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Access Not Equal For All

Editor's Note: The following article is reprinted from the Kelowna Capital News, February 20, 2005.

Chantal Oakes and her husband were planning to take in the local dinner theatre production of The Odd Couple when they ran into a snag.

There was a buffet.

Not an onerous dining issue for most people, but Oakes and her husband are blind and there is no easy way to get through a buffet on their own. They might have stayed home, but Oakes, the president of the local Chapter of the National Federation of the Blind, decided to see if there might be a way.

When she explained the situation to the theatre staff, they were happy to oblige. The couple was served food and drinks by just telling the staff what they wanted.

"The help was wonderful," said Oakes. "They provided a wonderful service. Very dignified."

It was a simple gesture but it was the difference between the Oakes being able to enjoy the evening or being left out.

Another welcome deed by another business made a significant difference to her, too.

Oakes heads to Shefields coffee shop on Queensway Avenue for a caffeine fix because she knows her way around and the owner and staff are accommodating. Just lining up the coffee pots so she knows which is decaf and which isn't makes her quick trip easier.

Owner Terry Bourbonnie said it's just good customer service. He had the coffee jugs and bathroom keys labelled with braille to help out as well.

Unfortunately, not all accessibility issues for people with physical disabilities are solved that easily.

Sometimes it requires refiguring a bathroom so someone in a wheelchair can get in. Sometimes it means less clutter on the street so blind people can get by.

And--the toughest project of all--sometimes it means changing people's attitudes.

It is, however, an issue that affects more than just those currently with disabilities. Merchants, employers and those getting greyer all need to take note.

As it stands now, about one in seven Canadians over the age of 15 has some form of disability, according to figures from the national 2001 Participation and Activity Limitation Survey (PALS). Of those, 71 percent involve mobility, 30 percent hearing and 17 percent sight. With the aging population swelling, there are more and more people losing sight, hearing and mobility.

About 1.1 million of the 3.6 million Canadians aged 65 and older reported having mobility problems, one million had hearing problems and 600,000 had vision impairment, according to the PALS report.

Women make up 58 percent of the seniors with disabilities, largely because they live longer.

As well, more than 1,100 new people are added to the list of spinal cord injured in Canada every year. Eighty percent of those are aged 15 to 34.

Is Kelowna a good place to live if you have a physical disability? That depends.

Jay Douglas, a businessman and quadriplegic who jets around in an electric wheelchair, says Kelowna is so wheelchair friendly, he actually encourages people in chairs to move here.

While some places downtown, up long flights of stairs, will never see Douglas' face, he said, most shops and restaurants are easy enough to maneuver to and from. "If I can get around anywhere," he said, "anyone can."

But, for Deborah Perry, who is deaf, there are other hurdles. Physically, she can walk to places Douglas can't, but she's limited in communicating with most people. It's almost as if she speaks a language no one else does.

She can't just drop into a bank or restaurant and explain quickly what she wants. She can't pick up the phone and call someone and she can't tell if there is a fire alarm going off right behind her.

There are ways to help, but in Kelowna, and many communities, there are few resources for the deaf. Perry, a care provider who works with a deaf person with autism, would like to see some effort to have more businesses and public facilities employ people who can use sign language to translate.

"Where people are serving the public," said Perry through a sign-language interpreter, "I feel they should have somebody, when you go to the bank or a business or city hall.

"They say there's equal access, but it's not true."

If Perry needs an interpreter, she has to hire and pay for one herself. Kelowna only has two freelance interpreters and they work mostly in schools.

American Sign Language interpreter, Melinda Hamming, said there's just no funding for better assistance, even though there is a demand for interpreters and there are qualified people to do the work.

"There are a lot of jobs done on a volunteer basis, but it's difficult," she said. "There does need to be a service."

It would also help the public perception to see more people signing. Watching someone rapidly moving their hands to communicate can--and has been--misinterpreted.

After hearing about an incident when people were animatedly signing on a bus and the driver was concerned and asked them to stop, Perry was not surprised.

"People assume when you're signing, you look violent," she said. "In the hearing community, raised hands are a sign of violence."

While some are understanding and patient as Perry tries to express herself, it's still frustrating since many just don't understand.

"I'll make faces, since that's my only form of communication, and I'll use paper, but it's sad," she said.

The voices of the deaf in Kelowna have not been heard as loudly as those visually impaired or with mobility problems, but that's changing. Rather than just vent her gripes, Perry has joined the Central Okanagan Access Awareness Team, to represent the B.C. Association of the Deaf.

The team was started about 18 years ago to make it easier for physically impaired people to live in the community. They have been given solid support over the years and the group is clearly making its mark.

As it stands, many changes the city plans on doing to facilities, roads or parks that may affect people with disabilities heads to the access awareness team first for suggestions. And, there's no shortage of ideas from the group.

Chairwoman Sherri Newcomen, a paraplegic since her "first and last motorcycle ride" in 1982, knows that not much gets done if people don't beef about it. Formerly a city councillor in Invermere, she learned how to lobby.

When the provincial courthouse was built in Kelowna in the early 1990s, Newcomen went for a field trip to check out the access. She was surprised to find it sadly lacking. The ramps were too steep for her in a manual wheelchair and getting in was an ordeal befitting a criminal.

