Disabled Nova Scotians roundly criticize Accessibility Act

The Liberal government has put the brakes on a bill the minister who tabled it called "historic" just last week because of mounting criticism by disabled Nova Scotians.

'We have a moral obligation to get this bill right,' says Liberal caucus chair Iain Rankin

Diane Pothier, a retired law professor who is visually impaired, said the government needs to rethink this legislation. (CBC)

The governing Liberals have put the brakes on legislation aimed at making the province more accessible for disabled Nova Scotians in light of a barrage of criticism Monday from the very people Bill 59 is supposed to help.

Diane Pothier, a retired law professor who is visually impaired, didn't mince words.

"We need a fundamental rethink and this legislation, a little bit of tinkering is not going to do it," she told members of the legislature's law amendments committee. "It needs to go back to the drawing board."

The proposed legislation will create an advisory board, and aims to develop accessibility standards in phases over several years for government, businesses and non-profit organizations. 

It could affect everything from building design to how disabled people are treated in the workplace. Last week, Community Services Minister Joanne Bernard called the bill "historic."

But that's not how others see it.

Nova Scotia a human rights 'backwater'

Archie Kaiser, Pothier's former colleague at Dalhousie University's Schulich School of Law, called the bill "simply inadequate" and "weak".

"I don't want to be the backwater of human rights in Canada," said Kaiser. "I want this province to be a leader and I believe we can be."

Lois Miller, the retired executive director of Independent Living Nova Scotia, a group dedicated to assisting people with disabilities, took particular issue with the government's focus on advocating for change that would not be onerous to businesses or create more red tape.

She likened it to not inconveniencing businesses with another fundamental right — women's right to receive equal pay for work of equal value.

Paul Vienneau, who uses a wheelchair to get around, said he worries about the influence of business. (CBC)

Rights not a business issue

"Can you imagine if that ever would have been enshrined as a right for women in Canada if it were made contingent on no red tape for business?" she told the committee.

Paul Vienneau, who uses a wheelchair to get around, also expressed fear with that provision of the proposed law.

"My fear with the business community having a say in our rights is that this is what it's going to come down to, dollars and cents," he said.

'We have a moral obligation to get this bill right'

After the submissions, Liberal caucus chair Iain Rankin proposed a motion to "stand" Bill 59. That freezes the proposed law where it is in the law-making process.

"We have a moral obligation to get this bill right," he told reporters after during a break in the committee's work.

"It affects a lot of people and it was my firm view that we could just pause for a moment and see what we could do to make it better."

Rankin could not say how long the government would be willing to stall passage of the proposed law.

Bernard said the bill will remain before the law amendments committee, which will sit over the next couple of months to hear form anyone who has something to say about the legislation. It will not proceed this fall as planned.

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