HALIFAX – Denise Fitzgerald was on vacation in St Lucia last July, when she started to get headaches and a stiff neck. She was admitted to hospital on her return to Nova Scotia and was diagnosed with Encephalitis, an inflammation of the brain.
The 42-year-old says she suffered significant cognitive impairment, forgetting her own last name at one point, and became unable to walk. She spent the next six months in hospital recovering.
Fitzgerald was released in January, still unable to move her right leg, and has been wheelchair-bound since.
“When I got home it was quite difficult,” said Fitzgerald. “I began to see the problems.”
Fitzgerald says that’s when she learned how inaccessible Halifax can be. She found locating accessible restaurants, stores, even doctors’ offices challenging.
“I needed a particular treatment and I needed to call three different medical offices before I could find a place that I could get in,” she said. “There are many places that don’t have ramps.”
Fitzgerald says her hunt for an accessible apartment has also been filled with barriers.
“It’s my understanding that all new buildings are supposed to be mandated to have accessible doors. That’s not happening.”
She believes wheelchair users are having their basic human rights ignored.
It’s a complaint Tova Sherman, the founder of reachAbility, has heard before.
According to Sherman, Nova Scotia has the largest percentage per capita of self-identifying persons with disabilities.
“We do not want, as people with disabilities, special anything. I don’t believe in special,” said Sherman, “I believe in equalizing the playing field.”
The province says it is working towards improving accessibility. Joanne Bernard, the minister responsible for the Disabled Persons Commission, says an advisory panel on accessibility legislation was created last month.
“We’re looking not only at spaces, but we’re looking at attitudes, we’re looking at behaviours, we’re looking at job opportunities, we’re looking at transportation, housing, all across the board, so that Nova Scotia will be a more inclusive province in the future.”
That report, Bernard says, will help develop accessibility legislation, which will be introduced in 2016.