"The wheelchair access was through the bottom where they take the inmates," she said. They had to notify the guard to let them in and out.

That wouldn't do, so Newcomen and others pointed out the flaws and they have since been rectified.

Douglas, who became a quadriplegic after a truck accident 20 years ago, said it makes more sense for businesses to do it right the first time when they consider handicapped access. While they can look at the outdated building code, Douglas suggests anyone looking at installing wheelchair facilities talk to someone in a chair first.

One of the reasons he believes Kelowna is so accessible for people in wheelchairs is because of all the new construction. It's easy to put in a handicapped washroom or ramp at the design stage, but it's not so easy to convert an old building, up two flights of stairs with no elevator.

He points to the Capital News Centre as an example of a new building with easy access and lots of parking and pick-up areas for people in wheelchairs. When that was being built, consultation was done with the access team.

In the city, curbs are cropped at corners so wheelchairs can get on. But those decorative interlocking brick sidewalks have been a problem. Uneven and with gaps, they're tough on wheelchairs, canes for the visually impaired and even skateboarders and people in spike heels.

For businesses, it just makes sense to be easy for everyone to get in, said Douglas. "The more things people can use, the more money businesses can generate," he pointed out.

As an example, when Douglas went to and from his boat at the Kelowna Marina at the foot of Queensway Avenue, it used to be a bit tough. He made a simple suggestion about making a ramp that's easy for him to roll on. The owner complied and Douglas said it's been helpful for other marina users who load up buggies of munchies from the store and head to their boats.

"I used to sit in the background but, if you don't get out and say something, no one is going to do anything," he said.

Darryl Harand, a local representative from the Canadian Institute for the Blind with 10 percent vision, said he's had a few issues getting around, especially on public transit. While the routes are OK, it seems the drivers are always in a hurry to get to the next stop and jolt out before everyone is seated or hanging on.

If he complained every time something happened, he said, "I'd be on the phone every day."

He also notes that there should be more crosswalks with the birdie sounds to alert those visually impaired that it's safe to cross. The crosswalk in front of Kelowna General Hospital along Pandosy Street is one that should be added to the list, he said.

Denise Sanders, who is totally blind, said even with the audible signals there are problems because there's no consistency with where the buttons are on the poles at the crossings.

"I can spend a fair amount of time finding the pole to push the button," she said.

She stands at the curb and listens carefully for traffic to stop before she heads out on the crosswalk. Someone turning right can be a problem, but so far she hasn't had any close calls.

"At least not that I'm aware of," she joked. And, she's not about to be worried about it. "It's important to keep getting out in the community," she said, "so you keep your confidence up. As well, you're out there getting the public to see what you can do."

Arlene Pilgrim, a rehabilitation consultant for the B.C. Paraplegic Association, Okanagan region, said, "Overall, Kelowna is doing very well for accessibility, particularly compared to the south Okanagan communities."

Handicapped parking is adequate or better at most places and many building owners in the community are now aware that cutting the speed the elevator doors close helps people get in more easily.

Housing is an issue, she said. Older apartments are more difficult and basement suites with stairs are out of the question for many. New buildings have to meet codes for handicapped access, but they're not always designed with the greatest efficiency for wheeling through.

As well, Pilgrim said there is a strong need for accommodation for people just out of the hospital who need assistance. Most of the assisted-living homes are for seniors and have long waiting lists.

Then, there's the issue of work. As Douglas pointed out, being in a wheelchair isn't cheap. Getting services and equipment for the hearing- and sight-impaired is also costly. But, when it comes to earning an income, people with disabilities tend to be down the scale.

According to the PALS survey, more than half of the Canadians with disabilities are not even in the workforce, compared with 16 percent of the able-bodied population.

Those who are working earn on average substantially less.

It's not that people with disabilities don't want to work. It's actually the opposite. Most would prefer to be independent financially and physically.

It's just not that simple.

"Employment has proven to be quite unattainable in Kelowna due to narrow-mindedness and archaic beliefs," said Perry. "It's an old attitude which assumes deaf people are unemployable because they cannot hear or speak.

"When they realize a deaf person uses sign language, they automatically think they are incapable of intelligence and reason.

"Therefore, the popular presumption is deaf people should not be employed."

(John) Rae, national president of the National Federation of the Blind, said, "For us, poverty is the reality."

The NFB has fought for legal protection to establish the concept of "duty to accommodate." Rae said that means rights such as allowing seeing-eye dogs to go into buildings. It means people visually impaired are entitled to access. But, Rae admits, there's still work to be done. "We have a lot more expectations than results," he said. "

"We'd like a hand up to equality. We'd rather work and participate in the community.

"Then we'd have increased purchasing power to do all things folks like to do."

While access rights are entrenched in the Charter of Rights, reality may be something different.

For employers, restaurants and coffee shops, if access is tough it could mean losing out on hiring a valuable individual or lost revenue.

For everyone, it's a matter of what happens when life rolls the dice. At any moment, there is another person facing a physical impairment, whether by age or accident. It's an issue that affects everyone.

"We all know someone with a disability or we could be there," said Douglas. "You never know."

Copyright 2005 Kelowna Capital News.

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