Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Crafting accessibility law meaningful for minister

Howard felt 'excluded and frustrated' at concert

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MANITOBANS have until Oct. 21 to comment on new legislation that aims to outlaw the exclusion of people with disabilities.

The minister crafting the province's first accessibility law knows from personal experience how it feels.

"For me, in that moment, I felt very excluded and frustrated," said Jennifer Howard, minister responsible for persons with disabilities. Howard has one leg shorter than the other.

"The challenge for me is to walk a long distance or stand for a long time or do a lot of stairs," she said in an interview Tuesday.

Howard bought tickets to a concert recently, and when she arrived there were no seats left. She found a stack of chairs and took one to sit on, but the venue staff wouldn't let her use it. Howard couldn't stand for the show, so she had to leave.

"I didn't feel like what I was asking for was unreasonable or unachievable. All that was standing in my way was knowledge," Howard said. The venue staff didn't know they had a duty to accommodate someone under the Manitoba Human Rights Code, she said. Missing the concert wasn't a big deal, but being excluded hit her emotionally, she said.

"It was only one concert, one evening out, but it's something people with disabilities go through over and over again," Howard said.

She hopes to introduce accessibility legislation by the end of 2013.

The Manitoba Accessibility Advisory Council was formed last November with representatives from organizations of people with disabilities, businesses and municipalities.

It's come up with 43 recommendations for the legislation to prevent and remove accessibility barriers and craft policies and practices to improve accessibility. The public has until Oct. 21 to comment on the proposal.

Most of their recommendations are good, but the legislation needs more teeth, critics say.

"It doesn't go far enough," said Dale Kendel, with Community Living Manitoba. His organization belongs to Barrier-Free Manitoba, the umbrella group formed in 2008 to push for accessibility legislation.

"There is no target date," Kendel said. If there's no deadline for reaching goals, those goals likely won't be met, he said. Ontario, which passed accessibility legislation in 2005, has target dates for reaching its goal of full accessibility by 2025, he said.

"The big thing is to establish targets and aggressively go after those targets," he said. The other concern is enforcement, he added. The recommended maximum fine is $25,000.

"A maximum $25,000 fine for flagrant non-compliance is weak," he said, adding there needs to be a stronger disincentive to build a place that's not accessible. The legislation should remove all kinds of barriers, not just physical ones, he said.

Currently, nearly half of complaints to the Manitoba Human Rights Commission involve people with disabilities and accessibility issues, Kendel said.

"What we wanted to move away from is people having to lodge a human rights complaint and go through three or four years to settle it."

One of those complaints involves the RM of Springfield, which used a zoning bylaw to block a home for men with intellectual disabilities.

Accessibility will take time and the legislation will be balanced, Howard said.

Rather than fines and enforcement kicking in right away, accessibility legislation will be more like a "long journey," starting with education, she said.

"You have to help people comply first, and it's only after you've done that and given them assistance and they're unwilling to do it that you start to talk about fine and punishment," said Howard.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 10, 2012 A4

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