April 19, 2017 6:36 pm

Nova Scotia hasn’t had ‘eye on the ball’ on accessibility: justice minister

A provincial advisory group will help tackle high unemployment rates among people with disabilities.

Marieke Walsh / Global News

Nova Scotia’s justice minister says her government’s efforts to ensure equal access to government buildings has been lackluster.

READ MORE: Nova Scotia group for disabled calls accessibility bill weakest in Canada

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Yesterday, Global News reported that the province doesn’t track which of its government-owned or leased buildings are fully accessible. On Wednesday, Justice Minister Diana Whalen committed to getting a comprehensive picture of accessibility barriers in government.

“We need to get out there and find out what we’ve got,” she said.

Whalen said she’s surprised by the lack of accessibility in some government buildings. Using her department’s own building as an example, she said despite a recent renovation of the entire building several years ago, the department recently discovered there are no accessible washrooms in its 10-storey office space.

“It shows we haven’t had our eye on the ball,” Whalen said.

Her department is spearheading a new accessibility bill for the province. She said meetings with the disabled persons commission were held at community services because of the lack of accessible washrooms at justice.

Justice signed 10-year lease for building that isn’t fully accessible

In 2014, the Justice Department signed a 10-year lease for the Joseph Howe building at the corner of Hollis and Prince streets. The government pays $2.5 million per year for the department’s lease.

Whalen said she was “personally shocked” that a building could be fully revamped without ensuring it had accessible bathrooms.

One accessible bathroom is being added to the Justice Department’s 10-storey office space, Whalen said. The province is footing the bill for the renovation because its not covered by the lease. It will cost $27,000.

READ MORE: Accessibility advocates give blistering critique of Nova Scotia legislation

The building is 12 storeys and also includes the energy department, according to a government spokesperson.

Leased offices have to be accessible — sort of

Yesterday, a government statement suggested that it required all leased buildings and buildings that hold public services have to be accessible. But today the government clarified that rule only applies to buildings that are leased and also hold services.

Where an accessible building can’t be found, the government says it allows for month-to-month leases.

On Tuesday, accessibility advocate Gerry Post pointed out that if government’s back offices aren’t accessible then people with disabilities also can’t be employed in those offices. When Global News put that question to Whalen she said that points to why the government needs to “open our offices.”

Bill 59 — new accessibility legislation — is expected to be back on the legislature’s agenda when it returns for the spring sitting next week. After the government’s first attempt at the bill was slammed by people with disabilities, the government went back to the drawing board and transferred the file from community services to justice.

“We’re going to be establishing new standards, that’s what this act is going to do,” Whalen said. “If anything, this points out the need for it, it’s desperately needed and the advocates for those with disabilities are absolutely right.”

Accessibility legislation was one of the Liberal party’s key election promises when it came to power in the 2013 election.


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