New Brunswick

Rampless returning office — and province's response — felt like a punch, advocate says

Randy Dickinson was angry as he pulled up to the Elections New Brunswick returning office on Prospect Street in Fredericton, where he was hoping to vote. He needed a ramp to get in, and there wasn't one.

Chair of Premier's Council on Disabilities angry he can't get proper access to returning office to vote

Randy Dickinson, chair of the Premier's Council on Disabilities, says returning offices should be accessible for all people, since voting is a fundamental right in a democracy. (Submitted/Randy Dickinson)

Randy Dickinson was angry when he pulled up to the Elections New Brunswick returning office on Prospect Street in Fredericton on Tuesday, where he was hoping to vote.

The building, where the district returning office for Fredericton West-Hanwell is located, has five steps leading to the front door but no wheelchair ramp.

"I've been an advocate for disability stuff for about 50 years now, and I thought we had already addressed this issue about accessibility and accommodation for elections at least," Dickinson said Wednesday.

Dickinson, who uses a wheelchair, is chair of the Premier's Council on Disabilities and a past chair of the New Brunswick Human Rights Commission.

"It just burns my biscuits," he said. "The most fundamental aspect of full citizenship is the ability to participate in democratic elections."

He was initially hopeful the problem would be corrected when he contacted Elections New Brunswick and a spokesperson promised a ramp would be constructed during the day on Wednesday.

Paul Harpelle explained that when the Prospect Street location — the Daily Gleaner's former building — was rented, the landlord made a commitment to the returning officer that it would be accessible.

"Elections New Brunswick apologizes to any disabled electors who may have been impacted by this delay," said Harpelle.

But later on Wednesday, Harpelle said the problem had been solved not by building a new ramp but by giving people with disabilities access to an accessible side door at the building.

"The building already had an existing wheelchair-accessible entrance, so the landlord had a door installed that now provides access to our returning office. It had been blocked off when Horizon Health took over a portion of the building."

The parking lot at the building has been used as a testing site for COVID-19. Harpelle said the door is used by Horizon Health employees who work in the building. 

Elections New Brunswick spokeperson Paul Harpelle says wheelchair access will be made available at this side entrance of the returning office, near a COVID testing tent used by Horizon Health. (Mark Crosby/CBC News)

Dickinson immediately visited the office and tweeted his dissatisfaction with the solution.

"Despite the assurance this morning from Elections NB, no ramp was built for the front main entrance but must go through the COVID-19 testing area and go in a side door that is the COVID clinic entrance," he tweeted.

He felt the Elections New Brunswick employee he spoke with was suggesting Dickinson should "be grateful for any type of accommodation, even if I could be exposed to COVID that way."

"I've been doing advocacy on disabilities for many years, and I felt yesterday and today like somebody was punching me in my stomach to say we should be satisfied, that that's an acceptable arrangement to get in to vote." 

As someone with a disability and underlying health conditions, Dickinson isn't comfortable going through the same door Horizon Health is using, alongside a COVID testing site. 

"Obviously, at this point I won't be able to vote at that location, I'll have to find a different location." he said.

Dickinson will find another place to cast his ballot in the upcoming election. (Mark Crosby/CBC News)

Still a long way to go

According to the last census in 2017, Dickinson said, 26 per cent of New Brunswickers are living with at least one disability, and they deserve access to polling stations and returning offices without having to make special arrangements.

While progress has been made to help people with disabilities vote, including large print ballots, sign-language interpreters, and devices for people who are deaf or blind, this shows Dickinson there is still work to be done.

"It shows that in the year 2020, the work of advocacy bodies like the Premier's Council on Disabilities is not over." 

After the election, Dickinson plans to push the elected party into bringing in legislation requiring all returning offices to be accessible before they are rented.

He is also considering making a formal complaint with the Human Rights Commission to draw attention to the issue.

"It really upsets me for the other people who wouldn't be as assertive or ask as many questions or push it as hard that they're being denied the equal access to vote as a citizen, which is the fundamental human right as a citizen in a democracy." 

For complete coverage | Links to all New Brunswick votes 2020 stories