B.C. Residents With Disabilities Demand a Say on Proposed Accessibility Law

Nick Eagland
Updated: July 13, 2018
From left, Amanda Reaume, Kent Loftsgard, Jessica Leung, and Vivian Ly are people living with varying disabilities who say they have to be involved in drafting any new accessibility legislation.

For Amanda Reaume, acquiring a disability meant awakening to a civil rights movement in a way made possible only through lived experience.

Last year, the 33-year-old writer suffered a brain injury that left her with balance problems and having to relearn how to walk and talk at the same time. She returned to work in Vancouver six months later but with a new, invisible disability.

Becoming disabled, it really makes me consider accessibility a lot more, and the ways in which our society really restricts access, she said. Disabled people often struggle in ensuring that their dignity is respected and that they are included and get proper services.

Having disability legislation on the provincial level is critical to ensuring that their human rights are respected.

Reaume struggled with using public transit during her recovery. Unable to walk and talk simultaneously, she couldnt speak up for a courtesy seat on the bus and had to rely on expensive taxi trips to get around.

Public transit was particularly problematic for Amanda Reaume, a writer, after she suffered a brain injury last year.

More than a year later, Reaume sees gaps in accessibility and inclusion for others wherever she goes, and is calling on government to listen to a broad range of people with disabilities people when it drafts legislation to protect their civil rights.

The thing about accessibility is that its not something that just disabled people should be working on. Accessibility is something that all of us should be working on.

Disability barriers

More than 600,000 people in B.C. have disabilities. Many of them encounter barriers in society that keep them from fully participating. While they are protected by human rights legislation, they must prove on a case-by-case basis that their rights have been denied.

To address that and after federal legislation was proposed last month to improve accessibility for people with disabilities the B.C. government will begin creating a provincial disabilities act this fall.

People with disabilities in B.C. are making it clear they want to play a major role in its design.

Without legislation, we end up having these discussions on a personal, not policy, level, said Gabrielle Peters, a Vancouver writer who uses a wheelchair. It would change the focus from Oh no, she cant get in to Why the hell are you not in compliance with the accessibility laws?

Peters is on Vancouvers Active Transportation Policy Council and last year led a successful campaign to install a mat at English Bay to make the beach accessible to wheelchair users.

She said such a law would move the onus from the person with the disability to fight each and every battle for accessibility and explain why each transgression is unfair. Rather, society would have to meet provincially enforced accessibility standards.

There is some deep indignity, thats very hard to explain, about opening up my computer and seeing an article congratulating some business person for making their office accessible, she said.

If you think about it, imagine we did that for you. I said, Hey, look, I found a restaurant right here, in Vancouver that youre allowed into, with a washroom you can use!

In order for the legislation to be adequate, a diverse group of people with disabilities must be involved in drafting it, not just charity organizations, Peters said. She wants the government to pay particular attention to people with disabilities who live in poverty, many of whom are struggling after a decade of frozen government-assistance rates.

David Lepofsky is an adviser to Barrier-Free B.C., a group pushing for a strong and effective disabilities act in the province. He led a decade-long campaign to bring disabilities legislation to Ontario in 2005. The only other provinces with disabilities laws, which are meant to ensure the accessibility of goods and services, jobs, information and communications, public transportation and outdoor-built environments such as sidewalks, pathways and parks, are Nova Scotia and Manitoba.

A part-time law professor and retired lawyer who is blind, Lepofsky said the B.C. government can draw from the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act and the proposed federal Accessible Canada Act.

The federal government says its legislation will identify, remove and prevent accessibility barriers in areas under its jurisdiction, such as buildings and public spaces, employment, information and communication technologies and transportation.

But that jurisdiction includes only Parliament, government of Canada agencies, the federally regulated private sector (transportation, broadcasting, telecommunications and finance), Canadian Forces and the RCMP.

We need legislation at both levels, Lepofsky said.

Ontario legislation

Yet, at the same time, theres a myth that Ontarios legislation has made all new buildings accessible, Lepofsky said. A search of his name on YouTube turns up videos in which he identifies major accessibility failures at Ryerson Universitys student learning centre and Toronto-area transit stations.

Ontario has given itself until 2025 to implement full accessibility, including installing elevators to street level at all subway stations. Meantime, government data obtained by the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance, of which Lepofsky is chairman, showed that since 2013, 57 per cent of private-sector companies with at least 20 employees hadnt filed mandatory compliance reports.

In 2015, 2016 and 2017 combined, for the thousands of private sector organizations known to have violated this legislation, the government only imposed a total of five monetary penalties, the alliance reported in April.

