'Austerity logic' led to worse housing for people with disabilities: expert

A nationally known expert on disability rights testified today that she believes Nova Scotia created a waiting list for housing for people with disabilities based on government's desire to save money.

Catherine Frazee says Nova Scotia's 1990s freeze on 'small-options' homes put saving money ahead of people

Catherine Frazee said the province wanted to save money at the cost of the rights of people with disabilities. (Jean Laroche/CBC)

A nationally known expert on disability rights testified Monday that she believes Nova Scotia created a waiting list for housing for people with disabilities based on government's desire to save money.

Catherine Frazee, professor emeritus at Ryerson University's school of disability studies, said in testimony before a human rights inquiry that a freeze on creating "small-options" supported housing in the early 1990s led to long waiting lists.

Frazee, who now lives in Nova Scotia, is testifying on behalf of the Disability Rights Coalition of Nova Scotia and another group of Nova Scotians.

'Ideal citizen' out of reach

Lawyers for the government objected to her expert testimony on "ableism," but Commissioner Walter Thompson said she should speak.

"By and large we subscribe to this notion of the ideal citizen as an adult who is independent, autonomous, hard-working and contributing and productive," Frazee said. "Our allegiance to that image, that sort of paragon of citizenship, is what really harms disabled citizens who can't quite measure up or can't quite fit themselves into that mould."

Frazee said subtle discrimination can be seen in government policy that under-funds supports for people with disabilities.

"Ramps into buildings are special, but ramps onto highways are ordinary. Nobody thinks as they exit or enter a highway that, 'Wow, isn't this great? They've got a ramp!' It doesn't happen, but it happens every day in the lives of disabled people."

The former chair of the Ontario Human Rights Commission also says in a written report that the Nova Scotia freeze — which has since been lifted — was an example of "austerity logic," where the rights of people with disabilities as citizens are devalued.

Province building more small-options homes

The hearing is on day 14, and is considering whether the Department of Community Services violated the Human Rights Act by housing Joseph Delaney and Beth MacLean in a hospital-like, institutional setting.

The hearing has also heard from Olga Cain about the story of her sister, Sheila Livingstone, a woman with disabilities who died before the hearing started.

The province has said its policy has shifted and it is now attempting to provide more small-options homes to people with intellectual disabilities who have been living in institutions.

Beth MacLean previously testified that when she moved into the Nova Scotia Hospital in 2000, she'd been told she could shift into a community setting within one year. (Robert Short/CBC)

Joe Rudderham, the executive director of the Disability Supports Program, said since he's been the director his program has been working to create new small option homes, and there is no longer a moratorium.

"We have eight on the go for the next year," he said in an interview after the hearings concluded for the day.

"Small option homes is one option in our array of supports and services," he said, adding there are also programs that help people live on their own or with the support of their families.

18.8% of Nova Scotians have disability

As of early March, there were 504 people awaiting some form of support from the Department of Community Services, and 1,024 people awaiting a transfer to a different housing option or location.

Rudderham said his department has a commitment to move away from larger facilities.

In the last provincial budget, the Liberal government announced that there is an additional $2.1 million to help create small options homes and group homes.

The Department of Community Services has said there's $16.2 million in additional funding to support the transitions, with about $10 million to cope with a fresh influx of people into the province's disability programs.

Statistics Canada says about 14 per cent of Canadians aged 15 and older have some sort of disability. Nova Scotia has the highest rate at 18.8 percent. For the national statistic, half had a mild or moderate disability, and half a severe or very severe disability.

with files from Jean Laroche