Spinning wheels

Kevin Lamarque (top left); Nova Scotia speaker of the house Kevin Murphy (top right); and Greg Brown (bottom). Photos: Janice Hudson

When Kevin Lamarque was injured in a tobogganing accident 45 years ago, his family feared the 18-year-old would never lead a normal life. Before the disabled rights movement gained momentum in the 1970s, people in wheelchairs weren’t expected to work, go to university or participate fully in their communities.
“When I had my accident, there was no such thing as a ramp or a curb cut,” recalls Lamarque. (A “curb cut” is a small ramp built into the curb of a sidewalk allowing passage to the street.) He grew up in Forest, Ontario and has lived in Halifax for 14 years. He’s now retired from a career in the civil service. “My generation was the first to be active and outward going. Before the Second World War, people didn’t survive a spinal-cord injury. After the war, they were institutionalized. In the ’70s and ’80s, there was a lot of advocacy and change to building codes, so accessibility became more of an attempt to integrate.”
Efforts to make Halifax more accessible have improved but many buildings and streets still present barriers. “With historic sites and Halifax being built on a hill, accessibility is a challenge,” says Nancy Beaton, executive director of the Canadian Paraplegic Association (Nova Scotia). “Add bad weather and it becomes very difficult.”
Nova Scotia has the highest rate of disability in Canada. According to 2012 stats from Statistics Canada, 19 per cent of people (about one in five) are disabled, compared to the national average of 13.7 per cent. Nova Scotia also has the oldest population in Canada. “1,000 Nova Scotians turn 65 each month. We are aging into disability and many people will face compromised mobility,” says Beaton. Forty per cent of Nova Scotians aged 65 and older are disabled.
Halifax wheelchair activist and blogger Gus Reed is co-founder of the James McGregor Stewart Society, a grassroots disability rights organization. Last summer, the group launched a successful campaign to make all MLA constituency offices in Nova Scotia barrier-free.
Reed says a lot of people just don’t think about accessibility. “It’s due to a lack of standards,” he says. “When you mention that you can’t get into a restaurant because of the step, people are sometimes surprised—it’s not something everybody thinks about when they’re opening up a business.”
He hopes the recent appointment of Eastern Shore MLA Kevin Murphy to Speaker of the Nova Scotia House of Assembly will put accessibility on the agenda. Murphy is the first speaker in Nova Scotia (and in Canada) to use a wheelchair full time. “That sends a loud, clear message that people with disabilities hold great potential and it’s our responsibility to do what we can to enable people to reach greater heights,” Murphy says.
Province House underwent a few changes so Murphy could do his job. Accessible since the mid 1980s, it has a barrier-free entryway on Granville Street (the original front door). Inside, workers built a ramp up to the speaker’s chair, which is elevated 46 centimentres off the floor. “I call it a symbolic change,” Murphy says. “It was a matter of respecting the history of the building and the architecture but dealing with the reality that the speaker uses a wheelchair.”
Accessible design has been slower coming for many other buildings downtown. The barrier-free requirements of the building code only apply to new commercial buildings and to existing commercial buildings that are being renovated or undergoing a “change of occupancy” (changing from one type of use to another). For example, if a shop was being renovated into a restaurant, it would need to provide a barrier-free entryway and a barrier-free washroom, among other code requirements.
Buildings that have always been inaccessible usually stay that way. “It’s accepted that there are particular challenges for buildings in urban settings, so there are special provisions that provide alternative compliance methods,” says Jim Donovan, HRM’s manager of municipal compliance, the department that issues building permits.
Alternative compliance exempts existing buildings from providing things like accessible entrances and barrier-free washrooms. For example, if an existing building is less than 1,292 square feet with a steep entryway that’s located less than one metre from the property line, the entrance can have stairs.
Reed worries that not enough is being done to ensure buildings required by the code to have barrier-free access—even new structures—actually have it. He says business owners need prodding to make required upgrades and that it’s often left to him, and other wheelchair users, to report problems. “It shouldn’t be up to me to enforce the building code,” he says.
Donovan says his team inspects new buildings multiple times for code compliance before issuing permits. “But frequently surprises present themselves at the end of construction and buildings may not be in compliance with the approved plans,” he says. “Ultimately, it’s the building owners’ obligation to provide us with information as things change.”
He wants to hear from people like Reed about problems. “Some buildings have been completed and we’ve made mistakes. We follow up on complaints as we get them,” he says.
Councillor Jennifer Watts sits on HRM’s Accessibility Advisory Committee, a group that meets monthly to discuss accessibility issues. “We’re not at a place where it’s all integrated,” she says. “We can always work on making sure there’s full compliance. The building code is the building code—it either fits or it doesn’t.”
Paul MacKinnon, executive director of the Downtown Business Commission, says cost can hold businesses back. “The real conflict has been that businesses will make decisions based on costs versus benefits,” he says. “There’s always the risk that if you’re not accessible, you could lose potential customers.”
Retrofitting Halifax’s older buildings can be complicated. “If you have a historic building with a series of steps, you could always build a ramp but not if it abuts the sidewalk,” MacKinnon says. “Seven feet of sidewalk clearance is required so two wheelchairs can pass each other. There is an opportunity for creative solutions like temporary moveable ramps that can help balance out all of the accessibility needs.”
Watts thinks portable ramps could be an option for some buildings. “They might not work for every person in a wheelchair but they do offer some mode of accessibility for residents who are wanting to go into existing places,” she says.
