Does the Yukon need new accessibility rules?

Yukon advocates hope the territorial government will create its own accessibility act after Canada implements a federal one.

Yukon advocates hope the territorial government will create its own accessibility act after Canada implements a federal one.

The federal minister of sport and persons with disabilities was in Whitehorse last month to consult on plans for a new law regulating accessibility in Canada.

But whatever Carla Qualtrough creates will only cover aspects of life under federal jurisdiction, like banks or cross-border travel.

According to Qualtrough, many provinces have said they will create mirror legislation to match what the federal government comes up with. Those laws would cover departments under the jurisdictions’ control like education and health.

This close to an election campaign, the current Yukon government won’t say if that’s something it would consider.

“These are really questions for the next government, which will be elected later this fall,” cabinet spokesperson Elaine Schiman said earlier this week. Premier Darrell Pasloski announced today that the election will take place Nov. 7.

“In addition, there isn’t enough information yet about the federal plans to answer… questions about mirror legislation,” Schiman said.

Some provinces, like Manitoba and Ontario, already have their own accessibility laws. Ontario has been implementing its act in stages since 2005. It’s scheduled to be fully implemented by 2025.

Manitoba’s law was created in 2013. The first set of rules, covering the provincial government, come into effect next month. The rest of the legislation will be rolled out over the next two years.

Both provincial laws allow government to set standards for businesses, non-profits, education institutions and the public sector on how to be accessible to people with a wide range of disabilities.

Some standards deal with customer service training for employees, while others require counters, doors and washrooms to be accessible. Another says textbooks and other written materials at education institutions will need to eventually be available in large print, electronic or audio versions.

“These are rules that, one sector at a time, tell organizations what they have to do,” said David Lepofsky, chair of the AODA Alliance, the organization whose work led to the enactment of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act in 2005.

“For example they’ve created a transportation accessibility standard in Ontario which tells public transit, ‘Here’s the kind of buses you have to buy, here’s the features they have to have.’”

Both provinces have offices in charge of checking in on businesses and enforcing the acts. Those that don’t meet standards can face heavy fines.

Though the Ontario act has faced criticism over allegations that it’s not adequately enforced, the law offers something that doesn’t exist in the Yukon.

The Yukon Human Rights Act prohibits discriminating against people because of their disability.

But the act, like human rights acts in other jurisdictions, is reactive. Someone has to file a complaint after they think their rights have already been violated.

When the Yukon’s act was revamped in 2009 the human rights commission asked to be given more proactive powers. That was not included in the updated legislation.

Lepofsky said laws with established standards prevent individuals from having to sue or go before a human rights board “one barrier at a time, one organization at a time.”

He knows all about that. In 2005 Lepofsky won a 10-year fight with the Toronto Transit Commission. An Ontario Human Rights Tribunal ordered the TTC to immediately begin announcing all subway stops so riders with visual impairments would know where they were.

Two years later he was at it again, making virtually the same case, this time for Toronto buses and streetcars.

Having set standards provides a clear set of expectations for businesses, he said.

“The human rights acts, the Charter, just say ‘don’t discriminate.’ That doesn’t tell you how to design your school, your hospital or how to operate your doctor’s office.”

Leslie Peters, executive director of Autism Yukon, said the idea of territorial legislation is a good one.

“Compared to 10 years ago, when Autism Yukon was founded, they’re (the government) doing better than they’ve ever done. I just feel like, as far as accessibility goes, now it’s time to move on to the next step.”

Housing, health and education are major areas of concern for people with disabilities when it comes to accessibility, she said. All of those fall under the territory’s jurisdiction.

Starting about 10 years ago, the Yukon began offering services to young children with autism through the Family Supports for Children with Disabilities branch. The branch has since been combined with services for adults with disabilities.

Those kids would be in their mid-to-late teens by now. Many people would have been too old to benefit from those services when they started, Peters said.

When adults with disabilities contact the health department’s Services to Persons with Disabilities branch they’ll be given a case worker to help them connect with other services.

Peters said getting people connected with the branch can be difficult, especially if they are entering the system as an adult.

That means departments like housing, education and mental health services need to help people who might not have a case worker, she said.

“Maybe the perfect scenario is out there for them but they can’t really self-advocate to fill out all the forms that are necessary. So accessibility in those types of areas is necessary. That’s the type of thing that the territorial government is going to have to legislate.”

She said people working on the frontline of these services need to work with people with disabilities instead of putting the onus on them to know exactly what services they need.

“I guess to have a more client-focused mentality in general would go a long way to making things more accessible, and I don’t know another way to provide that without having a bit of a paradigm shift and that would have to be done through legislation.”

Another barrier Peters said needs to be addressed is a lack of therapies for adults with autism.

A child with autism can receive language pathology, occupational therapy and behaviour therapy through the government.

“None of those things are available once they turn 19,” she said.

Jillian Hardie, executive director of the Challenge Disability Resource Group, hopes territorial legislation would deal with retrofitting older buildings to ensure universal access.

“An Acorn chairlift does not provide accessibility to people in wheelchairs. What do they do with their chair once they are down or up stairs?” she said.

“A ramp into a store that cannot be navigated once you are in that store is useless.”

New buildings in the territory must meet the current national building code, updated in 2010.

Older buildings are only required to meet the standard that was law when they were built. Those often don’t include accessibility requirements.

Hardie said territorial legislation can help monitor the unique circumstances of remote communities as well as Whitehorse.

Issues that could be addressed in the city include snow and ice removal on sidewalks, the steep grading of one section of the Millennium Trail that can’t be negotiated in a wheelchair, and improper or non-existent curb cuts, she said.

“If you were to tour the town, you would see that all curb cuts are not equal. Some of the curb cuts face directly into the street and have the potential to move you quickly into traffic. Or in some cases, you have to go out into traffic to access them.”

In the Yukon accessibility appears to be something that’s dealt with on a case-by-case basis.

The City of Whitehorse has a persons with disabilities advisory committee.

The Yukon government’s new Conrad Campground includes two campsites with ramps, picnic tables that can accommodate a wheelchair, and specially designed fire pits.

The government has been funding a part-time American Sign Language interpreter since 2012. That money is scheduled to last until 2018.

Yukon government business cards can be made to include braille, but it’s not always done.

A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Services said that’s done “where it is suitable for (the) client group.”

Hardie said she thinks the territorial and municipal governments try their best.

But they need “to have expert consultation on every new project, existing project and upgrade projects,” she said.

“They should be leading because it is the right thing to do, not because they are legislated to do so.”

Contact Ashley Joannou at ashleyj@yukon-news.com

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