bringing fresh perspectives to the contemporary art field through an intersectional Disability Arts praxis. His methodology reframes embodied difference as a means to resist traditional aesthetic identities. Orienting towards a “crip horizon,” Sean leads with disability in his curation for its transformative possibilities. Sean holds a B.A. in Arts Management and Studio from the University of Toronto Scarborough and is currently the Director of Programming at Tangled Art + Disability. Previous to this role, he was Tangled’s inaugural Curator in Residence (2016) as well as Tangled’s Gallery Manager (2017). Sean has been integral to countless exhibitions and public engagement through his tenure at Tangled Art + Disability. In addition to his position at Tangled Art + Disability, Sean is an independent curator, lecturer, and advisor, adding his insights and perspectives to conversations surrounding Disability Arts across Canada and the United States. Sean currently sits on the board of the8Fest, Creative Users Projects, and is a member of the Ontario Art Council’s Deaf and Disability Advisory Committee.


CHO MIN is a creative content producer and researcher. She is currently the Interviews Editor at the Puritan Literary Magazine. Pitches and submissions can be sent to [email protected].

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