Imagine only being able to go to a limited number of food establishments because the majority of them don’t have restrooms you’re able to access. Those living with physical disabilities in Nova Scotia say that is their ongoing reality.
Four people are now fighting the provincial government to address accessible bathrooms in a human rights inquiry.
“We have under a public health law, a requirement that every licensed food establishment has washrooms for the public that are convenient and those aren’t administered in any way that takes into account accessibility and our point of view is the public includes everybody, includes people who use wheelchairs for mobility and a convenient washroom for them is one that is accessible,” David Fraser said, the lawyer who’s representing the case on behalf of the complainants.
Fraser says the start of the inquiry is the latest stage in what’s been a “long process.”
He says his clients originally went to the Human Rights Commission to register a complaint about the way the province enforces accessible washrooms in the realm of public health. The commission rejected their complaint.
Fraser then took on the case pro-bono and the matter went before the Nova Scotia Supreme Court, where a court order was issued to accept the complaint.
That was last year, and since then the commission has appointed a tribunal to hear the matter.
The inquiry is being overseen by Gail Gatchalian, a human rights and labour law lawyer. Gatchalian has also granted intervenor status to the Restaurant Association of Nova Scotia, meaning they have the right to participate and provide comment on any legal issues being considered throughout the proceedings.
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Fraser says the public-health law and regulations requiring accessible restrooms are in place, but how the government interprets them are key.
“Right now as we understand it, the government interprets the regulation in such a way that the public is the ‘average’ public and ‘convenient’ is only seen as a matter of, ‘Does the location of the washroom compromise food safety?’ And in our view, accessibility to the washroom actually has a big impact on that,” Fraser said.
One of the complaints is from Gus Reed, who wrote to the municipality when accessible patios were being considered, asking to consider the lack of accessible washrooms.
“I didn’t receive a response to that and in my own way, I pursued that by trying to speak with the minister of the environment,” he said.
Reed said he did have a meeting with the Department of Environment but that it was “inconclusive,” leading him to file a human rights complaint.
Reed ultimately wants the government to view inaccessibility to washrooms as a food-safety issue because if people with physical disabilities can’t wash their hands, it could impact the health safety of the restaurant as a whole.
Fraser reinforces that point by referencing an outbreak of Norovirus that occurred in a Halifax restaurant.
“Somebody came for a cruise ship and they transmitted Norovirus — a whole bunch of people on the staff got sick and hand hygiene is the number one thing that deals with those issues,” Fraser said.
The Department of Environment says regulations state that washrooms be in a convenient location, and the government recognizes the importance of accessibility.
“The province is working to address issues of accessibility through the Accessibility Act, with the goal of being accessible by 2030,” the department said in a statement to Global News.
The inquiry will run over the next several days.