Tagged: James McGregor Stewart Society

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).

 

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.

Does your MLA serve citizens in wheelchairs?

accessmap-clean-625

The James McGregor Stewart Society, a small voluntary group with a single summer intern, has managed to pull off in a month what the Disabled Persons Commission of NS (annual budget: $600,000) and the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission ($2.1 million) have not achieved in the decades of their existence.

It has surveyed the accessibility of MLAs offices throughout the province. The results will not be a source of pride for Nova Scotia or its legislators.

ScoringThe survey rated MLAs’ constituency offices based on parking facilities, power door buttons, entrance accessibility, washroom accessibility, and proximity to accessible bus routes. Since accessible bus routes are mostly beyond an MLA’s control (many ridings have none), that category was not included in the final ratings.

Only four MLAs (Lenore Zann, Eddie Orrell, Kelly Regan, and Graham Steele) got a perfect score: paved parking with designated accesible spaces; level entrance, satisfactory ramp, or elevator; power door button; accessible bathroom with grab bars and wheel-under sink).

One MLA, Chris D’Entremont, who represents Argyle and sits on the Management Commission that will decide whether accessibility will be a condition for reimbursement of office expenses, scored a perfect zero. His office has no paved parking, no designated parking spaces, no level entrance, and no accessible washroom.

Although 43 MLAs claim an accessible doorway, only eight have a power door button, which means a constituent in a wheelchair can get in only if someone assists them. Once inside, wheelchair-using constituents will find only eight offices with fully accessible washrooms. How confidently could you attend a meeting knowing you would would have no chance to pee until you got home? You certainly couldn’t hold a job in such an office.

Another 30 MLAs claim some level of washroom accessibility, but lack grab bars, a wheel-under sink, or a high toilet. This translates as: Use at your own risk of accident or humiliation.

The survey turned up fewer regional variations than you might expect. The average MLA scored 3.1 points. Urban MLAs averaged 3.3, while rural MLAs averaged 2.9.

Metro MLAs averaged 3.2; Cape Breton MLAs just 2.4.

Liberal MLAs had the best score: an average of 3.5 points. PCs averaged 3.0, and the NDP trailed the pack with an average 2.9 points.

Two MLAs, Percy Paris and Geoff MacLellan, have not yet completed the survey. Cape Breton South is vacant.

Perhaps the most telling statistic is this: The eight MLAs who sit on the House of Assembly Management Commission, the body currently deciding whether to require accessibility as a condition of expense reimbursement, have an average score of just 2.3 — the lowest of any group I checked.

Map KeySpeaker Gordie Gosse, who chairs the committee, has a double distinction: His constituency office and his office in the legislature are both inaccessible to people in wheelchairs.

Clicking on the image at the top of this post will bring up an interactive map of Nova Scotia with a colored marker for each constituency office. Clicking on a marker will bring up accessibility details for that office.

Please note that the map and the data underlying it are works in progress. Some MLAs continue to provide new information, and the society’s intern, the redoubtable Kelly McKenna, is updating it continually. The information in this post is up to date to the best of my knowledge, but it’s a lot of information, and there could be minor errors.

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.”