Accessible for all means everyone is safe - Julie Sawchuk Column
BY JULIE SAWCHUK
Thirty years ago Rick Hansen completed his Man In Motion World Tour. For two years, two months and two days he rolled his wheelchair around the world. The goal he had then is the same goal he has now with the Rick Hansen Foundation: to raise awareness for people with disabilities. Now his mantra is #AccessForAll. Creating accessible spaces means that everyone can get in, get around and participate – the best simplification of this is stairs vs. a ramp – many people can walk up stairs but everyone can travel up a ramp.
This week I’d like to add to this idea with some examples from around town. The addition? Safety. Creating accessible spaces also makes them safer for everyone. Have you ever tried crossing Queen Street in Blyth? It’s tricky isn’t it? Now imagine doing so with low vision.
In an earlier conversation with 11-year-old Mikayla Ansley (who has been legally blind since age three) she was quick to point out that, although old enough, she is not able to cross Queen Street on her own. There is no safe way for her to do so – no crosswalk, no flashing light, not even a sign to alert drivers to watch for pedestrians. And she is not the only one in town with this concern. Imagine wanting to get to church on a Sunday morning and waiting on the corner for someone to happen along and help you cross? True story.
Creating a crosswalk with a sign and lights, one that has an audible signal for crossing, would allow Mikayla and others the safe passage they need for independence. How would you like it if you could not cross the main street of your own home town?
You see, that is the big picture for me and everyone else who happens to have a disability: independence.
Even with last week’s short reprieve from winter I have not forgotten about the difficulty that snow has caused for me this winter. The first two winters after my collision we didn’t really have much snow, so this winter has really been a lesson in navigating the shortest, most clear route possible. In doing so I am completely reliant on others to clear the snow in my path.
I also have learned that I am not really as strong as I think I am. Moving a manual wheelchair (or walker or scooter) through snow is absolutely exhausting, and in several instances it has led me to change my plans. Over the holidays I opted to miss a Christmas get-together because rolling there seemed far too daunting of a task – and all I had to do was cross Queen Street!
Need another example? Earlier this winter I parked in Blyth’s (only) accessible parking spot on Queen Street in front of Memorial Hall. I had planned to go to the bakery for several back-to-back meetings. I opened my door and looked at the snow in the parking spot, it was about four inches deep. I knew I would either get stuck in it or I would take so much time to get through it I would end up blocking traffic, or worse. So I got out my lifeline (my cell phone) and called for reinforcements. Thankfully Les Cook was able to throw on his coat and give me a hand!
I know that when the snow falls faster than it can be shovelled, it can be hard for the township to keep up, but when it falls on Monday and is not cleared away from the parking lane until Wednesday it could make for a dangerous situation, and not just for me.
There are a lot of other examples of unsafe “accessible” features in town, many things that get grandfathered as okay and therefore don’t have to meet code and yet others somehow squeak past inspectors. The steep and narrow ramp at the post office is almost impossible to navigate and the new sidewalk cutout in front of the theatre is too high and is right in the middle of a parking spot. The county’s decision to not put traffic lights at the intersection of Blyth and London Roads are yet another example of being short-sighted about people’s safety. I could go on...
I’ve tried very hard each month to celebrate and share good news about accessibility – but sometimes we all need to be reminded that we take our physical well-being, our independence for granted. As someone with paraplegia, I have been working to improve my abilities and strength and therefore my independence – but others do not have that option.
If we want Blyth to truly be a tourist destination (as well as a great place to live) then people on bikes, patrons of the arts and beer connoisseurs will want to visit a town that is safe! We need to encourage our politicians and policy makers to make decisions that create accessible and therefore safe spaces and paths of travel for everyone. #AccessForAll.