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An Accessible Grande Prairie

Today I took part in Chair Leaders. This is a program by Spinal Cord Injury Alberta which allows community leaders to see what it is like to use a wheelchair.

First thing in the morning, I was given a chair and a quick orientation. I was then taken on an accessibility tour of the Eastlink. I was introduced to the Wolverines Wheelchair Sports Association and given an opportunity to try some racing hand bikes.

Then, I was sent off to go about my “normal” day. I played in a park with my kids, put in some office time, then wheeled myself to a coffee meeting. I finished it off by joining a regular game of wheelchair bowling.

I’ve always felt that accessibility is important, but this experience gave me a more concrete perspective on “why” and "how." It also opened my eyes to how challenging it is. I’m excited to share some thoughts and experiences.

Surprises From my Day

Here were some surprises I encountered:

  • Wheelchair sports are fun! And people of all abilities are invited to try them out. I want to get in on some sledge hockey. Checkout www.gpwolverines.com
  • Wheelchairs get speed wobbles. Or at least mine did. Getting to that speed made me feel irrationally good of myself.
  • I knew the washroom would be tough. Something I didn’t anticipate: I wasn’t always able to properly wash my hands due to not being able to reach the soap.
  • A lot of those doors that open when you press a handicap button don’t actually work. And getting through doors without that technological help is very tough.
  • Street cleaning is an accessibility issue. I couldn’t get up one curb because I couldn’t get traction on the gravel beside it. When going down a street with no sidewalks, I had to be five feet out from the edge due to gravel. This made life harder, but it is also a major safety concern- I was very afraid of traffic at one point.
  • A very minor grade in a parking lot or a road makes things A LOT harder to navigate.
  • A bump or ledge that is only a quarter inch high can create significant problems.
  • My palms and shoulders hurt. A lot.
  • Wheelchair bowling is an artform.

The Challenge of Accessibility

Accessibility is important. At the same time, it is difficult and expensive.

It is difficult because it takes a very different perspective. I live in Avondale, where we have a park designed for wheelchair accesibility. I have always looked at it and thought “it is great that it would be so easy to use a wheelchair here.” But its surface has a small wooden lip around it that prevented me from getting in without help. I have never noticed this. Making things accessible takes looking at everything with a very different set of eyes than most of us are used to.

Accessibility is also expensive. For example, I was shown a single door that needs to be expanded if the room is to be made wheelchair accessible. The cost to do this is $12,000.

Creating an accessible city is not easy. However, I think that everyone has the right to get around somewhat easily. Certainly everyone has the right to get around safely. So accessibility is worth investing in.

How Grande Prairie is Doing

Today, I got to meet many people who have disabilities or who work with those who do. The number one question I asked: “how is Grande Prairie doing with this?”

I was very happy to hear that people think we are doing a good job. The City supports many organisations which are helping those with disabilities. Compared to other communities, I was told that we are relatively easy to get around. Master plans we have and that we are developing give attention to accessibility. And several people told me that City staff address accessibility concerns quickly, professionally, and enthusiastically.

For the most part, I think Grande Prairie is a great city. I feel that we don’t need to fix it. We just have to keep it awesome and make it even better where we can. I was glad to have this assessment of our community affirmed by those thinking about accesibility.

We seem to be doing a good job. But following are some ideas that might make us even better.

Ideas for Making Grande Prairie More Accessible

Today, I heard some ideas that sound great to me. I also thought of a few of my own. I believe the following ideas deserve study, I need more information and consideration before supporting any of them.

There are many areas of our City that I do not have all the answers for. Helping people with disabilities is one of them. I have a lot to learn, and will work hard to do that. I would love to hear other perspectives on these ideas.

  • Continue to support local non-profits that are doing important work. I believe in the importance of the non-profit sector. Its professionals bring vital passion, depth of knowledge, and experience to society’s problems. And government dollars used to address social issues are best spent when leveraging donations and volunteer service. I was impressed by what I saw of Spinal Cord Injury Alberta and of Wolverines. I know of other great organisations doing local work with people who have disabilities. I am in favour of our City providing support. Sometimes cash support is appropriate. The City can also support programs by providing free or subsidized space, providing marketing, or lending the expertise of City staff.
  • Add “Accessibility Improvement” into our budget. The City budgets on a four-year cycle. I was told that when specific accessibility needs come up, this can create challenges- there often isn’t money to address them in a current budget cycle. Much like we do with road and sidewalk rehabilitation, we should look at setting aside yearly money for accessibility projects. Once this money is designated in a budget cycle, we can pick specific projects as they emerge year-by-year.
  • Accessibility grants. Many commercial properties are difficult or impossible to access in a wheelchair. I think most business owners would like to address this, but it can be prohibitively expensive. I would like us to explore grant options for businesses improving accessibility. I would suggest that these should be matching in nature, and should be targeted towards high traffic establishments and to businesses which either have employees with disabilities or which commit to hiring employees with disabilities.
  • A business recognition program. In some jurisdictions, a program exists to recognize the businesses that are accessible. This motivates businesses to invest in ramps, large washrooms, etc… It also helps people with disabilities know where they will be able to get around. I am told that several local non-profits think this would be helpful, but none have the resources to make it happen. Maybe this is a program that the City could spearhead.
  • Pilot an accessible taxi program. The Disabled Transportation Society does good and important work. However, its busses require booking 48 hours in advance. It also prioritizes medical and work commitments- sometimes it isn’t available to people who want it for errands (like grocery shopping) or social events. Taxi companies might help fill this void, but I am told none of them have an accessible taxi. I don’t think I would support a regulation requiring accessible cabs, and I doubt I would support long-term funding of them. However, I think I would support a one-time grant program to help a couple companies acquire accessible cabs. If we can help pilot this service, hopefully the market will keep it available in the long term.
  • “Fix it day.” Today, I ran into many small things the City could fix to make people’s lives easier. This included handicap doors that didn’t work, a curb cut that was off, and very unfortunately placed potholes. Several times, someone told me “we’ve been asking the city to fix this for years.” In some ways, this is inevitable- in a community this size, there are hundreds of relatively cheap and quick jobs that need to get done. Some will always get missed. But maybe we should have a way for people with disabilities to mention the specific “biggest little annoyances” they regularly encounter in City facilities. I would love us to have a day or week every year when we tell some of our City parks, transportation, and facilities staff “take this time to fix as many of the small accessibility problems on this list as you possibly can.”

I would love to hear your thoughts and ideas. How are we doing for accessibility? How can we do better? Get a hold of me online, give me a call, find me on Facebook, or come comment in the GP Round Table Facebook group.

-Dylan

LINKS

Spinal Cord Injury Alberta: http://sci-ab.ca/

Wolverines Wheelchair Sports Association: www.gpwolverines.com

A Daily Herald Tribune article on Chair Leaders: http://www.dailyheraldtribune.com/2017/06/06/putting-the-focus-on-accessibility