Tagged: House of Assembly Management Commission

MLAs will open their offices to all Nova Scotians

Contrarian friend Gus Reed, co-founder of the James McGregor Stewart Society, sums up the significance of a unanimous decision today by the House of Assembly Management Commission that will require that constituency offices for all Nova Scotia MLAs to be barrier free:

This simple regulation marks a sea change in approach for the provincial government:

  • People with disabilities are acknowledged to have the same rights as others
  • Written rules, rather than promises, are the solution
  • All parties agree on the principle, the problem and the solution
  • The initiative came from the community of Nova Scotians with disabilities

Let’s hope that the lesson is not lost and that it sets a precedent.  In order for Nova Scotians with disabilities to become full citizens, they need equal access to all parts of their world.

Amen. Congratulations to all involved (and a special salute for Kelly McKenna, the James McGregor Stewart Society intern who bird-dogged the issue all summer, insisting that MLAs get the job done).

 

Finally. Commission will pass MLA office accessibility rule Wednesday

The Nova Scotia House of Assembly Management Commission will meet Wednesday to clear up an injustice that should have been fixed decades ago. Its members will pass a new rule requiring MLAs’ constituency offices to be free of barriers to wheelchair users.

The commission reached all-party agreement on the change a month ago, but inexplicable last-minute foot-dragging by senior NDP officials threatened to deep-six the deal. Lobbying by the James MacGregor Stewart Society, a disability rights group,  embarrassed the government into action Friday.

MysteryNDPhonchoThe new rule will come into effect after the election, at which time newly elected MLAs will have one year to find a standards-compliant office. Re-elected MLAs with existing office leases will have three years to comply. All leases will be with the Speaker’s office. The Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal will ensure compliance with building code accessibility standards.

Had the election been called before the new rule was passed, the commission would have ceased to exist, and the large crop of freshman MLAs expected this fall could have rented inaccessible offices.

Responsibility for calling the commission meeting rests with Speaker Gordie Gosse, but it seems unlikely he was NDP honcho who wanted to scuttle the deal. A former steel worker, Gosse represents a working class constituency, and is widely regarded as sincere in his efforts on behalf of disadvantaged constituents. He also has personal experience with disability issues in his own family. Contrarian’s calls to Gosse’s office on the issue were returned by Jennifer Stewart, press secretary to the premier.

The Stewart society surveyed MLAs’ offices last spring, and found most to be party or completely inaccessible. Which of the powerful, long-time social democrats in cabinet was keen to keep them that way remains a matter of speculation.

Will the government trample wheelchair users in its rush to an election?

Last spring, a disability rights organization surveyed the constituency offices of Nova Scotia MLAs and found hardly any were fully accessible to citizens who use wheelchairs.

In May, the James McGregor Stewart Society cajoled the House of Assembly Management Commission into meeting and considering ways to remove barriers from MLAs’ offices. The campaign hinged on passing changes before the election, so newly elected MLAs could be required to find accessible space, while returning MLAs would have a modest grace period to comply.

accessible-icon-updatedI was skeptical. I expected the inconvenience of modifying or relocating constituency offices might trump the obvious injustice of preventing citizens from entering MLAs’ workplaces, let alone working in them.

I was wrong. Commission members from all parties recognized that Nova Scotia lags behind other jurisdictions on this human rights issue. To their credit, they worked collaboratively to develop a practical plan for breaking down barriers that separate Nova Scotians who use wheelchairs and their elected representatives.

That plan is now in jeopardy due to an inexplicable delay in calling the commission meeting required to pass the regulation, something only Speaker Gordie Gosse has the power to do. Calls and emails to Gosse’s office were eventually returned by Premier Darrell Dexter’s press secretary.

“We have every intention of getting a meeting called as soon as we can,” Jennifer Stewart said. “All three parties are agreed, and it has to happen.”

The problem is that the Commission ceases to exist the moment Stewart’s boss calls an election, an event some predict as early as this Saturday.* At that point, the Commission can no longer pass the agree-upon regulation, thus destroying the crucial proviso that MLAs elected for the first time in the forthcoming vote must find barrier-free offices.

That the matter has drawn the attention of “the centre”—the premier’s office, from which all decisions in this highly centralized government flow—is a good sign. An opposition member of the commission told Contrarian he expects a meeting August 14, although he hasn’t received official notice yet.

Meanwhile, the James McGregor Stewart** Society continues to entreat the Speaker to get the meeting called and the regulation passed. Surely Darrell Dexter will not want to begin an election campaign in a way that wrecks an all-party agreement to remedy this lamentable injustice.

* Find Contrarian’s prediction of the probable date here.

** I did not think to ask Ms. Stewart if she is related to the redoubtable Pictou native, one of Canada’s most accomplished lawyers, who had lifelong mobility issues arising from a childhood bout with polio.

A human right that’s inconvenient for MLAs

A committee meeting at Province House this week has the potential to correct a logstanding injustice in the way Nova Scotia is governed.

At the behest of the James McGregor Stewart Society, a disability rights organization, the House of Assembly Management Commission will consider requiring constituency offices to be fully accessible before MLAs can claim reimbursement of office expenses.

Gosse-250You might expect this to go without saying in 2013, but it doesn’t. Many MLAs’ offices are only partly, if at all, accessible. They may have a level entry or a satisfactory wheelchair ramp, but lack a paved parking lot or an accessible washroom. They may have a wide enough door to admit a wheelchair, but no automatic door opener to let wheelchair users come and go unassisted.

People with unrestricted mobility sometimes miss the significance of that last distinction. Wheelchairs users value their autonomy as much as anyone else. They  want to participate without having to ask for help.

The House Management Commission doesn’t have to guess about what constitutes an accessible office. The standards are clearly set forth in Section C of the Nova Scotia Building Code, which all new commercial construction must meet.

It’s not clear that any of the constituency offices now in use fully comply with this standard. This effectively bars Nova Scotia’s 28,000 wheelchair users from full participation in the political process. It puts constituency office jobs beyond reach of applicants with disabilities.

MLAs know this is unacceptable. The gentle explanation for why it wasn’t fixed a generation ago is inertia. In many parts of the province, it’s hard to find good office space. Many MLAs enjoy a close relationship with their landlords, which they aren’t anxious to disturb. No one likes the hassle of moving to new quarters.

That’s why the summer of 2013 offers a unique opportunity to correct this injustice. The election that’s expected this fall will produce an unusually large crop of new MLAs, all of whom will be seeking office space. The Commission could require any new constituency offices to comply with Section C in order to qualify for reimbursement. It could establish a firm timetable—certainly no more than the five-year term of a typical commercial lease—by which existing constituency offices  must be brought into compliance. The first election after 2013 could serve as a final deadline for existing offices.

Leasehold improvements are a standard feature of office leases. The landlord carries out the work, builds the cost into the rent, and ends up with a more desirable, barrier-free property at the termination of the lease.

Fixing this problem will undoubtedly cause some inconvenience for MLAs. In a letter to the Commission, the society put that burden in perspective:

The challenges MLAs will face meeting this requirement are real, but they must be weighed against the perpetuation of second-class citizenship for 28,000 Nova Scotians. One is a matter of inconvenience; the other a human right.

Speaker Gordie Gosse chairs the Management Commission, whose members include MLAs Frank Corbett, Becky Kent, Pam Birdsall, Moe Smith, Michel Samson, Chris d’Entremont, Andrew Younger, and House of Assembly Chief Clerk Neil Ferguson. The Commission meets Thursday at 1 p.m. in the Red Chamber.

If it fails to act before the upcoming election, we’ll have to find a strong word than “inertia.”