Activist Paul Vienneau gets job as Halifax's accessibility guru
'My job is to push the city and challenge the city on how they work with the disabled community'
Community activist Paul Vienneau, who garnered headlines in the winter of 2015 when he cleared downtown sidewalks from his wheelchair, has landed a job as Halifax's accessibility consultant.
His focus will be to help the municipality implement Bill 59, recent provincial legislation to ensure Nova Scotia is more accessible to those who are physically or intellectually disabled.
"My job is to push the city and challenge the city on how they work with the disabled community," acting as the "eyes and ears" of Halifax's CAO Jacques Dubé, Vienneau said in an interview Thursday. "Also, I will be interceding on behalf of citizens."
He describes the Accessibility Act, with its goal of making the province accessible to mobility, sight and hearing-challenged people by 2030, "a conversation, a journey."
Some things in the province will never be accessible, Vienneau acknowledges.
"And that's OK because if it costs a million dollars to put an elevator into a restaurant, for me, that's too much. But there's a lot of low-hanging fruit we can take care of pretty much right away."
Making his list
Making sure Halifax's website is completely accessible to all people, including visually impaired people operating with a reading app, is one of the shorter-term goals, he said.
A longer-term item might be putting a ramp on the front of city hall so people with mobility issues aren't restricted to using a side entrance.
"Democracy should be physically accessed by everybody equally and have that same experience when they come through the door," Vienneau said.
He says he has a list of up to 40 issues to tackle.
"This is not going to be all about ramps. I have a lot of friends in many communities I'll be contacting for help in a lot of these issues," he said.
"Halifax and Nova Scotia, we traditionally ... are super slow to change and then we do it all of a sudden, and sometimes it doesn't work out right. I want all this stuff to be done right and it would be nice if we could trail blaze on some issues for once."
Taking matters into his own hands
The musician and artist has used a wheelchair for about 30 years. It was during the nasty winter of 2015 that a fed-up Vienneau grabbed a shovel and began clearing snow.
"The sidewalks weren't cleared, ideally, let's say. I had been calling and complaining and getting more and more frustrated," he recalled.
He borrowed a shovel and a metal rod and spent 6½ hours breaking up a a big block of ice off that prevented people from getting to the crosswalk.
"I got a lot of hugs and a lot of handshakes. It had been eight weeks that I couldn't work and couldn't leave my block."
He blamed the snow-clearing problem on training and awareness.
"But after that, I was able to meet the mayor which led to opening doors to talk to people at winter works, snow clearance, in public works and other departments."
His new job formalizes the work he has been doing in accessibility for the past four years, he said.
"This kind of makes me more legit in the system. This is not just informally meeting the head of transit for lunch. I get to go into their offices now and be a sounding board for councillors and staff for issues that will affect our community. "
'I'm not here to be sort of a prop'
Vienneau said he is impressed with how regional council has received recommendations from a recent report on the lack of accessible taxis in Halifax.
"They are really striving to get it right."
He's looking to leave a legacy that will benefit others in generations to come.
"I'm not here to be sort of a prop, you know — 'This is our guy.'" There's got to be substance behind it and I think that's why I got this position," Vienneau said.
"Because they want things to change and they just need someone working in-house to help guide them on certain issues and I'm really grateful that it's me. "
With files from Elizabeth Chiu