New Laws Promised for Seniors and Disabled; Parties Speak Out on Access and Inclusion

By Steven Christianson
October 1, 2013

Nova Scotia has the highest rate of disability in the country, averaging at one-fifth of the population. This number typically does not include the increasing number of seniors, many of which often age into disability. So the numbers, in effect, are much higher, and they will continue to increase.

If the Parties vying to form the government think the current pressures of public policy are challenging, wait till they see what will happen if nothing is done to address the needs and challenges of aging and disability.

To be fair, the Nova Scotia government has recognized that the government’s current basket of programs and services is complex and disparate; that change, harmonization and improvement are drastically needed.

But the change that is needed goes far beyond the development and management of programs and services. The overall challenge will be achieving accessibility and inclusion. And this requires a change in thought.

Governments, such as Ontario and Manitoba, have introduced new laws. The accessibility legislation in both provinces is designed to achieve inclusive and barrier-free societies and economies. The laws establish regulatory standards in employment, transportation, public spaces, the provision of goods and services, and the built environment.

So why not something province-wide and comprehensive? Why not an Accessibility for Nova Scotians Act?

This is precisely the thinking underpinning the dialogue spearheaded by March of Dimes Canada and Community Living Toronto, both of which have programs and affiliates throughout Nova Scotia. The two organizations asked the leaders of the governing NDP, the Liberals and the PCs whether or not they would introduce an Accessibility for Nova Scotians Act. Very specifically, the question was posed as follows:

If elected, will you introduce an Accessibility for Nova Scotians Act that would entail regulations affecting the built environment, public spaces, employment, transportation and the provision of goods and services, to achieve a barrier-free and inclusive Nova Scotia?

The responses, received between September 20 and 25, give valuable insight into the policy thinking on such future challenges as aging, disability and barrier-free societies..

The Progressive Conservative Party commits to several program enhancements to assist seniors and people with disabilities. These range from expanding the eligibility of the Caregiver Benefit Program and creating new Community Care Centres that bring together family health care, early childhood/learning and eldercare options under one roof.

The ten main commitments of the PCs are practical, responsive and tangible policy measures. However, no comment is made in the PC response to introducing accessibility legislation.

The Nova Scotia New Democratic Party mentions ongoing measures and related commitments, such as the development of a single entry point to access programs and services, and references seven key platform points on health care. The NDP response is quite specific: “The NDP agrees that Nova “Scotia needs a modern legislative framework to support people with disabilities. It is our intention to introduce that legislation in the Spring 2014 session of the legislature.” The NDP response goes on to describe the public consultation that will precede the introduction of new legislation and the participation of stakeholder groups in developing “comprehensive regulations.”

The NDP response implies that the current system needs to change, and that new laws and regulations will be a key part of achieving that change.

The Nova Scotia Liberal Party commits to a funding increase for the Community Transportation Assistance Program, which assists all low-income Nova Scotians. The Liberals then very specifically commit to “appointing an Accessibility Advisory Committee with a mandate and strict timeline to develop accessibility legislation for Nova Scotia.”

The Liberal response also implies that change is needed, and go on to state that “government plays an integral role when it comes to enhancing the independence, empowerment and community participation of persons with disabilities.”

Aging and disability are not the only issues facing Nova Scotians in this election. People are worried about jobs, mortgages, paying their kids’ tuition, and a plethora of other issues. Aging and disability seldom assume priority status among the majority of the population. But, as pointed out earlier, populations are changing, and the change is upon us.

Steven Christianson is the National Manager of Government Relations & Advocacy at March of Dimes Canada, the largest organization of its kind providing programs and services to Canadians with disabilities.