What a committed mayor could do to end HRM’s discrimination

My friend and former Halifax Daily News colleague Shaune MacKinlay, now principal advisor to HRM Mayor John Mike Savage, thought my report of a newly opened Queen St. candy shop that bars entry to people in wheelchairs and discriminates against them in hiring gave short shrift to HRM’s recent efforts on accessibility.

She pointed to two measures recommended by the Mayor’s Conversation on Healthy, Liveable Communities” (an October 2013 meeting attended by 80 people), and adopted by unanimous vote of council. Along with establishing an orchard and fixing the bike lane at the Halifax end of the MacDonald Bridge, the meeting urged HRM to:

  • Work with Business Improvement Districts to determine what opportunities exist to improve accessibility in HRM, including consideration of the use of portable accessible ramps for entries that are not already accessible and cannot be made accessible through other means.
  • Direct staff to include the statement “HRM is a leader in building an inclusive and accessible community for everyone, including persons with disabilities and seniors” within the Healthy Communities Priority Outcomes, along with a Business Plan to support this Outcome, for consideration by Council in preparation for the 2015/16 planning cycle.

MacKinlay added:

I can assure you this office is committed to improving accessibility but as you may also know we do not direct staff, except through Council motion, which has been provided.

To summarize, almost two years into Michael Savage’s term as mayor, HRM has:

  • “committed” to work, not with the affected citizens, but with the retail business sector that discriminates against them, not to end that discrimination against people with disabilities, but to “determine what opportunities might exist to improve accessibility in HRM” [my emphasis], and
  • endorsed a flowery statement falsely portraying the city as “a leader in building an inclusive and accessible community for… people with disabilities.”

HRM is not a leader in anything connected with access for people with disabilities. It is quite possibly the least accessible capital city in North America. (Federal law forbids US cities from discriminating as Halifax routinely does, and most if not all Canadian provincial capitals are more accessible than HRM.)

Here’s what hasn’t changed in the two years since the Chicken Burger fiasco:

  • People in wheelchairs still can’t shop in, let alone seek employment with, many city businesses;
  • HRM continues to grant occupancy permits to new businesses that bar the disabled and refuse to employ them.

Meanwhile, Savage’s policy advisor portrays the mayor as a quivering lump of Jell-o, helpless to exercise authority over city staff or influence policy in any way beyond vacuous happy-talk.

While it may be true in political science theory that the mayor doesn’t direct city staff, there is much a committed mayor could be doing to halt the municipality’s rampant discrimination against wheelchair users.

  • The mayor has a bully pulpit. He could use it to advance this issue instead of dispatching spokespeople to rationalize the city’s inaction.
  • The mayor meets regularly with the CAO. He could make progress toward non-discrimination against people in wheelchairs a regular agenda item for those meetings.
  • The mayor could ask the CAO for monthly reports to council detailing ongoing staff efforts to end discrimination against people in wheelchairs.
  • The mayor could urge council to amend the city’s non-encroachment bylaw so planning staff could no longer use this little known law to prevent businesses from installing wheelchair ramps. (More in a future post on how HRM staff actually prevent businesses that want to install ramps from doing so.)
  • The mayor could ask the chair and the CEO of the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission to appear before council and discuss their efforts to bring Nova Scotia out of its dark age of inaccessibility.
  • The mayor could refuse to hold any city function in, or approve any expense claim for services provided by, any business that bars people in wheelchairs.
  • The mayor could publicly lobby his Liberal colleagues in the provincial government to amend the building code so discrimination could no longer be grandfathered when businesses change hands.

For a city that wants to think of itself as progressive, HRM’s failure to accommodate citizens with disabilities is a continuing scandal. Our mayor could do much more to fix this.