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Sarnia Improving Accessibility

By CATHY DOBSON, The Observer
Updated November 8, 2011

It just makes sense to create a city that caters to the disabled, says Susan Weatherston.

She was hired by the City of Sarnia two years ago to interpret a slew of new provincial legislation geared to making the public sector more accessible.

“It’s a long haul,” she told council during a special information session Monday. “But we’re meeting the deadlines.”

Fifteen per cent of the population has a disability. “It’s our parents, our kids, our neighbours, and it could apply to any of us tomorrow,” said Weatherston.

Ensuring that public buildings are designed to accommodate disabilities and that municipal staff are sensitive to the needs of the disabled is just the right thing to do, she said.

“It’s based on the principles of dignity and respect.”

Take, for instance, a change in the poll locations during the last municipal election. Many voters had to travel to new places to vote because, for the
first time, Weatherston was there to ensure they were accessible.

That’s a very tangible example of how the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act makes a difference.

But there are many other ways that are less tangible, she said.

It’s going to take until 2025 before all the accessible legislation is rolled out, but so far Sarnia has met the deadline to provide education and training
to all 420 of its employees.

Assisting those with disabilities is now a part of the culture at city hall, said Weatherston.

Many people with physical challenges are looking to government to improve accessibility to public buildings. But the legislation doesn’t address that.

It includes regulations for new buildings, but existing ones are grandfathered and don’t have to be altered, Weatherston told council.

Sarnia applied for federal dollars to make the Sarnia library auditorium more accessible but was turned down, she said.

Costs are high to make substantial changes to older buildings and it’s not mandatory, she noted, but that doesn’t mean improvements haven’t been made.

“Probably the single biggest barrier is heavy doors, which we fixed with $28 worth of door stops,” she said. “Sometimes it just takes thinking about the
standard and how to meet the needs of the disabled.”

She works with a committee of council that has dealt with accessibility issues for the past 10 years.

“We’re doing a lot of things right,” she said, pointing to a universally accessible washroom on city hall’s main floor.

“And we’re always looking for input on accessibility improvements.”

The city’s website will soon be upgraded to be more user friendly for people with disabilities. It also has a link where more suggestions can be made by
the public.

Weatherston stressed that she is working on accessibility in the public sector only and the private sector has until Jan. 2012 before it must start to comply
with the Act.

Article ID# 3362441

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