Nova Scotia

N.S. Human Rights Commission inquiry to examine restaurant washroom access

Several people with physical disabilities will argue at a human rights hearing that the Nova Scotia government has effectively discriminated against them by failing to enforce a regulation that requires restaurants to have accessible bathrooms.

Complainants say language in current regulation is vague and doesn't consider disabilities

Several people with physical disabilities will argue at a human rights hearing that the Nova Scotia government has effectively discriminated against them by failing to enforce a regulation that requires restaurants to have accessible bathrooms. (Shutterstock)

Several people with physical disabilities will argue at a human rights hearing that the Nova Scotia government has effectively discriminated against them by failing to enforce a regulation that requires restaurants to have accessible bathrooms.

The five complainants will challenge the province's Department of Environment at a Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission board of inquiry Thursday, saying the language in the regulation is vague and does not take the experiences of people with disabilities into account.

"We're only asking for the government to have a public health standard that applies to everybody — not just people who don't use wheelchairs," said Warren Reed, one of the complainants.

Ambiguous standards

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, Reed said that sometimes they are inconvenient — even inaccessible — for people with disabilities.

What's the point of having an accessible patio if you don't have accessible washrooms?- Warren Reed

Some establishments, he said, 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.

Reed says Nova Scotia's accessibility standards are ambiguous as to where exactly they apply: outdoor patios in Halifax, for instance, need to comply with the Canadian Standards Association's accessible design standard.

"But what's the point of having an accessible patio if you don't have accessible washrooms?" he said.

Commission to interpret what's convenient

When asked to clarify what a "convenient location" means in the context of the washroom regulation, Environment Department spokesperson Rachel Boomer said in an email that the interpretation of the term is up to the Human Rights Commission to decide.

"Government recognizes the importance of accessibility," she added. "The province is working to address issues of accessibility through the Accessibility Act, with the goal of being accessible by 2030."

The Accessibility Act was passed in April of last year, making Nova Scotia the third province to pass such legislation. Through the act, a committee is working to develop a set of standards for the province to implement by 2030.

The plan is due be released in September.

Washing hands a basic right

Paul Vienneau, another complainant in the case, says it's a basic human right to be able to wash your hands before eating, or to use the bathroom while at a restaurant.

Vienneau, who has been in a wheelchair for almost 30 years, has a compromised immune system and describes himself as a "fanatical Purell user."

Paul Vienneau at the Halifax Public Gardens in 2016. (Anjuli Patil/CBC)

"When you're in a wheelchair — a manual wheelchair specifically — your hands come in contact with your wheels thousands of times during the day," he said. "Everything that's on the street ends up on your wheels, then on your hands."

He said that if he's on a patio, where it's required to meet accessibility standards, he may find out only after he's settled in that he can't access the establishment's washroom.

'It's the right thing to do'

Vienneau said while he understands restaurant owners may not fully understand the diverse needs of their customers, he hopes the lawsuit ignites a much-needed conversation about accessibility in general.

"I don't want to shut people down. I want to move forward with people and build a better society," he said. "Maybe they'll start considering this as part of the cost of doing business."

Vienneau added that grants are available through the province to help small businesses and community buildings make their establishments more accessible.

"I want the restaurant industry to know that we're a community where a lot of us have some money and we would love to spend it," he said.

"And even more than that, that it's the right thing to do."

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