Nova Scotia’s Liberal government is rethinking a key piece of legislation after a blistering takedown from people with disabilities and accessibility advocates.
At Monday’s law amendments committee witnesses critiqued the new accessibility bill which Community Services Minister Joanne Bernard hailed as “precedent-setting,” when it was announced last week.
“What the hell happened,” asked Parker Donham. “How could a shining promise of your government, a commitment with the full-throated support of the minister, a cause that appears to have the sincere backing of your premier, how could it lead to a bill that is so seriously deficient.”
Nova Scotia is the third province in Canada to table such legislation but witnesses at committee said this legislation is far weaker than legislation in Ontario and Manitoba.
“The bill is too weak, it doesn’t adequately protect and advance the human rights of persons with disabilities in Nova Scotia,” Dalhousie professor Archibald Kaiser said.
“It does not go as far as other comparable provincial statutes.”
Criticism of the bill fell along several key themes: an inaccessible process, an unequal weighting of accessibility and cost, a lack of hard timelines, and a badly crafted bill in the wrong department. There were nine witnesses who spoke to the bill.
Inaccessible accessibility legislation
The timing of the committee meeting made the process inaccessible to many people, according to witnesses. For example, individuals who rely on Access-a-Bus couldn’t attend because the service usually requires seven-days notice. Witnesses were told about the committee meeting on Friday.
“That may account for why there are so few wheelchairs in this room,” Donham told the committee.
The short notice also meant that people with care assistants weren’t able to reschedule them in order to attend the committee hearing on time, Lois Miller said. She also pointed out that it was too short a timeline for people who work or those with medical appointments.
“The process has in fact denied accessibility to the very people for whom this act was intended to serve,” Miller said.
Another concern raised was that the bill wasn’t transcribed into brail for people with visual impairments, or into plain language for persons with learning disabilities. Pat Gates said she struggled to read the bill and so she relied on information from other people.
‘Business community having veto power’ over accessibility rights
The proposed act requires any new accessibility standards to be weighed against cost considerations. For example, it requires an “economic impact assessment” of any new standard.
Advocates perceived that to mean the cost of implementing an accessibility standard could be used to reject a legitimate accessibility concern. Miller pointed to the government news release of the act as confirmation of that fear. It cites Bernard saying “we want to develop standards that will reduce barriers, while not creating unnecessary red tape for the private sector.”
Reminding the committee that disability rights are human rights, Miller said the bill would make the rights “subject to economic considerations.”
In a separate presentation, inclusivity advocate Paul Vienneau compared the wording around costs to historic cases. For example he said women would never be denied the right to vote because of cost. “It sounds stupid when you put it in a point like that,” he said. “But for us it’s somehow acceptable.”
“This ties into my concern that our rights will be negotiable, with the business community having veto power.”
‘No evidence’ of timelines for implementation
The bill doesn’t set out timelines for when new standards need to be in place or when older buildings need to be brought up to current code. Advocate Gerry Post called that “unacceptable.”
“There’s no evidence in the act itself of any timeliness of it being implemented other than a statement that the act will be reviewed every four years — well that’s just not good enough.”
He’s suggesting the province commit to making all government-owned buildings accessible by 2022, and all municipally-owned buildings accessible by 2025.
Last Wednesday, Global News asked the province for an inventory of publicly-owned buildings that were accessible and ones that still need to be brought up to standard, but as of Monday, none was provided.
‘Extraordinary extent of ministerial authority’
Witnesses also argued that the bill should be relocated to the justice department. Citing the fundamental human rights that it covers, they almost unanimously argued that it was the responsibility of justice to enforce the rights and that it shouldn’t be up to community services which is also responsible for many services to people with disabilities.
If community services continues to be in charge of the bill and the services, Dalhousie University law professor Sheila Wildeman said, it would place people “in a deep conflict should they wish to raise concerns about physical or attitudinal barriers affecting equal access.”
She also said the bill rests too much power in the hands of the minister, with an “extraordinary extent of ministerial authority and discretion in the sections on devising and enforcing accessibility standards.”
Retired law professor Dianne Pothier said the bill “reads like the drafting instructions were: go away and come up with the weakest accessibility act you can.”
“We need a fundamental rethink,” she said. “A little bit of tinkering is not going to do it, it needs to go back to the drawing board, get it done right.”
Bill will be reviewed, returned to the legislature next year
Late Monday afternoon, Bernard said the legislation would be reviewed before moving ahead.
“What we heard today are concerns from people from the disability community, they will be addressed,” she said. To make sure all critiques are heard she said the law amendments committee will meet in the coming months to hear from more people.
“It is a historic piece of legislation, we have to get it right,” Bernard said.
Asked if the bill was a failure, Bernard said “absolutely not, this is the way democracy works.”
New accessibility legislation was a key promise in the 2013 election campaign.