Friday, June 25, 2021

Accessibility is Vital For All

It’s National AccessAbility Week, an initiative aimed at shining a bright light on the importance of accessibility for all, identifying where we are falling short, and celebrating our successes.

Accessibility isn’t something we spend much time thinking about when we are young, fit, and healthy. A healthy 20-year-old is unlikely to consider that a door into a building might be too heavy to pull, or that the small step up into a downtown shop might as well be Mt. Everest to someone with mobility issues.

I know that when I was in my twenties, I certainly never spent any time considering whether the book stacks at the library were too tall for someone in a wheelchair to reach, I didn’t care how close or far away I had to park, nor did I particularly care, to be frank, it simply wasn’t on my radar. After several years of dealing with mobility issues myself, however, I certainly consider such things today.

From my perspective, an important aspect of National AccessAbility Week should be celebrating our successes. Anyone who has travelled around this beautiful planet will know that in many ways we are far ahead of many countries when it comes to accessibility, and there are a few nations that put us to shame.

I have visited countries where elevators aren’t even considered for apartment buildings unless the structure is taller than seven stories. Imagine even as a healthy person lugging groceries up six flights of stairs. I have been amazed at makeshift accessibility in some nations – steel planks down steep stairs for wheelchairs for example. I have also visited countries where those with disabilities are destined for a life on the streets with no supports, physical or mental, no employment, no future.

Here in Ontario, however, we have had an ever-increasing awareness of the need for accessibility. We have seen it as an investment, a way to equal the playing field for all. As a result, we are no strangers to ramps, elevators, electronic door openers, closed captions for hearing impaired, and so on.

Locally, a significant driver in the quest for a new library was accessibility. Our former library spanned three floors in an old building with no elevator. Accessing the children’s library in the basement was prohibitive to some, while meetings held up on the third floor excluded others. If you are wheelchair-bound and you managed to get in the door of the library, you couldn’t get far. Narrow aisles and tall bookshelves made accessing books a luxury for the fully upright.

Our former library building had no hope of meeting the provincial accessibility legislation which kicks in fully in 2025. Our new library however is a much different story. Accessibility was a major focus in the design of the single storey facility, and it is likely one of the most accessible buildings in the entire municipality.

This municipality has seen accessibility progress in other areas. The Mobi-Mats installed at David Johnston Park provide access to the water’s edge for those with walkers or wheelchairs – or for some who might be unsteady on shifting beach sand. The municipality offers transportation for those with mobility issues. We have seen renovations at Meaford Hall over the years with accessibility in mind. For example, the box office counter was lowered in order to accommodate those in wheelchairs.

The need for increased accessibility is not disputed by many. We all have someone in our lives, whether it is Grandma Shirley or a small child, who has difficulty accessing some buildings or services, and as we age we certainly see accessibility becoming more and more personal.

The downside of the accessibility issue of course is cost. Making buildings, websites, promotional literature, recreational facilities, and others truly accessible costs money, and lots of it. Cost has always been one of the hurdles when it comes to accessibility, and initiatives like National AccessAbility Week serve a purpose of raising awareness and reminding all of us that money spent on making buildings and services more accessible is money well spent.

We have accomplished much, but there are always more ways to improve accessibility, and in doing so we benefit the greater community with increased understanding, compassion, and empathy, and I think we are stronger as a community when everyone can be included.

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