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Ontario\'s Accessibility Advisory Committees: Inclusion Or Illusion?

Editor's Note: Under the Ontarians with Disabilities Act 2001, communities with a population of 10,000 or more were required to establish local advisory committees, comprised of a majority of persons with disabilities. A number of our members have participated on these committees, and in this compilation share some of their experiences.

ACCESSIBILITY ADVISORY COMMITTEES

By: Carole Robertson

Municipal governments have finally paid attention to the needs of the disabled and have formed Accessibility Advisory Committees to enhance community access and support. I am a member of the Markham committee, and I represent the interests of persons who are blind.

The committee meets monthly to answer the concerns of the disabled that are presented to it, and look at other communities to see what they do about the access issues we are currently discussing. We also prepare a yearly plan for the Ontarians with Disabilities Act.

We do site audits on new buildings, as well as on existing ones during renovations. We look at blueprints and talk to engineers and architects to ensure their buildings have proper signage, braille, and tactile markings on floors, along with wheelchair ramps and accessible washrooms.

There is at least one council member on our committee, and our thoughts and ideas are brought forth to the entire council for it to act on.

I feel these Accessibility Advisory Committees are a valuable resource for municipal governments and do much good in planning change and making the lives of persons with disabilities easier.

INCREASED INPUT?

By: Penny Leclair

The city of Ottawa's Accessibility Advisory Committee has 13 members representing various disabilities--two persons are blind, one is deaf, one uses a cochlear implant and captioning for communicating, a few are in wheelchairs, and at least one is developmentally delayed.

When Ontario passed legislation calling for the creation of municipal Accessibility Advisory Committees, Ottawa's committee was already in place. It gave its views on various city activities, website design, alternative formats, and access to streets, buildings and transportation.

Today, the committee is being asked for input more often, but it has had little success in having access issues addressed.

Housing access is a concern that has not improved over the last four years.

Information is still difficult to obtain in readable formats for blind and partially sighted people.

And the Audible Pedestrian Signals budget was brought down from $150,000 to zero, and now it is back to $71,000.

One city councillor does sit on the Ottawa Accessibility Advisory Committee, but views and concerns are not often pursued.

At least not on a consistent basis.

CITY OF KAWARTHA LAKES

By: Geof Collis

As a member of our city's Municipal Advisory Committee for Disabled Persons, I witness firsthand the disappointment and frustration people feel in the little that gets accomplished.

The last time appointments came up, half of the existing members retired for various reasons, but mostly due to fighting the same battle for too many years and getting nowhere. It was, and still is, very difficult to find replacements, disabled or abled.

While I personally have seen a few issues that I have brought forward addressed, they are really just baby steps and it is quite evident that it was because of the relatively low cost that they were implemented at all.

One issue that has me really annoyed is trying to get correspondence in a format I can read. As a member of our Accessibility Advisory Committee, I should enjoy the same access to information as the rest of the committee, yet time after time I am left out as it is only presented to me in print. I've been battling this for two years and I still get the same excuses from the City.

One major accomplishment was making our city's website relatively accessible by way of implementing an option to change background and foreground colours, adding links to skip over groups of links or to go right to the main body of text, adding descriptions to all images, giving links meaningful names and removing Flash navigation, among other things.

But again, it is apparent that without a strong and enforceable Bill 118, our City isn't going to continue keeping its website accessible.

Currently, pdf files are not accessible to screen reader users and are a common problem throughout the internet. It's been two years since I first brought this issue to the attention of our City, but they are still putting up documentation in pdf format only.

No matter how many times the city has been informed of the need for alternate formats, I still have to bring it to their attention and have it corrected.

While this is in no way meant to diminish the plight of those in wheelchairs, it is very difficult to get people representing the blind community onto accessibility advisory committees. I believe this is a very important place for us to be as the sighted have very little understanding of our needs. Without proportionate representation on these committees, issues that affect our daily lives will not be addressed properly.

That is unacceptable.

IMPETUS FOR CHANGE?

By: Mike Yale

In December, 2001, one year before the Ontarians with Disabilities Act (ODA) was first enacted, my wife, Doreen, and I attended an all-candidates meeting for the municipal election in Huntsville, where Hugh MacKenzie, soon to be elected Mayor, committed to appointing a Huntsville Advisory Committee for People with Disabilities.

That committee became a reality in 2002.

I was chosen Chair by Town Council and Doreen became a committee member. We are both blind, but there was also representation by senior citizens, persons with epilepsy, brain injury, mobility and hearing impairments.

Over the next three years we researched issues and made recommendations to the Town, the business community and local developers. We put on an awareness seminar for Town staff and local business people. We persuaded the Town to create nearly a dozen new parking spots with better signage. We even instituted an award given to the business that had done the most during the year to improve accessibility.

We spoke on radio and television, as well as inspiring local newspaper coverage of our work and issues.