The most important thing B.C. can learn from the Ontario experience is the need for a strong, independent enforcement body and process, Lepofsky said. Without that, any legislation lacks the teeth it needs to be effective.

Kent Loftsgard is part of a group of people with disabilities advocating provincial accessibility legislation. / PNG

I was very disappointed the first time I went to Toronto, several years ago, said Kent Loftsgard, 49, a Vancouver journalist and health educator who has cerebral palsy.

During his first visit there, he and a fellow journalist with cerebral palsy found themselves unable to enter nightclubs and restaurants because their mobility scooters had been barricaded by stepped entryways. The problem with steps in Ontario is so bad that a non-profit, the StopGap Foundation, has distributed more than 1,000 simple ramps. Loftsgard also found many of the subway stations inaccessible.

A best-case scenario for me would be to have a provincial disabilities minister (in B.C.) as a complement to the office of the federal disabilities minister, Loftsgard said. A lot of the reporting and enforcement of disability issues on all different levels is going to come down to provincial reporting.

Vivian Ly, executive director of Canadian Autistics United, said legislation is an important step in recognizing that people with disabilities are a marginalized demographic whose rights have not been properly enshrined in law.

Ly, who is autistic, said the legislation must be created through a disability lens. Ly offered the City of Vancouvers recent approval of a ban on plastic straws as an example of a failure to consider the perspective of people with disabilities. When someone needs a straw to drink at a restaurant, they may be pressured to justify its use and disclose their disability, Ly said.

That doesnt work, because that adds additional barriers, Ly said.

Curb cut effect

Ly also wants universal design to be included in the legislation so that products, environments and means of communication can be used by the greatest number of people possible. Ly pointed to the curb cut effect. While the cuts make sidewalks more accessible to people who use wheelchairs, they also help seniors, parents with strollers and anyone else who uses a mobility aid.

If a built environment is universally accessible, then we dont have to ask for these specific accommodations, Ly said.

Jessica Leung, who identifies as deaf poc-Asian ENBY, a deaf person of colour who is Asian and gender non-binary, said in an email that it has been challenging growing up in an environment where most people in positions of power are hearing and able-bodied, while deaf people are under-represented in politics and media.

Leung, who is with the Cascadia Deaf Nation, wants provincial legislation so that people who are deaf or have other disabilities can overcome high unemployment and a lack of sign language interpreters in public services.

Deaf people in minority groups, including those who are black, Indigenous, or people of colour, prisoners, the homeless and mentally ill, face particular hurdles in accessing interpreters in courts and in hospitals, Leung said.

Leung said what matters most about the design of legislation is that it include feedback from people with disabilities.

We cannot afford hearing, able-bodied folks to just make a change for us, Leung said.

Provinces plans

In an interview, Shane Simpson, NDP MLA for Vancouver Hastings and minister for social development and poverty reduction, said he is committed to bringing legislation to B.C. and pledged to ensure people with disabilities play a substantial role in its creation.

Ive committed to the principle under the UN Convention (on the rights of persons with disabilities) that says, Nothing about us without us, he said. Theyre going to have to be at that table, not others solely speaking on their behalf or speaking about them.

Now that federal legislation is in the works, the province is moving toward consultation with British Columbians about provincial legislation in the fall, though there is no deadline for its completion, Simpson said. He plans on a made-in-B.C. approach drawing from work in other provinces.

Simpson said his first priority will be to understand what his government and people with disabilities want to accomplish. What he hears most is that they want access to employment.

A 2017 Angus Reid survey found that 37 per cent of working-age Canadians with a disability were unemployed. Two-thirds of those people cited their disability as the reason for being out of work, and only 23 per cent of respondents said they felt comfortable disclosing their disability to a potential employer before interviews began.

B.C. businesses have been receptive to legislation, though the government will have to find ways to support small businesses with no human resources departments, said Simpson.

Ontario, for example, requires businesses to ensure accessibility in their hiring practices and accessibility to workplace information such as training manuals and bulletins through formats such as braille, audio and large print, or communication supports such as captioning, screen-reader software and sign language interpretation.

Businesses with 50 or more employees in Ontario must also create a process to support employees who have missed work because of a disability and who need accommodations upon their return.

Simpson admitted that he does not have a good handle yet on all aspects of creating accessibility legislation, such as how to appropriately change building codes and other laws. But he vowed he will get it done.

Were committed to it in a way that persons living with disabilities have every opportunity to have as full and complete a life as we all want, Simpson said. Theres no reason why a disability, whatever the nature of it, should hold you back from having the opportunity to build that life for yourself.

With files from The Canadian Press

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?Original at https://vancouversun.com/health/local-health/advocates-say-b-c-accessibility-legislation-cant-wait