Advocacy groups are applauding a “historic” interim agreement reached with the province of Nova Scotia to end the discriminatory treatment of people with disabilities.

The province has agreed to recommendations from an independent expert report, endorsed by the Disability Rights Coalition of Nova Scotia (DRC). That report calls for an end to the forcible confinement of people with disabilities in institutions as well as a total system transformation.

“This historic agreement sends a powerful message across the country that the practices of institutionalization and denying individuals with intellectual disabilities and their families supports, while they are left by the tens of thousands on waiting lists, will no longer be tolerated,” Krista Carr, executive vice president of Inclusion Canada, said in a media release on Wednesday.

“Families and individuals with intellectual disabilities have been seeking an end to these discriminatory practices for decades and we celebrate their success as they move forward to a more promising and inclusive future.”

Titled “Human Rights Review and Remedy for the Finding of Systemic Discrimination Against Nova Scotians with Disabilities,” the report was jointly commissioned by the coalition and the Department of Community Services last year. 

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The report sets out clear timeframes and targets to return people who are currently institutionalized to the Nova Scotia communities from which they were removed. The plan also sets a five-year timeframe after which all institutions will be closed

“If done right, this will end not only the discriminatory practices of institutionalization but equally important, it will stop the government of Nova Scotia’s placement of individuals with disabilities and their families on languishing and protracted lists while they wait for needed supports and services,” Inclusion Canada wrote.

‘Legally binding and enforceable’

The report was the result of an August 2014 human rights complaint. The DRC and three people — Beth MacLean, Joey Delaney, and Sheila Livingstone — filed the complaint against the province. 

On Oct. 6 2021, the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal agreed with the claim of discrimination and acknowledged individual and systemic discrimination. 

“Unlike past government reports and commitments, the outcome of the collaborative process contemplates that the government’s commitments to persons with disabilities will be legally binding and enforceable,” the DRC said in a media release Wednesday.

Woman with curly hair and glasses, framed by a border of stars. She holds a sign that says, "I like to have people to talk to and cook apple pie and listen to my radio.
Beth MacLean. Photo courtesy Alice Evans.

The organization said the report includes recommendations for “sweeping changes to end a quarter century of systemic discrimination” in addition to creating a system of social assistance that “fully recognises and respects” the different needs of people with disabilities.

“Although this settlement comes years too late for so many people, I am glad that we have come to an agreement so that people living with disabilities do not have to spend their lives shut away from society and will no longer be treated as problems to be solved but full citizens in charge of our own destiny,” DRC member Vicky Levack said in the release. 

‘Major turning point’

The interim agreement based on the experts’ report has a March 31, 2028 end date. Its implementation will be independently and regularly monitored and will include regular disclosure of data, documents, and annual progress reports from the government that will all be publicly available online.

“This type of system change can’t happen overnight but both parties have accepted the system changes and plan recommended in the Expert Report, which has formed the basis for their interim agreement regarding final outcomes,” DRC lawyer Claire McNeil said in the media release. 

“The final outcomes will be legally enforceable and will ensure that persons with disabilities will get access to social assistance when they need it, in the community they choose, with the supports and services they need to live in community rather than institutional settings. This is a major turning point in the struggle for equality for persons with disabilities.” 

The next step involves the DRC, the province, and the Nova Scotia Human Rights  Commission all submitting their agreement to the Nova Scotia Human Rights Board of Inquiry for its approval.

Final steps taking place over next few months

In a media release Wednesday, the Department of Community Services said the report includes six key directions with supporting action plans and timelines for implementation. It added that both the province and the DRC agreed the recommendations will “form the basis of a remedy” for an ongoing human rights complaint. 

“We are grateful to the Disability Rights Coalition for working with us throughout this process,” Community Services Minister Karla MacFarlane said in the release. 

“We share a vision that people with disabilities be respected, be empowered to make their own choices and be able to access the supports they need for personal and professional fulfillment.”

The Department of Community Services said the five-year plan involves programs and services co-ordinated across many government departments. Not yet estimated, the cost will depend on several factors. Those include program design, staffing levels, the availability of specialized supports, and a regional approach to delivering services.

The province said final steps to formalize the remedy will take place with the board of inquiry over the coming months.

Yvette d’Entremont is a bilingual (English/French) journalist and editor who enjoys covering health, science, research, and education.

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