People who have never had any form of disability can’t possibly imagine what it’s like to live with one, but those with disabilities in Calgary say a greater awareness of the varying needs of Calgarians could lead to a more accessible city.
For roughly 10 per cent of the city’s population, including Shailynn Taylor, a lack of accessibility is a daily reality.
“Overall, Calgary is fairly accessible, but there are areas of it that could use work,” says Taylor.
Taylor was born with spinal muscular atrophy, a degenerative neuromuscular disease that affects the motor nerve cells in the spinal cord. When she was six years old, the disease began strongly affecting her ability to walk and by the time she was eight years old, she began using a wheelchair full-time.
Though as a baby she was given a life expectancy of four, she is now 22 years old and is completing her fourth year of criminal justice at Mount Royal University.
Having dealt with accessibility issues for 14 years, Taylor says she is used to it, but still feels very limited.
“It’s a big problem where people say a place is wheelchair accessible, but it’s actually not,” she says. “They don’t really know what wheelchair accessible means because they aren’t in one. I’ve had lots of people tell me, ‘oh it’s wheelchair accessible, there’s just a little lip.’ Well, my chair won’t always get up those little lips.”
She says most of the time, people are very accommodating and willing to help, but it can be discouraging when her wheelchair gets in the way of her plans.
“It’s a very limiting feeling,” says Taylor. “When I’m going out with friends and we’re doing something my wheelchair doesn’t need to interfere with, it’s super frustrating when we get there and it’s not accessible.”
She says Calgarians are amazing at stepping up and finding a way to get her into inaccessible buildings, but sometimes she is forced to change her plans.
This is the motivation behind a local company called Universal Access. Started in 2016 by head chair and CEO Sean Crump, the company is working to take away the barriers that people with disabilities often face.
Crump became a quadriplegic in 2004 when he broke his neck after diving into a shallow lake. Since then, his eyes have opened to the problems with accessibility many Calgarians face on a day-to-day basis.
“Always having to call ahead to make sure our [destination] was accessible became a real reality in my life when that wasn’t a before or afterthought beforehand,” says Crump. “And even still, sometimes there would be some kind of barrier for me actually being able to enter the place and that kind of ends your night because not being able to get in – what’s the point of anything else.”
As he started hearing similar stories from more and more people, Crump decided something needed to be done to make Calgary an easier city to live in.
“It’s a big problem where people say a place is wheelchair accessible, but it’s actually not. They don’t really know what wheelchair accessible means because they aren’t in one.” - Shailynn Taylor
Universal Access works to assess different buildings and businesses on their level of accessibility and then gives the owner a list of recommendations on how the space could be improved. Accessible locations will be given given a gold, silver or bronze certification and marketed out to different associations around Calgary so their members with disabilities know these places exist.
The certification criteria is based on Ontario, United States, European and Australian universal design standards as Canada doesn’t current doesn’t have its own federal legislation. Universal Access is currently certifying their first three clients.
“There’s a lot that goes into universal design because you have to take into account all disabilities,” says Crump. “You have to take into consideration all of them and how to improve them all equally because one is not more important than another.”
“There’s a lot of things that can easily be overlooked, completely unintentionally, but unless it’s something you deal with on a day to day basis or it’s something you’ve taken the time to really understand, it can have that negative effect, whether it’s intentional or not,” says Crump.
Crump says bathrooms are a common problem for people using wheelchairs because stalls are sometimes too small or too difficult to navigate into. He adds that sometimes buttons are placed too close to entrances so the door opens into you and entryways often have a step or a lip.
Acoustics are also often a problem for people who are hard of hearing, as well as lighting, the pattern of flooring and the contrast between floors and walls for people with visual disabilities.
Ward 7 councillor Druh Farrell agrees that accessibility is often an afterthought in the city, even within city council.
“Accessibility isn’t top of mind when we make decisions in council around transportation, planning and parks, and it’s sometimes a simple lack of awareness that it isn’t injected into our decision making,” she says.
Many areas in Calgary remain inaccessible, including notable examples, Kensington, Inglewood and 17th Avenue.
“It’s challenging when you have a heritage district [like Kensington],” says Farrell. “You have a lot of heritage buildings with narrow sidewalks and not a lot of room to put in ramps, as an example.”
In the summers of 2015 and 2016, the ‘Ramp It Up Calgary!’ project was launched by Accessible Housing Calgary to give more people the ability to enjoy these areas. Brightly coloured ramps were temporarily placed in front of businesses in Inglewood, Kensington and Bowness in order to raise awareness and demonstrate how an accessible storefront could increase their customer base. However, following the success of the project, some businesses, including Purr Petite and Trend Fashions, have installed permanent ramps.
Crump says businesses that are not accessible are losing out on a big portion of the market.
“It’s been estimated that people with disabilities have about a $54-billion spending power in Canada, and not marketing or not catering to this group has to be looked at as a detriment from a strictly business standpoint,” he says.
For businesses looking to renovate their spaces, there are a number of grants in place to help offset the cost, including the Government of Canada’s Enabling Accessibility Fund.
Farrell says Calgary does adhere to the Alberta Building Code’s accessibility standards; however, according to Crump, the code is too ambiguous resulting in aids being put in places that are not useful.
“There is a building code in place, the standards just aren’t high enough and are too open to interpretation for people to really get a practical use out of what it instills,” he says, adding that sometimes this will result in buttons being placed too close to doors resulting in it opening right into you or a curb cut out right in front of a doorway.
Farrell says the ambiguous standards are evident in a number of public buildings within the city. For example, she says the Mount Pleasant Pool is wheelchair accessible, but the washrooms aren’t. She adds that in some community associations there are ramps up to the front door, but then a threshold that’s inaccessible.
Farrell hopes to continue advocating for increased accessibility and raising awareness in the city.
Canada is set to introduce its national accessibility legislation in the spring of 2018, which will add regulations to improve accessibility across the country.
“It’s impossible for people with disabilities to expect anyone else to understand it because it’s just our way of life that you wouldn’t think of unless you live it,” says Taylor. “More people just understanding, reaching out to us and including us in the discussion of accessibility would do a lot to make our lives better.”
- By Jolene Rudisuela