(Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)

Editorial: It’s time to start talking about territorial accessibility legislation

Now that Ottawa has tabled its new accessibility law, the Yukon needs to prepare to follow suit

At the beginning of the year Yukon Hospital Corporation unveiled a $72-million makeover at the Whitehorse General Hospital.

For that money the territory got itself a snazzy new emergency room complete with a bunch of changes designed to streamline the process of seeing a doctor.

But officials forgot something. The new ER came with a new entrance. That entrance doesn’t have a cutout in the sidewalk directly outside the front door which is what’s needed for wheelchair users to easily get inside.

You would think the people who design hospitals for a living would remember that wheelchairs are fairly commonplace in emergency rooms.

There are other ways for people who use wheelchairs to get into the ER. They can either roll themselves to the old entrance and then along the sidewalk or go to another cutout at the east end, near the parking lot.

That might work in other buildings but not in this case. People come to the emergency room in, well, emergencies. It is not unreasonable for someone to expect to find a cutout in the curb at the front door. Forcing people to go hunting for one could be dangerous and will only get worse when it gets dark.

A spokesperson said the hospital corporation is “aware of patient and visitor concerns” and are “exploring options” to fix things. He called it a “priority” but provided no timeline.

He said the hospital “currently meets standards.”

If those standards don’t require a curb cutout by the front door we need to have a bigger conversation about how accessible this territory is for people with all types of disabilities.

Until we can get to a place where there are enough people with disabilities in positions of power that they can collectively slap their able-bodied colleagues upside the head for forgetting these kinds of things, we’re going to need legislation.

The most recent numbers available from Statistics Canada found the employment rate of Canadians aged 25 to 64 with disabilities was 49 per cent, compared with 79 per cent for Canadians without a disability.

Graduates with a disability are less likely to hold a management position and earned less than those without a disability, especially among men, according to the data.

The hospital is hardly the only building or program in town where people with disabilities come up against barriers. We need to start talking about how accessible we want the territory to be and what we’re going to do to meet those standards. We need more funding to help small businesses meet those requirements and clear, legislated punishments if they do not.

The federal government tabled its own Accessible Canada Act this summer. The new law, if passed, promises to remove barriers in places, programs and services that fall under federal jurisdiction. That includes banking, telecommunications and transportation that crosses provincial and territorial lines.

Ottawa has promised new standards that would require organizations to identify, remove, and prevent barriers to accessibility for people with disabilities.

The feds have earmarked $290 million over the next six years to implement the rules and are proposing fines of up to $250,000 if the law is ignored.

It will be up to the provinces and territories to decide if they want to come up with their own laws to cover things that aren’t a federal responsibility.

For the Yukon that could mean improvements to the health and education systems aimed at people with all types of disabilities or requiring retrofits to make the Yukon’s old buildings accessible to everyone. Those are all suggestions advocates have come up with in the past.

So far the Yukon Liberals haven’t taken a stance on the idea, saying only that they will be looking at what Ottawa comes up with before making a decision.

Other jurisdictions are being more proactive. The B.C. government is starting the consultation process on a new law with the goal of being “a truly inclusive province by 2024.”

Ontario has had its own accessibility legislation in place since long before Ottawa considered the idea. So do Manitoba and Nova Scotia.

This Yukon government has taken steps to show it cares about accessibility. This year the government agreed to permanently fund an American Sign Language interpreter, making it the first government in Canada to do so. The service had previously only been contracted, leaving it at constant risk of being cancelled.

People with disabilities shouldn’t have to spend years fighting to find one minister who recognizes the value of one program.

Ensuring the territory is accessible isn’t an example of the government doing anyone a favour. It’s an example of the government doing its job.

Through emails with the hospital corporation we’ve learned that the government calls curb cutouts that allow wheelchair access “letdowns.” That term is ironically accurate.

The Yukon government needs to start planning for territorial accessibility legislation now. The federal government’s plan is going to take years to implement even after the new law passes. If the Yukon waits for Ottawa before beginning the carousel of consultations and report writing that precede new laws, that would be the real letdown. (AJ)

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