Jon Tattrie

Increasing accessibility to business is a win-win for organizations and customers

Nova Scotia’s Accessibility Act was announced with much fanfare in April 2017, but it’s only now getting its teeth. Gerry Post was named Executive Director of the Accessibility Directorate in June 2017, putting the long-time advocate for people with disabilities at the head of the 12-member board, which will tell the government what it should do in terms of legislating standards and advancing broader disability-related issues. The act itself contains no standards and no rules or laws businesses must follow. Post calls it an “enabling piece of legislation” that starts the process for establishing new laws on accessibility standards. He says the board’s first meeting was in March 2018 and by this December, it should have a detailed implementation plan that will suggest standards and enforcement measures. “Some of these standards may well become requirements with business or government agencies,” Post tells Business Voice. The Accessibility Directorate will likely use some of the standards set by the Rick Hansen Foundation’s Accessibility Certification Program (RHFACP). Similar to the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standards for environmentalism, it sends trained professionals to evaluate the accessibility of commercial, institutional and multi-family buildings and sites. If it meets the standard, it can declare itself RHF Accessibility Certified or the higher RHF Accessibility Certified Gold. The Nova Scotia Community College is offering a 10-day training program, paid for by the province, so architects, engineers and similar professionals can learn how to do those assessments. “By June of this year, we will have 20 people fully trained in that standard. Businesses would engage one of these individuals to do an assessment of their facilities,” Post says. Post says businesses can apply to the provincial government’s Small Business ACCESS-Ability Grant Program, which will pay up to two-thirds of the costs for improving the built environment, making websites and other communication services accessible, getting assistive devices for employees, training staff in universal design and helping with accessible transportation. It could end up with businesses being able to have wheelchair-using employees and customers get inside and use all the facilities, websites that are usable by the visually impaired with screen readers, or add brail versions of menus. Nova Scotia is already ahead of much of Canada, Post says, as only Ontario and Manitoba have similar acts. Nova Scotia’s Act set 2030 as the target date for “achieving an accessible Nova Scotia.” “It becomes the norm,” says Post, who uses a wheelchair. “I wouldn’t have to call ahead and ask if I can get in.”He hopes the government will start thinking that way, noting he can’t access Access Nova Scotia in the winter, as bussing out to Bayers Lake still leaves him facing a boulevard and four lanes of traffic to get to the remote location.

Business Voice caught up with the Man in Motion himself, Rick Hansen, in B.C. just before he gave a school presentation. Hansen visited Nova Scotia in February and addressed the Halifax Chamber of Commerce. He says his one-on-one talks with business leaders encouraged him. “I think attitudes are really starting to shift. Attitudes from a disability is to be pitied, with limited opportunities for quality of life, largely charitable focus, to now clearly as human-rights oriented,” he says. In his Chamber talk, he tossed a metaphorical brass ring in the air and encouraged businesses to use accessibility to grab the growing demographic of people with disabilities and older Nova Scotians with decreasing mobility. Hansen and others note that while the people might not be fully mobile, their wallets certainly are. “We had a wonderful response and a strong interest in really starting to exercise that new level of opportunity, which is if we’re open for business and including an untapped market, it’s going to help drive economies and strengthen communities,” Hansen says. “Aging baby boomers will start to make choices not just on a beautiful place to come, but on a beautiful, accessible place to come.”

Hansen says polling done by his foundation shows Canadians support accessibility for customers to get to businesses and services, but often have negative ideas about workers with disabilities. He dates the negative attitude to 1970s ideas of a heavy labour workforce and says the modern, technological workforce based on skills removes a lot of the old barriers. “We have to keep educating employers,” he says. “People with disabilities actually make some of the best employees. They’re super-reliable and add tremendous value in places where their skills are allowed to be maximized and applied.” Hansen focuses on the carrots that urge businesses to become more accessible, but says there is a role for the governmental stick. “We’re waking up to the opportunity. We know it’s also an obligation. Can we work together to get there faster?” He says minimum requirements for accessibility should be put into law, but says “today’s standards can become tomorrow’s handicaps” as technology changes, as our ideas about accessibility change. Also, if each province enforces different accessibility standards, cross-Canada businesses will struggle to follow them. “This is a fundamental barrier that Canada can’t afford to take. We need more unified standards, so that a business that does business in five municipalities in Nova Scotia doesn’t have five different expectations of accessibility.” That is magnified for global businesses. “We need to think about uniting the world in a common platform that allows us to measure where we are,” Hansen says. “What I’m really excited about is that Nova Scotia is stepping up.”

Kevin Murphy started using a wheelchair in 1985, after a hockey accident at 14 left him paralyzed. “I’m sure I wasn’t the first person with a disability to live in Eastern Shore/Musquodoboit Harbour, but I probably was the most visible one to come along and not accept the status quo,” he says when Business Voice caught up with him driving between appointments. “A generation is of the mindset that people want to be empowered, they want to be enabled to participate as much as they can, whereas in the past, persons with disabilities were so used to being looked after.” Murphy ran his own business for many years, advocating for people with disabilities on his own time, before being elected to represent the Eastern Shore in the Legislature. He’s been the Speaker since 2013. “As one person with a disability who’s able to contribute to the labour force, to my family, to my community, there’s lots of things that are in place that enable me to do that,” he says. For him, accessibility comes in the forms of ramps into buildings and technology like his wheelchair. He says the act is about making that access legally binding. “We’re attempting to change a lifetime of inaction. It’s going to be very cautious and measured, because it’s going to have a big impact across all sectors of business and all aspects of life in Nova Scotia.” Murphy says his government isn’t coming out “guns blazing,” as they know it will take businesses time to figure out what changes they need to make and get the financing in place to make them.

“I come from a business background, so I recognize the power of talking dollars and cents to business owners. That’s a significant customer base, that’s a significant pool of potential labour. It’s really about showing some leadership,” he says. “Where I go, so goes my family. My immediate family is my wife and children. If we’re on Quinpool Road looking for a restaurant to eat at, the simple fact is if I can’t get in your restaurant, you’re not getting my money — and it’s not just my money, it’s four people.” Murphy points to Statistics Canada figures showing about 15 to 20 per cent of the population have a disability that hinders their ability to carry out regular life tasks. That adds up to about 200,000 Nova Scotians. Opening businesses to them as customers and as workers benefits everyone, he says.

Don Shiner co-chaired the Built Environment Committee for the Minister of Community Service Task on Disability, for the province of Nova Scotia. He teaches marketing in Mount Saint Vincent University’s business and tourism school. He’s turning 70 this year and says accessibility is increasingly a deciding factor when older people want to spend their money. “If you can’t get in the door, you ain’t going to go shopping there,” he says. “If you can’t park safely and near the business, you’re not going to go there.” Backdoor entrances to restaurants where the bathroom soap dispenser is too high to reach from a wheelchair won’t cut it, he says. He praises Neptune Theatre for making the facility more accessible in its recent renovations. “If you can get to the door, you can get to your seat.” But if you have to park in a parkade and march uphill, you might not get to the door. He says businesses like Neptune could think differently to solve that problem, for example by partnering with the Gottingen Street Staples to let season-ticket holders park there for free and run a show-time shuttle to the theatre. Shiner had his ear drums blown out by an Israeli attack on an Egyptian army group during the Seven Days War when he was there as a UN peacekeeper, giving him lifelong hearing problems. “We have all kinds of strongly held attitudes that are more subconscious and very difficult to change. It could be fatism, let alone colour or ability,” he says. “A very important part of this is awareness and knowledge building.”

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