No accessible washrooms at department in charge of Accessibility Act

No accessible washrooms at department in charge of Accessibility Act

Nova Scotia's Department of Justice is rewriting the bill to enshrine the accessibility rights of people with disabilities, but couldn't hold a meeting recently at its own offices to discuss changes because the building it leases doesn't have an accessible washroom.

Justice Minister Diana Whalen made the embarrassing revelation to reporters Wednesday during a discussion about upcoming changes to Bill 59.

Her department occupies all but one floor of the recently renovated Joseph Howe Building in downtown Halifax. But it was only after her officials began redrafting the proposed Accessibility Act, she said, that it was discovered the building they were in was without an accessible washroom that met requirements.

"It just shows that we haven't had our eye on the ball on this," Whalen told reporters in response to a question about how the province could move into a high-rise building without an accessible washroom. 

"And I think it's a very good example of why we need to get out there and find out what we've got in other buildings."

Joe Howe Building was gutted

The proposed legislation was originally introduced by the Community Services Minister Joanne Bernard, whose office does have accessible washrooms.

But the Accessibility Act was transferred to the Justice Department as a result of a hue and cry from disability advocates who told the government it was a rights issue and should be treated as such.

The provincial government sold the Joseph Howe Building on Hollis Street to Universal Realty six years ago for $14.9 million. At the time an internal engineering report estimated the structure needed $36 million worth of renovations and upgrades. Government employees had complained for years about leaks and poor air quality. 

Universal Realty gutted, then upgraded the 13-storey structure after signing a 10-year lease with the province to make it the new home for the Department of Justice.

$27K for new accessible washroom

The provincial government is planning to survey all the buildings it occupies to determine how many will need to be modified to comply with new accessibility rules.

Meanwhile, Whalen has authorized $27,000 be spent on creating a fully accessible washroom on one floor of the Joseph Howe Building.

"I was personally shocked that there could have been changes to [that building] and not have it make those proper accommodations," Whalen said.

Amendments to Bill 59 will be discussed Monday when the law amendments committee meets next at Province House.