For Murphy, temporary ramps aren’t a long-term solution. “If there’s fuss and confusion, or you have to call ahead and ask for the ramp, people with disabilities will probably skip that place and go where they can just show up and be themselves,” he says. “Nobody’s looking for special treatment—we just want to be able to go where we want to go.”
Reed says the lack of accessible space in Halifax cuts people off from their culture and heritage. “If you go to a place like Boston, all public buildings are open to the public and required to be accessible, so you can get into Faneuil Hall and see where the American Revolution started,” he says. “Older facilities, stores and restaurants have to provide reasonable access.”
He’s frustrated that a place like the Maritime Command Museum in Stadacona is not wheelchair accessible. “This is the place where they celebrate the patriotism of soldiers and sailors from all the wars Canada has been in,” he says. “But if you’re a wounded veteran from Afghanistan, you can’t get into that building. People shouldn’t be excluded from their history and from participating in their own culture.”
Lack of access can also limit job opportunities. Greg Brown has used a wheelchair since a ski accident when he was 16. He’s an engineering technologist at Stantec in Dartmouth and has worked for the company (and its predecessors) for 12 years.
He remembers a challenging job search for engineering work in Halifax. “It was very rough,” he recalls. “I shouldn’t say that the mindset of employers was bad, but there was always that reluctance…I can read people very well and I can see when people have reservations about ‘can this person do this job?’”
When he first applied to Neil & Gunter (a company that merged into Stantec), the office was in an inaccessible building in Dartmouth. Luckily, it was moving into an accessible building in two months. “I was laid off at the time, so I had that little bit of buffer time,” Brown says. “But, outside of your bigger players in Halifax, like your Stantecs, AMECs, and SNC-Lavalins, your small mom-and-pop engineering firms around here are very much sporadic in their accessibility. Some places are fine and some are run out of the basement of somebody’s home.”
Brown is grateful to have had steady work over the years. “I can see finding an accessible workplace being a huge challenge for somebody trying to get into my industry,” he says.
Navigating Halifax’s streets can be another problem. Lamarque lives downtown and notices a lack of standards with curb cuts. “You’ll have one side of the street with a new curb cut and the other side is falling apart, so it’s very difficult crossing the street,” he says. “Why don’t they do the whole corner, all four? A good curb cut is good for everybody—people with strollers and walkers, not just people with wheelchairs.”
Repairing curb cuts is expensive, Watts says, but she hopes new design standards will improve the situation. “They are being built to a standard now that should be a seamless transition from the pavement onto the sidewalk,” she says.
Brown wishes more business owners would pay attention to the little things that can impede access. He plows his own driveway, drives an ATV and pumps his own gas. “Anything that I can do myself, I will find a way,” he says. But he had to stop supporting his local gas station because staff repeatedly loaded the curb cut at the entryway with sale items, blocking his access to the store. “I told them, you’re losing a customer because you’re not letting me enter your store and they did nothing about it.”
Last August, Reed noticed problems with the accessible entryway at Mother’s Pizza, a new building on the corner of Agricola and Young street. With three steep steps, its main entrance was not wheelchair accessible, but a separate side entryway had a power door. “The ramp was steep and there was no level landing at the door, as required by the building code,” Reed says. “So a wheelchair user could not reach the button without letting go of her wheel and accelerating backwards down the ramp. It’s a dangerous oversight.” Reed contacted HRM about the matter.
In January, Mother’s Pizza owner Tyson Wachter pleaded guilty in Halifax Provincial Court and was fined $5,000 for running the restaurant before having an occupancy permit. “I wasn’t trying to pull a fast one on the city,” Wachter says. “They had approved my architect’s plan and didn’t notice a problem until much later. If I could go back, I would have bugged my architect and building officials to be more thorough…I’m 28 and not a super experienced builder.” He says there should be better communication from the building department and thinks each new build should have one dedicated building inspector. “It’s frustrating dealing with different inspectors.” Mother’s Pizza now has an accessible entryway.
Beaton says it’s time business owners and developers started designing entryways that can work for everyone. “It’s not just about following the building code, it’s about everyone having the same access and our community being inclusive,” she says.
Murphy wants a Nova Scotia disability act to set out rules, timelines and consequences for businesses that aren’t as enabling as they should be. “It would change mindsets of seeing people with disabilities as an untapped labour force, as a new segment for our tourism industry to focus on, as new customers for our businesses,” he says. Disability acts are law in Ontario, B.C. and Manitoba.
He’d like Nova Scotia’s act to mirror aspects of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Enacted in 1990, this U.S. law gives business owners tax credits for making gradual accessibility upgrades. “We can’t expect a mom-and-pop storefront, where to fix their access problem is $10,000, to absorb that kind of hit all at once,” says Murphy. “This allows them to plan for it. We want to get to a point where business owners understand that this is something they need to do now because our population is aging.”
Real change won’t happen until more people demand it. “The Baby Boomers are going to change our communities drastically in the next 10 to 20 years,” Brown says. “They are the ones that drive change and it’s going to happen here.”
Watts hopes the city will be ready. “I would prefer that we’re way out in front of that and understand now that we need to be responding to folks that are having difficulty and planning proactively for the future,” she says.
Meanwhile, Reed thinks Halifax is letting people down. “It’s permitting people to discriminate against a whole class of citizens,” he says. “When you can’t get in a restaurant, it’s like having a sign up that says, ‘Wheelchairs go away.’ People need to understand it as the discrimination that it is.”

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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