By Andrew Posen
Fri Mar 4 2011
With the new implementation of standards under the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, the Region of Waterloo is starting to see some fantastic improvements in terms of accessible infrastructure and inclusive implementation of services. Not only is it great to see that our region is finally recognizing the importance of community participation for persons with disabilities, it is encouraging to know that tangible changes are being made to accommodate this often overlooked demographic.
However, the downfall of government-mandated accessibility comes in the form of token gestures — gestures made by businesses or services that believe that accessibility can be achieved simply by putting in a homemade ramp at the back of their building or installing electric door openers at heights unreachable by someone using a wheelchair.
Establishments that take a half-hearted approach to accommodating persons with disabilities are grossly misinterpreting the spirit of Ontario’s new legislation. The idea behind the accessibility act is not to encourage businesses simply to “let in” their neighbours with disabilities — the purpose of the act is to ensure that persons with disabilities experience community life in the same way that the nondisabled population does. This is the idea of accessibility with dignity, and, in a lot of cases, it is being overlooked.
If a restaurant requires a person using a wheelchair to enter through the back entrance next to the dumpster, it is not accessible. If a shop has a wheelchair-accessible washroom at the bottom of a flight of stairs, it is not accessible. If an establishment places its accessible parking space in front of a ramp, causing the entryway to be blocked as soon as a vehicle is parked, it is not accessible. These infrastructural blunders may seem almost laughable, but not only do they exist, they exist in our own community.
The token gestures of implied accessibility send one message loud and clear. The business owners who make these kinds of changes to their establishments do so because they have to, not because they want to. Failing to put the appropriate amount of consideration into plans for accessibility is the same as failing to become accessible. Whether good intentions are present or not, the end result is highly problematic. What we ought to strive for in our region
not the mere inclusion of persons with disabilities, but the thorough consideration of their experience in the community.
Accessibility without dignity is not accessibility — it is simply a new form of exclusion.
The other concept that often escapes recognition is that the creation of accessible infrastructure benefits everyone. Any parent who has run errands with
a young child in a stroller knows how beneficial ramps and elevators can be, and automatic door openers make life easier for people carrying two full bags of groceries let alone people who use mobility devices. And these two examples barely scratch the surface. Anyone who has ever injured a leg and spent a few weeks on crutches, or simply experienced the physical changes of aging can tell you that accommodations for persons with disabilities benefit the general population.
Often, mere negligence or a conscious reluctance to part with financial resources is what’s really at the heart of inaccessible spaces,
and that’s just no excuse.
Though it is unlikely such blatant oversights in accessible design are occurring deliberately, it is evident that as new businesses and private spaces are
being planned and renovated, more thought needs to be put into the extent of their dignified accessibility.
Disability can occur to anyone at any time, and with it comes a wide spectrum of challenging transitions. Having access to certain shops, restaurants, offices and theatres, however, should not be one of them.
Andrew Posen of Waterloo is the executive assistant at the Independent Living Centre in Kitchener.