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At the risk of repeating myself

Watching the presentations on Bill 59 to the Law Amendments Committee is the surest way to get some clarity on the definition of disability. It would be hard to assemble a more thoughtful, articulate, smart and self-aware group anywhere. So why does the word "disability" get bandied about so easily?

Is Barry Abbott, the first presenter, disabled? He had a pioneering career at SMU, retired comfortably and contributed to his community through taxes and service. And he loves his gadgets.

How about Pat Gates, who has a record of consequential volunteering about a mile long, done on a shoestring budget? Her selflessness is an example to us all and puts others to shame.

Will Brewer, who is the very definition of Howard Gardner's Good Work, when excellence meets ethics?

Gerry Post? He works harder and more effectively than legions of bureaucrats. They miss him in the King of Jordan's p(a)lace, but we need him more in Halifax.

Paul Vienneau. Now there's a guy who can hardly fend for himself. Between shoveling, advocacy, music, art, fundraising he is clearly a burden on society.

Steve Estey? Probably the only person you'll ever meet who had a hand in writing a UN treaty.

Claredon Robicheau? The sage of Clare? Who brought rural transportation to Nova Scotia and saved the government millions?

There were people representing a different kind of disability. Their impairments were self-imposed - shortsightedness, indifference, ignorance.

I'm more convinced than ever that as long as the word "disability" appears in Bill 59, it goes wide of the mark. Call it "diversity" or "fairness" or "individual difference", but don't be so condescending as to call these extraordinary citizens "dis" anything.

Making Accessibility Pay

Let's think about investment.  Like public education and modern infrastructure, government can make good investments.   This is an opportunity to invest in people.  As Bill Gates said to Warren Buffet "the best investment any of us can ever make is in the lives of others"

No matter how you slice it, Bill 59 is going to cost money.  Capital expenses will be significant, and the solutions proposed in the current Bill - extremely long or nonexistent time horizons and the prospect of wholesale exemptions - don't match the aspirations of the Act.  So let's face the truth and admit that access isn't free.  The good news is that every sign points to increased economic activity, government saving, and increased tax revenue.  Everyone will benefit from investing in access, and we should champion that fact.

Missing from Bill 59 is a the promise to identify and evaluate tax incentives, which are the most likely way to encourage investments of this nature.  The Minister of Finance will need to work hand-in-hand with the Minister of Justice to make access happen.

11 Kinds of incentives
Nova Scotia faces a ton of problems.  Some of them relate to a cavalier waste of human capital.  Too many people with disabilities on government support and too few participating in the economic life of the Province.  That's a great big problem and we have the tools to make it better.

Government must use it's fiscal powers to ensure that people with disabilities share in the promise of Nova Scotia.  I'm attaching a chart showing how to turn a profit by using incentives, just like retailers do every day.

 Here is a little more on four persistent problems that have accessibility as a central theme and how an investment will pay off:

Increasing government supports and declining revenue

The simple answer to this problem is jobs.  For every full-time minimum wage job enjoyed by a person moving from community support, government saves around $20,000 in expense and gains about $7,000 in revenue.  Government can do any number of things to encourage this:

  • Pay half the salary for such people for two years up to $10,000 (government is still $10 grand to the good annually)
  • Continue their Pharmacare or subsidize private supplementary coverage for 2 years.

After two years, government receives the full benefit in new tax revenue.

An aging population needing care

Aging at home is in everyone's interest.  Government can fix this problem almost instantly by giving credits for accessibility improvements, an expansion of current grant programs.  The payback is in fewer nursing facilities, new employment for housing contractors and increased property valuations.  

Vanishing workers

This is a cascading problem.  Uneven access to transportation and suitable housing keeps people isolated.  Limited access to higher education (Dalhousie Law School is less than one half of one percent students with visible disabilities) means inadequate training.  Limited employment opportunities in government (9.9% of the workforce self identifies as having a disability, yet only 3.9% of provincial employees do so - the lowest representation of the five groups the province identifies as important to employment equity).  Loan-burdened recent graduates leave the province for jobs.  There are many opportunities for intervention.

Not just government, but private employers stand to gain by diverting overlooked talent to productive work.  We need to get to work on a whole web of problems:  transportation, housing, higher education, and recruitment.  Quick fixes just don't work.

Cruise Ships and the changing face of tourism

238,217 passengers arrived in Halifax on 136 ships in 2016.  The Americans with Disabilities Act mandates that 3% of their cabins be accessible.  This translates to roughly 7,000 passengers and probably an equal number of their companions.  Good tourism practice requires that they not be disappointed.  We're sitting next to millions of aging New Englanders.  Sharing the cost of accessibility through property tax credits will pay in increased traffic, higher HST, higher valuations, and in other, more subtle brand sensitive ways.


The lack of attention to these possible solutions to persistent problems is puzzling. Government needs to do the research, and more importantly commit to using the tools of fiscal policy to make access happen.

Law Amendments

I've been watching the Law Amendments hearings on Bill 59. Regardless of what is presented, the process is impressive. CART, ASL, captioning and streaming video are wonderful, leveling innovations. Like accessible constituency offices, we can be proud that Nova Scotia understands and delivers democracy the way it is meant to be.

It has been such a pleasure and education to see people with a range of individual differences participating in their government. We seldom have an opportunity to engage with those unlike ourselves, and learning of other perspectives is often humbling and thought-provoking. Where else have we met a blind employment counselor, the student leader with Down Syndrome, the amazing Mayor of Spring Garden, the Law Professor, or the former adviser to King Hussein?

Clearly the province has set a new standard. Now that streaming video of legislative proceedings, remote presentations and all the rest have come to pass, it will be hard to turn back the clock. A deaf person in Yarmouth can have the same presence and information as a lobbyist in Halifax. The resemblance to a town meeting was striking.

In terms of content, the presenters ranged from ridiculously reactionary businesspeople to sublime examples of individual achievement.

We learned that in Nova Scotia some businessmen (and they were all men) face their own self-imposed barriers. They can be blind to opportunity, deaf to change, handicapped by outdated thinking and paralyzed by fear of innovation. They can be their own worst enemies. Others are understandably cautious. Still others welcome the change and the promise of new customers and employees. Increasingly, it seems up to us to lead the way to a prosperous future for Nova Scotia. Conventional thinking is so ............... conventional.

Still, there is confusion about the scope and purpose of the Act. Some think it should include specific programs, others, like me, insist it's all about equality. Worrying about how to pay for Braille books or accessible transportation is certainly a concern, but the answer lies in being scrupulously fair. If we provide new knees routinely, we should make the connection that knees and wheelchairs accomplish the same thing. We should have a mobility program, not just a joint-replacement program.

The MLAs seemed attentive, not very partisan, a little unfamiliar with the territory. It's refreshing to watch legislators interacting with actual voters, rather than lobbyists, who don't vote.

It's become clear to me that it's very difficult for the average person to understand even the simplest of barriers, let alone the complex interplay of hurdles so often encountered. There is a saying "Nothing about us without us" which invokes the further thought that this endeavor is simply too unique to be trusted to novices. "You can't do it without us" is more accurate.

Last time, legislative drafters retreated for many months and produced just an awful bill. This time they should consult experts.

And pronto!