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Building An Accessible World

Editor's Note: The following article is reprinted from the Chronicle-Herald, June 5, 2004, courtesy of the Halifax Herald Limited.

Ask 25-year-old Holly Bartlett who she is, and you'll get all kinds of answers.

The Halifax resident is a graduate of Prince Andrew High School in Dartmouth and St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish and is considering furthering her education.

She has a demanding job helping others prepare themselves for job interviews, is in a committed relationship and volunteers when she can.

She likes to take on a challenge, enjoys movies and loves to travel the world.

She's also blind.

Born with microthelmia, an eye condition that gradually worsened, especially in her early teens, Bartlett now perceives the world in light and limited colour.

But if people are surprised at her accomplishments, they shouldn't be.

Bartlett has always concentrated on what she can do, not what she cannot, and refuses to define herself as anything but an individual.

"I don't let (the disability) define me, but I also don't ignore it," she said in an interview from her office at the Independent Living Resource Centre in Halifax, a non-profit organization that provides programs and services for people with disabilities.

"I accept my disability and I recognize that I have one. I'm blind--that's part of who I am, but it's not all of who I am."

The spotlight is on people with disabilities, the benefits of accessibility and the positive changes that remove barriers for people with disabilities this week, during Nova Scotia Access Awareness Week.

"Each year we celebrate Access Awareness Week to recognize the contributions that people with disabilities bring to our communities," Community Services Minister David Morse said in a release.

"Working toward greater access to all aspects of community life benefits all Nova Scotians."

The week is organized by the Partnership for Access Awareness Nova Scotia, a group that promotes inclusion and equal participation of all Nova Scotians with disabilities as full citizens.

"Accessibility has many positive outcomes," Charlie Macdonald, executive director of the Disabled Persons Commission, said in a release. "Whether it's removing barriers for a person with a disability, making building entrances safer for a senior citizen or making life a little easier for a parent with a stroller, access helps everyone."

Bartlett says there's been some progress in making buildings, for example, more accessible to everyone. But she also thinks there's still much to be done in that area.

"It's a big issue for a lot of people and it has a lot to do with making others aware of what needs to be in place for buildings to be accessible."

Yet accessibility is not only about ramps and automatic doors, braille numbers in elevators and on hallway signs to help the visually impaired, and flashing lights to indicate emergencies to help make hearing-impaired people aware of possible dangers, like fire.

"For me and a lot of people I talk to (the biggest barrier is) trying to educate others about how much people with disabilities can actually do," she said.

"It sounds basic, but it's all about attitude. People have preconceived notions or don't know what to think about people with disabilities. They concentrate on what people aren't able to do, as opposed to what they are able to do."

Bartlett says she's chosen to challenge herself, even on days that are more difficult than others. From going through public school, enrolling in university, even travelling to Guatemala and Mexico, she's worked to reach her goals.

"It's also about knowing your limits. Knowing when to accept them and when to push them."

She advises parents of children with disabilities to be supportive and encourage them to take risks and to learn from them.

She tells others with disabilities to be confident about themselves and to make the most of what they can do.

And for those without disabilities she has this advice: "Don't make any assumptions.

"Try to keep an open mind and treat every individual as exactly that--an individual. Take the time to help them learn and yourself learn about their abilities and their strengths and their assets."