The Nova Scotia government is promising prompt action in light of a human rights ruling that it discriminated against people in wheelchairs by failing to enforce a regulation requiring restaurants to have accessible bathrooms.
The Justice Department announced Friday that it won’t appeal a September decision by an independent board of inquiry that stated the province did not regulate food safety provisions on accessible washrooms in restaurants with patios.
Chairwoman Gail Gatchalian ordered the Environment Department to interpret, administer and enforce the regulations as they appear.
The Justice Department said Friday it will fast track an action plan to ensure the provincial human rights decision is implemented in a timely fashion.
“Nova Scotians with disabilities should have equitable access to infrastructure, information, programs and services – and ensuring that restaurants have accessible washrooms is part of our work,” Justice Minister Mark Furey said in a news release.
“This is important work.”
However, Warren Reed, one of five complainants in the case, said he’s skeptical the promise will lead to quick action.
“I guess I don’t doubt that they believe what they say,” said Reed. “But I’m a person who is coming off an 806-day wait for a decision from the human rights commission.”
The government’s plan is to be developed in collaboration with the disability community and the restaurant industry.
The department said its effort will be supported by the newly established Accessibility Directorate and the Nova Scotia Accessibility Advisory Board. The majority of the advisory board is made up of persons with disabilities.
Reed said that his lawyer had spoken with the directorate on Thursday and was told that fast track meant by 2022, a response time Reed says is “completely unacceptable.”
“This is not a building code problem, this is an enforcement of public health regulation problem,” he said. “For many years the province has failed to enforce it and I guess I’m a skeptic.”
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During the board hearing the complainants, who all have disabilities and use wheelchairs, argued the language in the regulation is vague and does not take the experiences of people with disabilities into account.
They also said the lack of an accessible washroom prevents them from washing their hands before eating.
Gerry Post, executive director of the Accessibility Directorate, said while it’s difficult to put a timeline on getting something done, he wants to see action as soon as possible.
“People talk that it will take until 2022, well that’s not the case,” Post said. “It may get a little complex to get to a resolution on this and to move forward, but I’m optimistic we can do it within the next year.”
He said it’s now down to finding a pragmatic way to implement the inquiry board’s decision.
“There are some limitations on what the private sector can do, especially with some of the older buildings, but they’ll work towards a solution.”
Post said the province has already moved to assist the private sector with a program announced last December that would provide two-thirds of the funding to help make restaurants and other buildings more accessible.
Reed said he doesn’t see why changes can’t be enforced by the time restaurants open up their patios in the early spring.
In the meantime, he said the complainants are considering more legal action and could make a decision within the next six weeks or so.
“So if there’s no movement I don’t see any reason why we wouldn’t be prepared to take them to court to enforce their own decision,” said Reed.