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Town Still Hasn't Grasped Issues of Accessibility

Editor's Note: This letter appeared in the Huntsville Forester, August 23, 2006:

Why should the concerns of people with disabilities be an essential component of all Town planning and new projects? Why should disability rights be on an equal footing with cost considerations and feasibility studies?

As every one of us inevitably ages, it is a certainty that we will develop some type of temporary or permanent disability, or someone in our immediate family will do so. This certainty applies to all--whether a resident or a tourist, whether wealthy or not, whether a property-owner or a tenant, and whether an average person with their feet on the ground or an official on high.

Equally important is that some of us already have a disability, but are nevertheless entitled to, and guaranteed under various legislation, equal rights and opportunities leading to a similar quality of life equal to all other non-disabled persons.

When the advisory committee for persons with disabilities was first appointed five years ago, early in the first term of the present regime, the committee had the duty of providing a voice for people with disabilities in the rapid changes being then planned. The ODA (Ontarians with Disabilities Act) also required Huntsville to establish such a committee.

Perhaps never in our community's history was so much expansion and overall change to occur. It was obviously necessary that all Huntsvilleans be involved and taken into consideration.

As many of you know, my wife, Doreen, and I resigned from this committee two years ago, when the Mayor changed the ground rules, in our opinion, and put new restrictions on the work of the committee.

Our resignations were precipitated when the Mayor informed us that advocacy for the rights of disabled people was not part of our mandate; that we were advisory in nature, and that we could only recommend but could not proactively lobby for necessary changes to ensure accessibility and equality.

We were assured that the new protocol would work and that the Town was indeed aware of and concerned over the rights of residents and visitors with disabilities.

Has the procedure worked? Has Huntsville really understood and taken seriously the concerns of disabled folks?

I acknowledge that the new theatre and Town Hall are largely accessible. Just last week, audible traffic signals were activated at two downtown intersections. We can take pride in these examples. But let's be honest. These are also glitzy showpiece projects with good photo ops attached to them.

But our concerns apply to the daily lives and seemingly small issues which affect the quality of life for people with disabilities.

We are all aware that while grandiose projects go up on all sides of us, indebting the Town for decades, local streets and sidewalks often remain unrepaired. While roads are smoothed and improved near new condo sites, old residential streets are dotted with potholes and their sidewalks marked with cracks.

There is a lengthy crack running along in front of our new Civic Centre, which feels almost like a small gully in places. The Yales brought this to the attention of the powers that be recently but it still remains there, ready and waiting for someone (even you!) to trip and fall. Must it take a broken leg or senior citizen's dislocated hip in order to repair it?

The Town received about a dozen phone calls this past week, complaining about the noise the new audible pedestrian signals were emitting, particularly at night. Doreen was in the process of discussing with the district the question of the volume of the locator tones, and other possible adjustments to the new system, when the signals were shut down totally by the Town, just after noon last Friday. The Town Acting CEO said that the installer was not available to make adjustments until early this week.

The thing to do, the right and appropriate course of action, would have been for the Town to inform those who complained that the system was new, would shortly be adjusted, and to please be patient and understand that many people in town used and needed the new audible signals.

In doing so, the complaints of a dozen took precedent over possibly hundreds of people with disabilities or who are elderly and need those crossings.

At the switch-on ceremony for the audible crossings, Town representatives were present but the Town Acting CEO didn't feel it necessary to let us know that she was present. This may sound petty but for a blind person who cannot see who is in the crowd, the onus is on the sighted person to come up and make themselves known. We were personally quite hurt by this lack of courtesy.

Skateboarders scare the hell out of me, my guide dog and many people

I know, with and without disabilities. Yet, despite bylaws and stated police concerns, there is not a day when skateboarders race down my street or along downtown sidewalks, in their own version of The Tour de Huntsville. There is no question of the danger they pose and the threat they bring to increase the number of disabled persons in our midst. I know a skateboard park is coming, but what about our health and safety in the meantime? What about strict enforcement of the law?

There is a new walkway, a steep ramp, running from Main Street down to the Town docks, alongside Pizza Pizza, as mentioned in last week's edition of "The Forester". It was designed with a brick surfacing, allegedly to dissuade skateboarders. It has no handrail. It is for pedestrians only, it is alleged.

First of all, it will not discourage skateboarders who will no doubt take it as a challenge, their own personal Mount Everest to conquer.

Secondly, pedestrians do include mothers with strollers, a person with a wagon or cart, a bicycle rider, and so on. What it does not include is a person in a wheelchair. The ramp is dangerously steep. It appears that the only group excluded from use is those using a wheelchair.

Sarah Brown has told us that, budget permitting; the Town is hoping to build another walkway for wheelchair users next spring. This is unacceptable and nonsensical on many grounds. Separate but equal is not acceptable; it is called apartheid. A delay in accessibility, lack of accessibility from the beginning, makes no sense. The second path will take more room and cost money that should have been saved by doing the first path properly in the first place.

To exclude only wheelchair users from the one existing new path is to deny them equal access based on disability. Human rights legislation frowns upon this. My understanding also is that the Building Code requires new construction of indoor ramps to meet a certain grading standard.

Whether this outdoor walkway falls under the Code or not, I am not sure, but the grade is steep and was not easy for me even with my dog, and was very difficult for an elderly friend of mine who walks with a cane.

To make this last example worse, the plans for this inaccessible and brick-surfaced ramp were not shown to the Accessibility Advisory Committee until the day they were passed by a Town Council vote. The expected discussion and negotiation did not take place.

You hopefully get the point by now. If so, you are an enormous jump ahead of the Town Council and staff who don't get the point yet.

Progress, growth and prosperity are good things, at least to many people. But many other people are marginalized in our community.

They live in substandard or inadequate housing, because affordable housing is increasingly hard to find. Many live in poverty. Many have a range of disabilities, preventing full participation in Town life. These are the people the Yales are concerned with the most.

Their issues should and must concern all of us. Their anxieties and frustrations could be yours, in the blink of an eye. We only prove our worth as a community if we care as much for the least advantaged and give them voice as we do for the most advantaged.

People with disabilities must be equally involved in community thinking and planning at the first instance, from the very beginning of discussion and decision-making.

Huntsville's officialdom does not get it yet.

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