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Human Rights

Report warned rights of N.S. people with disabilities 'verging' on violation


HALIFAX — An external report warned more than a decade ago that a Nova Scotia hospital was ``verging'' on violating the basic rights of people with disabilities by forcing them to live in a locked-door psychiatric unit rather than in the community, a human rights inquiry heard Wednesday.

Yet, little changed for the people living in the Emerald Hall unit of the Nova Scotia Hospital, said a clinical social worker who testified at the inquiry about her effort to bring about change.

The veteran health worker said she heard of the study on the unit by a Canadian expert on people with both intellectual disabilities and mental illness when she first came to the hospital as a part-time employee in 2011.

The April 2006 report on the unit's operations was tendered as evidence at the inquiry, and the health worker read its findings, after saying other staff at the hospital were aware of its existence.

``The individuals are being confined without justification because no community (housing) options are available for them within the system,'' she said, reading from the report.

``The delay of discharge at this time appears to be strangling the current unit ... and verging on violation of the rights and freedoms of the individuals long-time destined for release.''

A copy of the report later obtained by The Canadian Press also says the detention of the residents of Emerald Hall violated the standards of care for patients with intellectual disabilities and mental health diagnoses.

``Moreover, this current situation clearly undermines the fundamental rights of these individuals,'' the document says. ``The situation is clearly confinement without justification and cruel and unusual punishment for behaviours which have long since resided.''

In an interview with, Toronto human rights lawyer Lorin MacDonald says it's disturbing that the alarm bell was sounded nearly 12 years ago, but with little change since.

"It would appear that many connected with the hospital were complicit in such inaction. In 2018, this simply cannot continue to be the case," says MacDonald, who lives with a hearing disability and represents people with disabilities in discrimination matters.

"As with recent global disruptive movements like Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, and #Time'sUp, all Canadians living with disabilities deserve to be full citizens, living their lives with dignity.”

A provincial spokesman for the Department of Community Services told The Canadian Press that questions about the study should be sent to the Nova Scotia Health Authority. A spokeswoman was unable to provide immediate comment on who viewed it or what actions were taken in response.

The health worker said more than half of the 19 residents she cared for had no reason to be there, but languished for years without any place to go in the community due to shortages of smaller, supported housing units.

By 2014, with the backing of others on the unit frustrated by the situation, she said she helped launch the human rights complaint that is now being heard in a Halifax hotel.

The inquiry is looking at whether a 46-year-old woman who used to live at the Nova Scotia Hospital and is now in a transition unit, and a 45-year-old man who is still at the hospital, should have the right to live in supported housing — meaning, in the community — rather than institutions and psychiatric facilities.

Housing protections for people living with disabilities are enshrined in Canadian human rights legislation across all provinces and territories, MacDonald says.

"Particularly problematic in this case is the fact that Nova Scotia passed the Accessibility Act in April 2017, intending to start the process of removing barriers for persons with disabilities," she says. "It is hoped that the forthcoming standards will consider this very issue, coming up with creative solutions to full community integration of people with disabilities. This is an opportunity for the government of Nova Scotia to demonstrate its leadership and do right by its citizens.”

A third complainant in the case died as the case wound its way through various delays, but her story will be told by family members and the complainants' lawyer.

During the hearing, the health worker was asked to recall what life was like for residents.

``The exit door is locked all the time. ... It's an institutional-style setting. Meals come on hot carts. People are expected to eat at regulated times,'' she told the inquiry chair and about 10 people sitting in the Halifax hotel room.

``It's a very restricted environment. It can be a very loud environment. ... There may be some people with complex issues that become very noisy.''

Over time, she said she watched as the residents with the legal right to leave lost the ability to function in a community setting, forgetting how to make their own decisions, cook a meal or ``do the simplest tasks'' for themselves.

However, earlier in the day, a Nova Scotia government lawyer pressed an expert witness over the risks of shifting people with intellectual disabilities out of institutional settings into the community.

A researcher and advocate for inclusion had been called to testify by the Disability Rights Coalition, an advocacy group for people with disabilities that is a complainant in the proceeding.

A Justice Department lawyer asked the researcher about problems that emerged in Ontario, Alberta and Newfoundland and Labrador after people who needed medical and personal care to live in the community didn't receive the necessary aid.

The researcher concurred with the lawyer that there have been examples of inadequate support and that some people with disabilities have ended up in psychiatric facilities and nursing homes.

However, he said that didn't change the need to aim for a model where people with disabilities could gain greater control over their own lives.

``It's 2018, we actually know what it takes and how it looks and what the models for support for people with very complex issues are,'' he said in an interview following his testimony.

The province has said it is working to improve its Disability Support Program and to create more small option homes.

The health worker has said she left the Nova Scotia Hospital for another job as a clinical social worker several months after the human rights complaint was launched.

She is expected to continue her testimony about the lives of residents at Emerald Hall on Tuesday.

— with files from 

© 2018 The Canadian Press


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