Making accessibility a reality

Making accessibility a reality

< Back to Articles | Topics: Spotlight | Contributors: Emily Bednarz | Published: May 1, 2024

Through the 2017 Accessibility Act, Nova Scotia set 2030 as the target to become a more accessible province. The Accessibility Act will impact our everyday lives in Nova Scotia, including how we conduct business. With the provincial government soon developing standards related to employment, goods and services, communications, and more, businesses can expect many new changes on the horizon when it comes to compliance. Groups like the Accessibility Directorate, a division in the Department of Justice, were created to support the transition.

Thus far, the Directorate has established four expert committees to offer the Accessibility Advisory Board recommendations and insight into creating and implementing standards. The committee focus areas include the built environment, education, employment, and goods and services. They are also currently seeking members to join a committee on information and communication. The standards created from these committees’ support will work to inform businesses of what is needed of them to meet their industry-specific requirements. How businesses achieve these standards will, in many cases, also require working together with the government.

“Education and collaboration are at the heart of our compliance and enforcement framework,” says Dawn Stegen, Executive Director of the Accessibility Directorate. “We will ensure that there is awareness and education on the accessibility standards as they are enacted, and we will also work collaboratively to support businesses to achieve compliance.”

Lisa Snider is the Senior Digital Accessibility Consultant and Trainer in her company, Access Changes Everything Inc., a digital accessibility consulting company. Snider agrees that business and government need to collaborate to make accessibility a reality. “Awareness is key, in my experience,” she says. “Employers in both urban and rural Nova Scotia need to be made aware of, and then take advantage of, the free resources that will be provided by the government when the Employment Standard is official.”

Clockwise starting left: Paul Tingley is a three-time paralympic medalist who now serves as Program Officer for the Business ACCESS-Ability Program. Dawn Stegen is the Executive Director of the Accessibility Directorate. Lisa Snider is the Senior Digital Accessibility Consultant and Trainer in her company, Access Changes Everything Inc.

Business ACCESS-Ability Grant Program

This collaborative approach has already produced success stories in the province. Funding provided by the Business ACCESS-Ability Grant Program this year allowed businesses to make accessibility-related improvements through cost-sharing grants. Improvements could be made for clients and customers, for employees, or both.

The program provided funding for built environment improvements, accessible communication services and assistive devices, universal design training, and accessible transportation. “The Nova Ramp Up project provided portable ramps to small businesses in the Pictou area, and Tourism Nova Scotia developed a series of resources to improve understanding of accessibility, including tip sheets and spotlights of local businesses,” says Stegen.

Paul Tingley, Business ACCESS-Ability Grant Program Officer, highlights the program’s positive impact on the Nova Scotia Association of REALTORS®. Funding provided by the ACCESS-Ability Program allowed the association to update its website listings. “When you search for a listing, you can filter results by accessibility features,” says Tingley. “They’ve also trained realtors on how to measure the accessibility of a property and how to showcase those accessibility features through the photos they attach to the listing.”

The more business shifts online, the more important it is to create accessible digital environments. “Learning how Nova Scotians with disabilities are impacted by barriers in the digital realm is crucial,” says Snider. “In the digital information and communications realm, things are always changing. Having a good understanding of why digital accessibility is important and seeking out training or free resources is a great start. Accessibility is never a destination—it is always a journey.”

Since the journey for every business is different, Tingley advises that those interested in applying to future rounds of the Business ACCESS-Ability Grant Program connect with a Program Officer like himself. Tingley is happy to discuss questions around eligibility and help business owners determine the next steps for becoming fully accessible. The next round for Business ACCESS-Ability Grant Program will open in December 2024 with applications due on February 14, 2025.

Accessibility starts with employer awareness

Most applications that came through the Business ACCESS-Ability Grant Program this year were for upgrades to the built environment, says Tingley. But it’s also important to foster an accessible work environment and culture. “As an employer, you have to listen to your employee with a disability in order to understand who they are as a person and what they need to succeed,” says Tingley. “Maybe they need a particular kind of desk or a parking spot accommodation—or it could be that they work more from home. But having flexibility, openness, and patience is a great first step.”

Snider agrees with Tingley’s advice. “Employers should regularly engage with their employees with disabilities, local community members, and disability organizations,” she says. “Buy people coffee or lunch and talk with them about lived experiences. If business owners listen, ask questions, and are creative and open to new ideas, they can attract and keep employees with disabilities.”

Stegen echoes Tingley and Snider, emphasizing the importance of open conversation. “Businesses can become leaders in creating accessible workplaces through education—by using the resources that have been created, by building relationships with disability organizations, and by getting perspective from the First Voice of people with disabilities.”

National AccessAbility Week

From May 25 to June 1, Canada will recognize National AccessAbility Week. Nova Scotia was the first province to recognize National Accessibility Week when it was founded in 1987 as Access Awareness Week.

Though the accessibility landscape has changed since then, the focus remains on education, awareness, and celebration. “National AccessAbility Week is a time to celebrate and recognize people with disabilities, disability advocates and champions, and to raise awareness about accessibility, and the importance of removing barriers for people with disabilities,” says Stegen.

“It’s about education and celebration,” says Tingley. “The normalization of disability needs to happen—that’s our biggest barrier, I would say. The week is a chance to educate people on the barriers that disabled people face and to celebrate the people that are taking the steps to become more accessible.”

Although there may be new expectations for conducting business in the province, the move toward accessibility is an important investment for business owners. “38 per cent of Nova Scotians have at least one disability,” says Stegen. “That’s a large percentage of people that businesses can tap into for employment and attract as customers. It makes good business sense to be accessible and include people with disabilities, as well as their families and friends, in accessing your business.”

Helpful Resources:

Groups and Organizations

< Back to Articles | Topics: Spotlight

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