Legislation would ‘move the needle’ on accessibility in N.L.: advocate
Provincial government committed to making it happen, says consultations will happen in the next year
The conversation about accessibility in our communities has been going on for decades, and it’s time for action through legislation, some advocates say.
Debbie Ryan of CNIB Newfoundland and Labrador is among the members of Barrier-free Newfoundland and Labrador, a group whose sole purpose is to lobby for accessibility legislation. The local chapter was formed in November, after Barrier-free Canada co-chair David Lepovsky visited St. John’s as part of consultations on federal accessibility legislation.
“David talked about civil and constitutional law. He talked about the fact that people with disabilities ... live in a society that is designed as if we’re not there. And when you look at the fact that across this country, there are four million Canadians living with a disability, that’s scary,” said Ryan.
To give a little local perspective, she said there are currently 3,600 people in the province registered with CNIB — and at least 20,000 more living with vision loss.
For those residents, and residents living with other disabilities, progress has been slow when it comes to knocking down accessibility barriers.
That’s what Ryan is referring to when she says the province needs to “move the needle.”
She said making accessibility in public spaces law, with a timeline in mind — Nova Scotia’s Accessibility Act, which aims for an accessible province by 2030, for instance — would help our communities get there quicker.
“It has to be a much faster process. We need to look at what needs to be done, set timelines and meet those timelines, but that, unfortunately, has not been the case.
For example, right here in Metro St. John’s we, as an organization, have 1,100 clients that we provide services to, but there are only three accessible pedestrian signals in the City of St. John’s,” she said.
“That’s just a small example of why I feel there’s a necessity to move the whole conversation about legislation to the forefront, so that people will understand that ... with legislation comes education. Because in order to implement legislation, you have to inform the people in the community of how they are to follow that legislation. So there’s automatically an education component to it.”
Ryan said people often say legislation shouldn’t be necessary to prevent discrimination, as there’s already a Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and human rights codes, to protect people who feel they’ve been victims of discrimination.
“But the Charter of Rights and the human rights code really, while it tells us you can’t discriminate, and you need to accommodate the needs of people with disabilities up to the point of undue hardship, it doesn’t have enforcement. It’s not out there ensuring that people are doing what they should be doing, so what it does is it forces people who are living with disabilities to become, as David called them, ‘accessibility cops.’ And they have to fight their own cases, and there’s something fundamentally wrong with that. People with disabilities should not have to go and fight for themselves, and oftentimes, somebody living with a disability has barriers to employment, and often don’t have the resources to take on those issues,” Ryan said.
“That’s another reason why we think we need a law that will — not one that will replace human rights or the charter of rights, but one that will actually make them work. One that will get us action without us having to fight one barrier at a time, or one organization at a time.”
The government of Canada consulted with groups and individuals around the country this year on federal accessibility legislation. But federal laws don’t cover everything, Ryan says, and provincial laws are needed to effect change in communities. She points to other provinces, likenova Scotia, that have similar legislation in place, and says Newfoundland and Labrador doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel in order to set our own goals.
Lisa Dempster, minister of Children, Seniors and Social Development and the province’s minister responsible for the status of persons with disabilities, said it’s her mandate to review existing laws and implement inclusion-based legislation in Newfoundland and Labrador.
“Inclusion-based or broadbased accessibility legislation is a growing trend across the country. It goes beyond making our buildings accessible to making sure all aspects of our communities and private and public services are accessible to everyone,” she wrote to The Telegram.
“Our commitment to inclusion-based legislation demonstrates the seriousness and necessity of designing and providing inclusive, services, buildings, facilities, communities. It is about removing barriers and preventing new barriers.”
Dempster said the provincial government will consult with people with disabilities, organizations and municipal governments in the coming year.
“Individuals and groups are already turning their minds to what legislation could look like. The Provincial Advisory Council for the Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities has begun discussions on legislative options.”
She said the province is paying attention to what’s happening elsewhere in Canada — Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba and Nova Scotia all have legislation in place, and others including Newfoundland and Labrador have committed to doing the same.
“Legislation in other provinces includes regulated and mandatory standards in specific areas, such as customer service, information and communications, employment, transportation, and the built environment,” Dempster wrote.
“We want to hear from people in the province, and work with community organizations and other stakeholders. We want to create inclusionbased legislation that works for this province — a ‘made in Newfoundland and Labrador’ legislation, not necessarily a replica of what is happening in other provinces or federally.”
Ryan said Barrier-free NL wants to be at the table to help guide that process. She said she knows it’s not going to be easy, and she knows it’s going to take time; there are many aspects to accessibility, from para-transport to painting sidewalks to help people with low vision. She feels setting a date, like other provinces have, will give the community time to make adjustments and help move things along.
“We need to establish a goal to work towards one that will force us to move that needle that’s been basically sitting there for far too long,” she said.
Debbie Ryan with the CNIB says the government needs to move on legislation regarding accessibility.