N.L.’s Accessible Legislation Has Great Potential, Possible Pitfalls, Says Disability Advocate

New act requires public bodies to make accessibility plans every 3 years and make them public Alisha Dicks, CBC News
Posted: Feb 09, 2022

Cecil Whitten, a disability advocate who has cerebral palsy, says accessibility legislation passed in the House of Assembly in the last sitting is ‘a huge step forward.’ (Submitted by Cecil Whitten)

Living with a disability can sometimes be frustrating, expensive and isolating. But, as the CBC’s Alisha Dicks knows, it’s so much more than that. Her disability has taught her to think creatively and look at things from a different perspective. In her new series, Access with Alisha, she gives us a look into her life and helps break down barriers for others.

Cecil Whitten, a self-described disability advocate who has cerebral palsy, is cheering the passing of accessibility legislation passed in the House of Assembly in the last sitting.

“I think and I hope that the message it sends to people is that it’s a serious piece of legislation,” said the 72-year-old Whitten.

“This is the thing, it’s a building block for the disabled community – a huge step forward.”

The legislation, formally known as An Act Respecting Accessibility in the Province, which took effect in December:

  • Authorizes the establishment of accessibility standards to improve accessibility.
  • Establishes an advisory board to make recommendations to the minister regarding accessibility standards.
  • Requires an individual, organization or public body that is subject to an accessibility standard to take actions to prevent barriers from being created and to identify and remove barriers.
  • Requires public bodies to prepare accessibility plans every three years and make them publicly available.
  • Provides inspection and enforcement powers to enforce accessibility standards.

The correct approach

Whitten is pleased the legislation emphasizes accessibility with infrastructure and businesses, which means there is a focus on making buildings and other bricks-and-mortar structures accessible by the government deadline of 2030. He wants to see some incentives included in the legislation for business owners and property owners to make stores and apartment buildings fully accessible.

“I would like to see viability attached to these businesses and properties. So that it has to be [that] in order to do that you have to have incentives for the person or the industry or the building that’s doing it,” he said.

If the government is committed to following through, Whitten said, there has to be enough staff to follow through on the new legislation and follow up on complaints. The legislation states there will be penalties such as fines, although details are limited. He said it would be better for everyone if the penalties are substantial enough that it would be easier for businesses to follow through with adopting accessibility updates than just simply paying a fine.

‘New dawn for the disabled community’

Whitten wants to ensure there is a timely process so that anybody in the disability community can make complaints against individuals who do not follow through with the new laws.

“I’d like to see something in the legislation so that the ordinary individual can access a lawyer at minimal cost. To level the playing field, should it come to that. Now, having said that, hopefully it won’t come to that.”

Some businesses already are doing it right. During a 2017 CBC series called Access Denied, Husky Energy’s office building in downtown St. John’s was hailed as a space that could be used by everyone. Features include special wayfinding signs the visually impaired, sinks designed so that people in wheelchairs can access them, and adjustable workstations. (Mark Cumby/CBC)

Whitten admits the act isn’t perfect; he said there is a glaring omission of how to improve accessible transportation. But he said it’s a complex topic and one that needs further, and likely separate, conversations.

But he, and others, feel as though the legislation signals a new beginning for persons with disabilities, especially when it comes to new opportunities, including employment and individual rights.

“It’s a new dawn for the disabled community. [It means] as a whole that we are being listened to and that we are a political force to be reckoned with. I hope that it’s the message that it sends.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Alisha Dicks has a bachelor of arts in English and history from Memorial University and a bachelor of intermediate secondary education, and is enrolled in Memorial’s bachelor of special education program. She is particularly focused on accessibility and inclusive education, and is currently working as an associate producer for CBC N.L. in St. John’s.

Original at https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/newfoundland-labrador/access-with-alisha-accessability-legislation-1.6342187