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August 6, 2008

How Nova Scotia fails people with disabilities

This editorial is available in PDF format.

"......you got to have handicapped parking stalls", an HRM planner said, speaking to a Chronicle-Herald reporter about the design for a refurbished Spring Garden Road.

The thought of HRM buying the last few "Handicapped Parking" signs on Planet Earth would be laughable, if it wasn't reminiscent of VIA Rail buying inaccessible rail cars on the cheap. Good 21st century signs often say "Accessible Parking", but the best say nothing at all and just display the universal access symbol.

Stalls are for horses.

It’s hard to keep track of the many government task forces, stakeholder engagement processes, sustainable frameworks and visioning conversations. A cynic might think the government is trying to confuse its citizens by seeking opinions on a dizzying array of topics, and yet our governments at all levels seem, well, paralyzed when it comes to persons with disabilities.

For all the talk about inclusiveness, these government committees consistently omit the participation of persons with disabilities. Since the concerns of people with disabilities are seldom voiced, here are a few important issues affecting us.


Government is supposed to make sure it does the same thing for everyone. Take Province House for example. The front door is how most people enter, but the back basement door is how wheelchair users get in. For the heritage-minded folks who designed this system, all is 19th century perfection. But is democracy an idea, or just a pile of limestone? Government should be proud to build a ramp at the front entrance as a symbol of equality.

“The Manitoba Legislative Building has become the first legislative building in Canada to provide full access at its front doors with the completion of a universal access ramp at the front entrance, Premier Gary Doer announced today.” November 19, 2007 Press Release
So what are we doing for Democracy’s 250th?

This idea of “separate but equal” is insidious, pervasive and demeaning. It didn’t work in the southern United States because people grew tired of being second class citizens Yet it persists in Nova Scotia for people with disabilities regarding where kids go to school, where you can go on a bus, even whether you can go to your MLA’s constituency office.


Building codes and licensing standards are antiques and even the ones we have are poorly enforced. They selectively exclude and punish persons with disabilities and favor businesses.

Although there are evolving and ever better standards of accessible design, they are shunned and ignored by our civil servants. They throw up their hands and hide behind statements like “There is no changing the grade…..” when referring to steep streets. They think that bulldozers are the only way to change access. How about a public elevator trail? A funicular like Quebec City? Shuttle buses? Switchbacks? Nobody seems aware that design for accessibility is good for everyone.

As you can see from this table about disability in Canada from the 2006 post-census survey:

nearly three quarters of disabilities in Canada (hearing plus mobility) can be addressed in part by removing physical barriers or providing useful technical assistance. And then people aren’t disabled, are they? How can governments fail to try to better the lives of 4.2 million people?

“Isn’t access a human right?” you ask. Not to the NS Human Rights Commission, which, by refusing to consider complaints about the effect of discriminatory regulations, has failed to advance the interests of people with disabilities.


The province funds at least two organizations that purport to advocate for persons with disabilities.

The Disabled Persons Commission, an agency of the provincial government, lists 7 publications on its website:

• 3 from 2004
• 2 from 2003
• the 2005 Canada-Nova Scotia Labour Market Agreement for Persons with Disabilities.
• the 2006 Canada-Nova Scotia Labour Market Agreement for Persons with Disabilities.
The words Disabled Persons Commission only appear once each in the last two documents, which they did not author.

The League for Equal Opportunities (LEO) is a twenty-seven year old charity which received over 99% of its 2007 funding from government. Its self proclaimed mandate is to “advocate for legislative changes”. Their most recent position paper, which covers a mix of programs, acknowledges that they “do not have the resource capacity to carry out the research and share the knowledge that can lead to policy changes”

Other charities are problematic because they administer government programs which help their bottom line. The Abilities Foundation runs a wheelchair recycling (really distribution) program which gave out 66 wheelchairs through the end of 2007. They were bought with $407,000 of taxpayer money, and given to financially needy wheelchair users. Sounds pretty worthy, until you consider that MSI will give anybody (after a bit of a wait) a new hip for free.

Wheelchairs and hips do the same thing – they give access to jobs, recreation, movement. Life. So why do you beg for a wheelchair and get a hip for free? Why doesn’t the province just distribute wheelchairs directly? Is this effective advocacy by the Abilities Foundation?

According to Revenue Canada’s Consultation on proposed policy on fundraising by Registered Charities it is “rarely acceptable” (the worst category), for charities to spend more than 70 cents to raise one dollar. The 2007 Registered Charity Information Return of the Abilities Foundation reports it spent 88 cents for every dollar raised. ($180,109/$203,294 = 88.6%)

The silent minority

It’s hard work being disabled. Even when you get up at 8, it can be 10 before you’re showered and dressed. A flat tire on your wheelchair can ground you for a week. A rude bus driver can take you to the wrong stop. The Access-a-Bus must be booked far in advance.

I wonder why my scooter-enabled friends didn’t hie themselves off to the important Halifax by Design meeting on Infill Case Studies & Urban Design Framework held in January 2007? Maybe they’re relying on the Disabled Persons Commission or LEO to represent them. Maybe they’re tired. Maybe they’re stuck in a snowbank. Maybe the accessible parking is taken by people just popping into the grocery store.

Everyday indignities

• Mike Savage, MP, gets into a wheelchair on Parliament Hill to show his understanding of the predicament of the disabled. Does he spend a day as an African-Canadian? A woman?
• A good friend and his wheelchair can’t visit his child’s publicly funded daycare on the second floor.
• Swimming, a highly therapeutic activity for people with mobility difficulties, is unavailable to wheelchair users at Cole Harbour Place unless they can negotiate ladders.
• For historic preservation reasons, the Maritime Command museum at Stadacona is inaccessible to veterans in wheelchairs. Is that the legacy of Vimy?
• There is no Braille in the elevators at the Victoria General or Dickson Building
• In the Halifax by Design publications there is:

o No mention of the word accessible in General Design & Heritage Design Guidelines or Heritage Conservation
o One mention in The 10 'Big Moves' of the Downtown Halifax Vision, but only in respect of transportation and in the context of proximity.
o Ditto Transportation & the Land Use Framework
o None in Vision, Guiding Principles & the Precinct Approach, no Universal either.
o Ditto Development Approvals & Economic Development
o Ditto Public Realm & Sustainability Framework
The solution

• Think Access, not Disability
• Think Requirements, not Suggestions
• Revise the building codes and the licensing standards

o Write them down
o Enforce them
o Keep them current
• Review every government program for fairness to everyone, including persons with disabilities
• Devise and enforce compliance systems for government programs and capital projects.
• Encourage charities to recruit directors from among the beneficiaries of their programs. Require it of charities with taxpayer funding.

What’s at stake goes to the heart of democracy. It’s time that people with disabilities reap the fruit of their work, their taxes and their votes.

Gus Reed

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