Thursday, 2 October 2014

Accessibility Advocate in My Own Town

Accessibility Advocate in My Own Town

I find it difficult to do accessibility advocacy in my own town.

I do it. Every now and then, I'll approach a store owner over an accessibility issue. Depending on how they respond (not necessarily on what they do about the request, but that definitely helps), and whether the service is available from another store in the community, I might decide to shop more there...or less...or not at depends on whether I felt brushed off or taken seriously. I once cornered a municipal politician in the post office and expressed a concern about accessibility in the town.

My town is much more accessible than it was than when I moved back here after my stroke, but there are still quite a few issues that need addressing, and the Ontario Government is going to require that they be addressed. There's a plan in place that requires public places, businesses and non-profit buildings to meet certain standards of accessibility by certain dates. By 2025, most buildings and public spaces will be required to be fully accessible. Municipalities and the businesses in them need to be planning for this. A new standard is coming into effect on January 1, 2015.

I didn't talk about this the other night at my municipality's all-candidates meeting, but I did ask what the candidates for Reeve and Deputy Reeve intend to do to make my community more welcoming to disabled people.

Election Season

It is that time again. We're coming up to a Municipal Election in Ontario. I really wanted to be at all of the All-Candidates meeting for my municipality last night, but I had to work. However, I'm working not far from where the meeting was being held, and I got in just under the wire to ask my question.

I'm not new to public speaking or advocacy, but this one was difficult, and I'm not really sure why. It took a lot out of me, to stand up in a room packed with my neighbours, my former teachers, agency people that I'd not talked to for years, people that my family had gone to church with, people that had known me for most of life, and say, "I'm disabled and I need you to take me seriously." I remember, after first encountering people from my community when I was in my wheelchair, I vowed to be seen in my wheelchair in town as little as possible. I'd seen the pity in their eyes and I'd hated it.

I didn't want their pity the other night, either, but I wasn't going to run from it this time. As to whether I was taken seriously - I pretty much got the answers that I expected, which is that making the town more accessible is a process and that it costs money and takes time. One candidate was able to identify some specific things that she'd like to see done.  Another said that Council would "have to talk to you" (presumably disabled people) to find out what was needed.

Yes. You will. The answers that the Council candidates gave to a gentleman in line just ahead of me prove that.

If You Haven't Been There, You Probably Haven't Thought About It

He was concerned that in order to walk to our community hospital and medical centre, people have to walk along the highway, which is unsafe. It is. I've made this walk myself. He wanted to ask the people running for Council what they were going to do about it, and very few could answer the question.

They'd never walked to the medical centre or hospital from town, so they weren't aware it was an issue.

I don't know if any of the people running  last night read this blog, but this is what accessibility issues are like. Unless you've had to deal with the issue yourself (whether because you're disabled or someone in your life is), you're not likely to be aware of what the issues are. For example, a ramp to get into a public building is wonderful, but having to get across grass to get to it is an accessibility issue. But it's difficult to know that unless you've had to push yourself around in a manual wheelchair.

Or unless you ask someone who's had to do it.

So if you want to know how to best make the town accessible for disabled people, ask us what we need. We're the experts on our own experience, and we're not going to steer you wrong - after all, we just want to be a part of the community too.

Let's finish with a story about accessibility, for the candidates all over Ontario who are being asked about it. Because I think there's a tendency (and it's not wrong, of course) to have the mind jump automatically to costly ramps and modifications to buildings when we hear the word "accessibility". But, as so many who read this blog know, accessibility so much bigger - and often so much simpler.

Accessibility and Customer Service

There are a couple of grocery stores in my town, but I like one, the Foodland, in particular. It's within walking distance, first of all. But for other reasons, too.

I manage food shopping pretty well, but something invariably comes up that's difficult to do when you've got one hand to work with and your balance is a little off. Something is too heavy to get off the shelf and into the cart. Something is too high on the shelf. The damn produce bag won't slide open - I could barely get those bags open when I had two hands to work with!

One day, I was walking around with a cart (instead of trying to cram everything into a basket and then carry my cane under my arm, because why do anything the easy way?), and a young employee stopped beside me. He looked like he was in high school. He looked at my cane, then at me, and said, very pleasantly, "Ma'am, do you need any help?"

On that particular day, I didn't. But I've had days when getting around has felt so overwhelming  that a simple offer like that probably would have almost reduced me to tears of gratitude. Even on my bad days, I'm not very good at asking for help, even though the staff at Foodland are always very friendly and I know that I could ask any one of them for help if I needed it.

The easiest way to make your store accessible is to keep your staff accessible. At Chapters I have to fight off the floor staff, but at least I know that support is never far away. Stores that have cashiers ask "Did you find everything that you need?" at check-out give people an opportunity to get assistance without even disclosing an invisible disability, if they prefer, and non-disabled people will talk about the good customer service.

Accessible spaces benefit everyone. So do customer service practices that increase accessibility, and they don't cost a thing.

Good luck to all the candidates on October 27th.


  1. Awesome advocacy from many directions and in many locations! Yes! I love your statement that if you ask disabled people what we need, we won't steer you wrong. Because we want to be in this community together. Some people still think accessibility is about bonuses and extras. No, it's inclusion. This is great work. Keep it up!

  2. Love the advocacy for access! My issue has to do with Churches, not that I go voluntarily, but at times I am compelled to go to funerals out of some sense of obligation (Catholic guilt). Well, when my mother died, being the only child I had to make the arrangements.
    Given the fact that Adam is in a wheelchair and the Church has about 20 steps....problem. I talked nicely to "Father" who said he would never put in a wheelchair ramp because it would effect the magnificence of the architecture. I tried to explain that my disabled son was more important than bricks and mortar. Lost that one!
    Well, comes the Mass and the discussion was should the pall bearers carry yp the coffin first or the kid in a wheelchair. The wheelchair came second and since there was no cut out in the pew (I'm sure it was for aesthetics sake)...they plant him and chair in the middle of the main aisle for all to walk around. On the way out kid in the chair by pallbearers first then coffin.
    When the good "Father" asked if I like the ceremony...I told him I though he was an ass...that was my venture to church. It does make for a good story....

  3. I'm glad that you tell the story, Phil, because that story *needs* to be told...if I was in your place, and that had happened in a church in my community, I'd not only never darken its door again unless absolutely necessary, I'd let everyone who'd listen know why. Bah! I think that you were quite restrained in your response...probably more polite than I would have been..."Don't piss off the quiet ones", a friend of mine says. ;)

  4. Thanks, Cheryl! One of the Council candidates approached me in town the next day to talk about my question a bit, and seemed happy that I'd asked it. I told him that it was really for the people in town that have so much more trouble getting around than I do (which is true...I'm pretty steady now), but that it's ultimately about equal opportunity for everyone to participate. Now that I've spoken in front of a large group about it around here once, it can only get easier, right? :)

  5. Yes! Keep the momentum going! Your message of equity is so powerful and hopefully more convincing than "you should do it because those sad people over there want it." Disabled people aren't "those" people (and of course, we're not inherently sad. I just love that you make this an issue for everyone to consider.