Battle over housing rights for people with intellectual disabilities in N.S. court

The Nova Scotia Court of Appeal is set to hear arguments today over whether timely access to housing in the community is a human right for people with intellectual disabilities.

Lawyers for three people with intellectual disabilities who were confined to a hospital ward for years are appealing a 2019 human rights board of inquiry decision.

The board of inquiry determined the three had suffered discrimination individually, but it rejected arguments that placement in so-called small options homes is broadly applicable to people with disabilities through human rights legislation.

Small options homes are residences where one to four people with disabilities live, with care and necessary supports provided by the province.

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The ruling determined the province discriminated against Beth MacLean, Joseph Delaney and the late Sheila Livingstone – who died before the hearing was completed – because they were held at the Emerald Hall ward in Halifax despite medical and staff opinions they could live in the community.

However, board chairman Walter Thompson didn’t accept that the province generally discriminated against people with disabilities who reside in hospitals or large institutions, or who are on a waiting list for placement in a small options home.

The province has argued people without disabilities also face hurdles in obtaining public housing, much as people with disabilities face wait lists and financial obstacles – and therefore there is no special discrimination when people with disabilities languish in large facilities.

The government is also appealing the board’s decision, saying if it is upheld or further extended, it would mean human rights boards are telling governments when to create and expand services to people who are ill or disabled.

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It says that is an issue for politicians, not judicial bodies, to decide, based on their resources.

The case may hang on how the court interprets Section 5 of the provincial Human Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in the “provision of or access to service or facilities.”

Vince Calderhead, the lawyer for MacLean and Delaney, says in his brief to the court that decades of neglect has led to people with disabilities not receiving the supports and services they need in order to live in the community, and instead many are left in psychiatric wards or in large facilities.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 18, 2020.

© 2020 The Canadian Press

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