Nova Scotia

N.S. discriminated against wheelchair users, must enforce its own rules: board

The Nova Scotia government discriminated against people in wheelchairs by failing to enforce a regulation that requires restaurants to have accessible bathrooms, a human rights board of inquiry has found.

A human rights board of inquiry says the province must ensure restaurants have accessible bathrooms

Paul Vienneau was one of five people involved in a human rights inquiry looking into allegations that some restaurant washrooms are not accessible. (Robert Short/CBC)

A new decision by a human rights board of inquiry sends a clear message to the provincial government that wheelchair users deserve access to the same services as every other Nova Scotian, one of the complainants in the case said Friday.

The board chair found Nova Scotia discriminated against people who use wheelchairs by failing to enforce a regulation requiring restaurants to have accessible bathrooms.

Co-complainant Gus Reed said the ruling, which ordered the province to interpret, administer and enforce the regulations as they appear, was "as good as it gets."

The decision, released late Thursday, said the province did not regulate food safety provisions related to having accessible washrooms in restaurants with patios.

"The respondent discriminated against individuals who use wheelchairs for mobility in its administration and enforcement ... of the Food Safety Regulations contrary to ... the Human Rights Act," wrote board of inquiry chair Gail Gatchalian.

Damages awarded

She also ordered that each of the five complainants receive $1,000 in general damages.

The five complainants, who all have disabilities and use wheelchairs, argued that the language in the regulation is vague and does not take the experiences of people with disabilities into account.

Paul Vienneau, one of the co-complainants, said he welcomed the ruling. Vienneau has a compromised immune system and said being able to wash his hands affects his personal health, as well as public health. 

"It's a reasonable thing to use the washroom, or to want to wash your hands, to need to wash your hands before a meal. My hands are always in contact with the ground through my push rims," he said. 

Vienneau's concerns were echoed in Gatchalian's decision.

"This poses a health risk for the individual, and a potential health risk for others," Gatchalian wrote. "The restaurant association is supportive of the idea that restaurants should be accessible."

Association worries about cost

The association, however, was concerned about the cost of requiring restaurants to have washroom facilities for the public that are accessible to wheelchairs users.

As an example, it said the cost to renovate a restaurant to be accessible was $135,000.

The association said there are more than 100 accessible food establishments within a five-kilometre radius of downtown Halifax.

Reed said no one wants to see restaurant owners undergo undue hardship. 

"We don't want to force them to close their doors, or to take a financial beating," he said, suggesting government grants, loans, or tax credits could help restaurants change. 

"It's up to the province, I think, to think of ways to make it possible."

Act requires washrooms in 'convenient' spot

Under Nova Scotia's Health Protection Act, food establishments must have washrooms available for the public in a "convenient location," unless exempted by an administrator.

But while the regulation requires restaurants to have their bathrooms conveniently located, one complainant said that sometimes they are inconvenient — even inaccessible — for people with disabilities.

Some establishments have their washrooms up or down a set of stairs in a building that doesn't have an elevator, while others may have doors that are difficult to open or stalls that aren't wide enough.

Environment Minister Margaret Miller, whose department issues food establishment permits, did not say Friday how the government would respond to the board of inquiry's ruling. 

"I think the government's going to be looking at all aspects of the report and seeing where it can act, and where it possibly can act. But we're in the early stages of that, we're just assessing the report at this point," she said. 

With files from The Canadian Press

Read more articles at CBC Nova Scotia

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Shaina Luck

Reporter

Shaina Luck is an investigative reporter with CBC Nova Scotia. She has worked with local and network programs including The National and The Fifth Estate. Email: shaina.luck@cbc.ca

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