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 all...it 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.
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.