At no time during these years did the Mayor or the Council indicate any concern over our work. In fact, we received commendations.

Once the ODA was officially proclaimed, each Town was expected to bring forward an accessibility plan at the end of September, 2003. As Huntsville was slow in putting its plan together and submitting it to our committee for comment, the plan was not passed until November.

Although we all knew that a new Civic Centre and Town Hall were planned with construction to commence in 2004, nothing in the plan indicated temporarily housing the Town government in an old Planing Mill.

When we discovered (after passage of the plan) that the Planing Mill was inaccessible--no elevator in a two-storey building, no usable washrooms, doors too narrow for wheelchairs, and no parking spaces designated--we hit the roof!

The Town had evidently forgotten about disability rights. Needless to say, we were skeptical about the new Town Hall.

After hasty and somewhat acrimonious discussion, parking spaces were created and a door with a buzzer was rigged up. Anyone wanting to meet an official on the second floor could arrange to meet at our accessible library, several blocks distant.

No accessible washroom. And with poor accessibility in the temporary Town Hall, probably no hiring of anyone severely disabled.

Shortly after this incident, the Mayor arbitrarily decided to change our procedures. He informed me that we were not an advocacy committee and our advocacy efforts must stop. We were only advisory in nature and should do research and make recommendations--recommendations that Council could accept or reject.

The Mayor decided that appointment of committee members was his prerogative and committee input was ignored. He laid down the new procedures and was closed to objections. Our meetings were now recorded and a Town official was assigned to attend every meeting, in addition to our Council representative.

After some discussion, I resigned as Chair of the committee. I was not going to become an Uncle Tom now after 35 years of advocating for people with disabilities and their rights. Doreen withdrew from the committee a few months later.

The committee had been forced to concede, to do the best it could under new and repressive circumstances.

Whether we stepped on the Mayor's toes or those of his developer friends, I do not know. But I do know that the Mayor tried to fix something that was working well, and few if any accomplishments have occurred since then in nearly a year of research and recommendations going to Council.

In the meantime, enormous new constructions are going up in and around the Huntsville area, and we can only hope that our voice for equal treatment and true accessibility will be heard over the sound of the jackhammers and money flowing into developers' coffers.

But without strong enforcement mechanisms and direction to local towns as to what they can and cannot do to restrict the work of ODA committees, the ODA itself does not guarantee real progress for persons with disabilities. Local interests are very entrenched and accessibility needs are often incorrectly believed to mean spending money without substantial return. Without a strong push from ODA committees or support from municipalities and officials, we disabled may yet get left behind--as usual.

SLOW AND STEADY WINS THE RACE

By: Devon Wilkins

Our Accessibility Advisory Committee here in Collingwood was struck just four months prior to the date that the first accessibility plans were due.

In that first year, new ideas were met with reluctance on the part of the representative from the town to even take them to other department heads; however, several lively committee meetings finally resulted in audits being done on all municipal buildings, and a series of recommendations being presented to council in late November of that year.

In December of 2003, a new council was sworn in, and the committee was blessed with more members who were willing to stand up and say that a "no" without prior research wasn't good enough. By Christmas of 2004, it was evident that our persistence was having tangible results.

The town hall elevator was finally made accessible to people who are blind with the installation of both braille and raised print numbers; the town bus route was altered to allow for a stop outside our Community Resource Centre, which houses 14 agencies; and the reception counter in the town's Leisure

Department was lowered to accommodate individuals using wheelchairs.

Our committee has three main goals for 2005.

We hope to work toward the installation of a TTY at the town hall. Currently, the only TTY owned by the town is at the police station.

We're also pressing for more accessible elections. At the moment, voting is conducted by mail-in ballot, exclusively in print. We would like to see the availability of alternative formats, such as email and web page voting.

But the task that is perhaps the most daunting is to encourage politicians, cab companies, the public transit system and non-profit organizations to enter into meaningful discussions as to how to make our parallel transit system more efficient.

As things stand now, people with disabilities frequently choose to stay at home, rather than deal with the hassle and frustration of voice mails that are sometimes not answered and pick-ups that sometimes don't materialize.

DOING MY PART

By: Libby Thaw

Since May of 2002, I have been a member of the Saugeen Shores Accessibility Advisory Committee. Before then, there was no representation by individuals with any degree of blindness, but now there are two--myself, as well as a long time acquaintance of mine.

While I can't be sure it was a direct result of my input, I feel a sense of contribution to my community when I stroll around my small town and notice tactile markings on curb cuts and Checkered Eye awareness stickers posted in the municipal offices and on the doors and windows of many businesses.

I feel very privileged to have the opportunity and ability to provide what insights I have as a person with low vision, and to expand my own understanding of the complexities of accessibility issues for people in my local community, and society as a whole.

Note: For more information on the Checkered Eye, a symbol that identifies the wearer as having low vision, please visit: http://www.checkeredeye.com