Prior to the Oct. 25 municipal vote, City Scope teamed up with accessibility advocate Ed McLachlan to expose members of council and aldermanic candidates to the frustrations encountered by city residents dealing with accessibility issues in their daily routine.
Bill Sandison, Wayne Northcott, Linda Stevenson, Rose Gibson, Joan Rymal, Ald. Dave Warden and Ald. Lori Baldwin-Sands accepted our invitation to visit municipal facilities, including city hall, the police station, Emslie Field, Pinafore Park, the Timken Centre and St. Thomas-Elgin Ontario Works to discover first-hand the obstacles faced by residents wishing to enjoy events at those venues or undertake business with staff.
Whether seated in a wheelchair or peering through vision-impairing glasses, the participants were profoundly impacted.
As was the case four years ago with our first challenge, city hall remains a virtual minefield of obstacles on many fronts.
One of the most frustrating obstructions was the second-floor women’s washroom, adjacent to the mayor’s office. As Stevenson discovered, it was virtually impossible to undertake a 90-degree turn into the clearly-marked accessible facility.
For Gibson, the experience at city hall was “an eye-opener.”
“The elevator at city hall is a project that really needs to be looked at. It’s only a chair lift, it’s not an actual elevator. There’s only room for one wheelchair, if there was ever a fire, how would we ever get people down. Today really opened my eyes. It’s a shame when you have to use the washroom. It’s such an indignity. I can’t imagine being in a wheelchair and struggling for five or ten minutes just to relieve yourself.”
A new stop this time around was the wonderfully quaint confines of Emslie Field at Pinafore Park. Trouble is, if you have any mobility issues whatsoever, the grandstand is off limits and a trip to the washroom requires plenty of advance planning as Sandison discovered.
“We issue a municipal accessibility plan every year,” he noted. “I looked at it and it looks so much like the one from last year. I didn’t find Emslie Field on there and it’s been an issue for 10 years, why isn’t it on there?
“I went into that washroom by myself and I basically took up the majority of the space and there was a humiliation factor. If there had been anybody else in there, they would have had to move for me to get in.”
As for the washrooms near the main pavilion in Pinafore Park, Rymal found out when nature calls, leave plenty of time.
“You’d have to plan a washroom break 20 minutes in advance to get up that incline, get in the door and take the side of your wheelchair off.
“It’s an ordeal. Personally I think accessibility goes as to how you’re valued as a citizen. How does the city value my input or getting to services? All you want is control over your environment.”
Although touted as being highly accessible, the Ontario Works office on Talbot Street proved a challenge for Stevenson and Baldwin-Sands.
Trying to deal with staff at the front counter while seated in a wheelchair was an exercise in futility for Stevenson.
“If I was an employee I would be very upset,” stressed Stevenson. “There’s nothing accessible for an employee. I understand the public can come in certain places, but I looked around there and it’s not an accessible place for employees. As an employee I would really struggle.”
Meantime, Baldwin-Sands might as well have been in a bumper car when attempting to meet with a staffer in their cubicle. See photo at right.
Stevenson has had prior experience at the Timken Centre, and not always positive in nature.
“When I go in to a brand new building like the arena, sometimes the doors are locked for the wheelchair accessible. How does that make sense? A staff member told us they were trying to save power. That makes that building unaccessible. It’s a brand new building.
“I remember the discussion about paint colours on the wall,” Stevenson continue, “and they should vary so people could understand where they are in different levels of the building. And, that never occurred. And the accessibility committee did say, you need to address those things. So, now we end up going back and re-doing work at a lot more money. Doing things twice isn’t the way to do it. Do it right the first time.”
On a plus side, St. Thomas Public Library has come a long way in the four years since Warden struggled up the ramp and into the facility on our first challenge.
“They’ve made significant improvements,” he stressed. “The washrooms downstairs are still tough to get in and out of, but with the new washrooms being built on the main floor, that will be dealt with.
“The library has made every effort at the board level to make sure the building is more user-friendly.”
With the prospect of a new police headquarters in the coming years, Stevenson stressed the need to involve the city’s accessibility committee at the front end of planning.
“As I understand it, the accessibility committee does get to make recommendations to council, but they don’t get to necessarily speak directly to council. I think when this presentation comes forward, they should have some absolute input into what that new police station looks like.
“And it should not just meet minimum standards. I heard councillors talking about colours for the new arena (Timken Centre). That’s not something that’s their expertise. Those types of recommendations should come from people who live that life. That’s not council’s role. Take the advice of the experts. I would like the police station to have a whole different feel to it.”
QUOTE OF THE WEEK
“The physical challenges are probably minor compared to the social challenges they have to face on a day-to-day basis. When you have barriers getting out into the community, you become isolated.”
Wayne Northcott following his participation in the City Scope accessibility challenge.
City Scope appears Saturday in the Times-Journal. Questions and comments may be e-mailed to: firstname.lastname@example.org.