THE provincial government is introducing legislation today it says will improve accessibility for people with disabilities to buildings, services and jobs.
The bill, to be tabled in the legislature this afternoon, is expected to provide a framework for regulations that will set new accessibility obligations in both the public and private sectors.
It follows several years of lobbying by persons with disabilities and their organizations, who have high hopes for the changes it could bring.
It's estimated more than 15 per cent of Manitobans -- or some 200,000 in total -- face obstacles that prevent their full participation in activities others take for granted.
Jennifer Howard, minister responsible for persons with disabilities, said Tuesday that while accessibility to buildings and various services is a human right under the human rights code, it's mainly been enforced through complaints that can sometimes drag on for years.
She expects the legislation the government will introduce today will launch a broad public discussion on how to strike down barriers throughout society to people with disabilities. She expects it will take two years to write the initial regulations to the new act, which will be the key to any reforms.
"One of the things that we were conscious of from the beginning is not getting into defining disability, but defining what barriers are," said Howard. "What this is, is a systematic plan to remove barriers to equal participation in society."
The easiest thing government can do early on is to prevent barriers for people in the construction of new buildings and in the formation of government programs. "And we definitely want to do that," Howard said.
She said the government has already consulted in advance of introducing the legislation with retailers and others in the private sector -- not just with lobbyists on behalf of people with disabilities. She said her bill borrows from laws in Ontario and other jurisdictions.
The government wants to encourage groups to come up with creative solutions to improving accessibility, Howard said. "I think that sometimes in the accessibility discussion, people get stopped by fear about the cost that it will take to make something accessible and that stops us from thinking creatively."
Barrier-Free Manitoba, a non-partisan, non-profit coalition formed in 2008 to push the province to enact strong accessibility legislation, hopes today's bill will address its concerns.
It wants the legislation, among other things, to cover all disabilities (physical, intellectual, etc.), and to require development of "clear, progressive, mandatory and date-specific standards" related to accessibility in the public and private sectors.
Jeannette DeLong, a member of the organization's steering committee, said she hopes the bill will provide a blueprint for action -- and that it receives all-party support in the legislature.
"It's very significant, not because it gives people new rights, but because it will provide an avenue for having their existing rights realized," she said.
Terry McIntosh, who works with people with disabilities and is confined to a wheelchair, said she hopes the legislation and the accompanying regulations and public-education campaign will change public perceptions and open up more employment opportunities for a group that is underemployed.
"Attitudes have changed a lot over the last 20 years especially, but (they) still need to be changed a lot more," she said Tuesday.
Howard said studies have shown businesses can benefit by making services and buildings more accessible, and she can attest to that from personal experience.
"When I go shop at Costco and I use the scooter they supply, I spend a lot more money than when I don't," said Howard, who has mobility issues because one of her legs is shorter than the other. "Businesses know that it's in their interests to make their services more accessible."
She also said there are often unforeseen benefits from improving public accessibility. For instance, she said the major users of closed captioning on TV, developed for deaf people, have been bars and gyms. And curb cuts have not only been a boon to people in wheelchairs, but also aid people pulling suitcases or pushing strollers, she said.