Nova Scotia

Wheelchair users argue equal access to restaurant washrooms is a human rights issue

A group of five Halifax wheelchair users is challenging the province to make sure all restaurants have accessible washrooms, alleging the way the province enforces some current regulations is discriminatory and puts the health of wheelchair users at risk.

Complainant avoids establishments if he can't wash his hands because of a compromised immune system

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

A group of five Halifax wheelchair users is challenging the province to make sure all restaurants have accessible washrooms, alleging the way the province enforces the rules around washrooms and food safety is discriminatory and puts the health of wheelchair users at risk.

The case is being heard at a board of inquiry organized by the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission.

"Our point of view is that the public includes everybody, includes individuals who use wheelchairs for mobility, and a convenient washroom for them is one that is accessible," said lawyer David Fraser, who is acting on behalf of the complainants.

David Fraser represents the complainants in the case and is arguing that not having an accessible washroom presents a health risk. (Robert Short/CBC)

Can't wash hands

Wheelchair user Paul Vienneau told the board there are many restaurants in his downtown neighbourhood that don't have accessible washrooms, and he chooses to eat at establishments where he can wash his hands because of his compromised immune system.

Vienneau said after an accident decades ago that did massive damage to his body, he takes particular care to avoid infection.

He said, however, he touches the rubber wheels of his manual wheelchair innumerable times every day. This causes any material that was on the ground to get on his hands.

"It would be really nice to be able to wash my hands with hot water and soap, because it's the only way to get a lot of this stuff off your hands," he said. "I can Purell until the cows come home. Until I get that sticky stuff off, the crap off the streets is still going to be living in there." 
Warren (Gus) Reed filed the original complaint to the Human Rights Commission. (Robert Short/CBC)

Vienneau said he hopes for a decision that will push restaurant owners toward more efforts for accessibility. He believes the group is putting forward "achievable and reasonable requests."

Gus Reed, another of the complainants, said he sees the lack of accessible washrooms as an "unfairness." 

"Probably the best thing that we could hope for is some kind of agreement or condition that the people that enforce the food-safety regulations become compelled to start enforcing them. We're not looking for anything for ourselves," said Reed. 

Provincial lawyer Kevin Kindred told the tribunal the government is not disputing that accessibility is important, but that what the complainants are suggesting has a wider scope.

"This complaint seeks something dramatically different," Kindred said, saying that to characterize accessibility as a food-safety issue wrongly frames the point.

Equal access

He argued the implication of the complaint is that any restaurant that doesn't have an accessible washroom would be treated as a public safety hazard, lose its licence and be shut down.

"The goal is good. The tool is not the right tool to achieve that goal." 

Nova Scotia's regulations on food safety state "a food establishment must have washroom facilities for staff and washroom facilities for the public available in a convenient location."

Gail Gatchalian is chairing the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission inquiry. (Robert Short/CBC)

On Thursday morning, Karen Wong-Petrie, the director of environmental health and food safety at the provincial Department of Environment, testified that handwashing is the best tool for controlling infection and that there is a risk to restaurant patrons if they are not able to wash their hands.

However, Wong-Petrie explained public health officers have no authority over when, how or if members of the public wash their hands. Instead, they regulate the food provider to take safety measures like cleaning tables and dishes regularly.

Food safety

Wong-Petrie also said that the point of food-safety regulation is to protect the general public, and in general food safety regulations are not written with people who have compromised immune systems in mind.

The hearing resumes on Friday.