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August 25, 2013

A Framework built on sand

This post is longer than usual. It addresses Nova Scotia`s misguided and counterproductive policies toward people with disabilities.  It explains why no one cares about you.  I hope you'll read it.

In their 2009-2010 Annual Report (the newest; we should have three more), The Disabled Persons Commission (DPC) refers to a government program called Access 2020:

5.1  Access 2020 
In the 2007-2008 Budget, the Government of Nova Scotia committed to making all public government buildings barrier free by 2020. That year, a budget of $300,000 was made available from Public Works Special Projects through the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal (TIR) to implement accessible design in all new government buildings and existing properties under renovation. The Disabled Persons Commission is working closely with the Department to meet the 2020 objective. The Commission is co-chairing the Accessibility Policy Development Committee (APDC) with TIR. In July 2009, TIR hired a project manager for the Barrier-Free Access to Government Real Property Project, a significant step toward accelerating the initiatives started by the APDC.

This could be a significant development for people with disabilities and really for all Nova Scotians who care about a just society.  Since the program was meant to last 12 years, next year will mark the halfway point, yet I can't find any information on the progress of this initiative.  So on July 25 I wrote to E. Anne MacRae, the director of the DPC asking

  • how many existing buildings are meant by 'all'
  • how many are barrier-free
  • how many aren't
  • what the schedule is for the renovations
  • what progress has been made

And asking about the involvement of the Disabled Persons Commission

  • how often are there meetings? 
  • what is the staff commitment?
  • what reports have been written?

Yesterday I finally got a partial response:
Dear Mr. Reed
I am responding to your email dated July 26, 2013 in which you requested information about government progress regarding accessibility to government owned and leased properties through the Access 2020 project. As you have correctly noted in your email, the Government of Nova Scotia under Premier MacDonald committed in the 2007-2008 budget to making Government public building accessible by the year 2020. The Disabled Persons Commission (DPC) and the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal (TIR) were very pleased with this announcement and agreed to work closely to support the work of the Access 2020 project. 
Although much discussion occurred around the necessary work, infrastructure and budget for the Access 2020 project, funding to meet the commitment was not provided by government and work on the joint DPC- TIR committee was unfortunately discontinued. This was a disappointment to the DPC and TIR since the joint committee had been working on the issue of government accessibility for a number of years prior to the Access 2020 announcement.   During this period, the joint committee developed a Government of Nova Scotia Accessibility Evaluation Guideline which resulted in an audit of government owned and leased properties.
Although the joint DPC- TIR committee is no longer active, TIR continues to make government buildings accessible where possible through a limited yearly budget that is dedicated to building accessibility. In addition, the DPC has continued to raise the importance of this issue at Commission meetings and with the Coordinating Committee of Ministers. Although government has understood the importance of accessibility, the high cost to bring all existing government buildings up to provincial accessibility standards has admittedly caused delays in making progress. 
Recently, the DPC wrote to the Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal about the issue of accessibility of MLA offices in the province, providing the Minister with an overview of the work the DPC has done in the past around the larger issue of government-wide accessibility
The DPC will be meeting with TIR in September to revive discussions on the issue of government accessibility. We are hopeful that this meeting will result in constructive work towards making government owned and leased properties accessible for persons with disabilities.
As your work to ensure MLA offices are fully accessible to persons with disabilities demonstrates so well it is essential that government provides persons with disabilities the same level of access to government owned or leased real properties as the general public. Access enables participation which fosters community development and engagement. In this regard, the DPC is committed to working towards a more accessible Nova Scotia for persons with disabilities.  
E. Anne MacRae
Executive DirectorDisabled Persons Commission
Which brings me to the point.  The entire program of the DPC is based on the notion that people with disabilities can best be served by remembering to include them in the other programs of government.  The DPC calls this the Framework

Barrier-free transportation for people with disabilities, for example, would be handled by making sure that the provincial policy is to buy accessible buses, build accessible bus stops, require taxis to be be accessible and so on.  Responsibility for the policy would lie with the appropriate department.  Except for 2 throwaway lines, you will look in vain for a reference to barrier-free transit in the Sustainable Transportation Strategy. And as we discovered in looking at Metro Transit in Halifax, under half of all bus stops are accessible (47%), there are no accessible taxis, the plan to renovate older bus stops is vague, and the solution for public transportation of people with disabilities is to herd them onto separate buses with separate schedules and separate rules.  Accessibility is far from the mind of Metro Transit director Eddie Robar.  He's got more pressing problems.  

As the letter from E. Anne MacRae clearly demonstrates, remembering people with disabilities in planning and renovating government buildings lasted around a nanosecond. The government has a disability called ADHD.  Let's see.  People with disabilities can't work where they can't get in, so the Jobs Framework is fiction too. The Minister of Labour and Advanced Education could not hire a person with a wheelchair because his constituency office is not accessible. 

Remembering kids with disabilities fell by the wayside in yesterday's announcement by Education Minister Ramona Jennex  about opening early years centres in four communities. The centres provide families more access to services and supports for young children.  Trouble is, Rockingstone Heights School, the Halifax location, is on a street with no sidewalks; the main route for pedestrians has stairs with 21 steps.  The playground at Rockingstone is not wheelchair accessible.  The bus stop is 1000 feet down a steep hill.  The idea that Kids and Learning First has any promise for people with disabilities is ludicrous.  This choice of location screams "We don't care about access".  

Nope, the Framework is a house of cards, smoke and mirrors, a bad idea administered irregularly and without leverage.  People with disabilities need jobs, education, transportation and housing.  The way to get them is the same way they got access to MLA constituency offices.  Now even the government acknowledges that equal treatment of people with disabilities requires enforceable regulations.

The new regulation requiring accessible MLA constituency offices has all the hallmarks of what is needed:

  • a simple statement of purpose
    • The constituency office space of a member who is elected at or after the next general election must comply with the barrier-free requirements 
  • incentives and penalties
    • No member may be reimbursed for  constituency office accommodation expenses for constituency office space that does not comply with the barrier-free requirements
  • written rules
    • “barrier-free requirements” means the barrier-free access and design requirements applicable to offices under the Nova Scotia Building Code Regulations, as amended from time to time;
  • a timetable
    • within 12 months after the member is elected.

This is the beginning of a Nova Scotians with Disabilities Act.  Other Provinces have such an act.  Nova Scotia should have nothing less.

Gus Reed

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