As Port Hope Councillor Robert Polutnik put it, after participating in this year’s Accessibility Awareness Day, life can seem all uphill when you’re in a wheelchair.
Chaired by Carla Andrus and her son Zac, the event drew volunteers to assume all the trappings of various disabilities and then set out on assigned errands to discover the challenges everyday life can present.
And thanks to Homestead Oxygen and Medical Equipment of Lindsay, they secured the loan of wheelchairs and walkers, delivered and retrieved at no charge.
Sending her volunteers away, Carla Andrus urged them to take copious notes. Their observations will form the basis of the wish list the committee will present to council at budget time.
“In the history of doing this, they have never turned us down. It may take a few years, but it gets done,” Accessibility Advisory Committee chair Selena Forsyth added.
A few problems turned up with some frequency — uneven pavement, accessibility door buttons and audible traffic signals out of order, lack of sidewalks in busy areas like the south side of Augusta Street, slopes to the sidewalk that make it difficult to operate a wheelchair.
Accessible washrooms were not always big enough, sometimes not roomy enough and often with the toilet was crammed up against a wall.
Unfortunately, Forsyth noted, people in wheelchairs lifting themselves often favour one side. This is a problem they have avoided at the Jack Burger Sports Complex during the recent accessibility upgrades.
After a visit to the washroom at Port Hope Public Library, Fire Chief Jim Wheeler called for paper towels to be right beside the sink. When someone in a wheelchair washes his hands, then hand-wheels the chair to the towels, he is contaminating clean hands on wheels that may have travelled through grime and bird poop on the sidewalks before he can even dry them off.
At the approach to the east-beach washroom, there’s a depression in the grass at the foot of the ramp in which Deputy Mayor Greg Burns’s wheelchair got mired. And Burns found the width of the ramp maybe a bit too close for comfort, as his knuckles came close to scraping the rails as he wheeled.
Polutnik was asked to approach the tourism office for information on accessible hotels and inns, attractions and restaurants. He and his escort found at least one piece of information was erroneous, when they went to a recommended spot for coffee.
And though the tourism office said the jazz festival is accessible, Polutnik felt the Memorial Park venue with its vast grassy expanses could defeat some wheelchairs.
Wheeler and Councillor Louise Ferrie-Blecher found their assignment put them on the library’s second floor when a power outage hit and made the elevator unavailable.
Wheeler’s first thought was to call the fire department, and library staff told them just such an incident had happened last year. When they called the fire department, they learned it had a priority call elsewhere. This could have involved a lengthy wait for the patron on the second floor, which has no washroom.
The patron’s family arrived to help him downstairs, but they had to leave his heavy wheelchair upstairs.
Their second assignment, to research something at the archives, was even more frustrating. The archives had no accessible entry at all.
They called the staff inside to come help them, but they could not get the wheelchair inside. They were gracious about offering alternatives — procuring the material while they waited outside, for example, or perhaps gathering them for pick-up at the accessible library.
“The archives is one of our municipal buildings, so we have a standard we need to meet there,” the councillor said.
“But it’s a heritage building, and the doorway fits into that lovely arch there.”
Carrying out these simple errands took time, she noted. It was a beautiful day but, had the exercise taken place in the winter, it could have been intolerable.
Mayor Bob Sanderson was blind in his assignment. The glasses he wore were so dark that the only way he could see would be to look down, beneath the lenses. But he insisted he never cheated.
Sanderson’s struggles included going to BMO for a withdrawal from an ATM with no Braille markings.
He wielded the white cane skilfully, but was grateful to have assistance crossing busy streets. The sound of traffic, even when it seems to be stopping, can be unnerving.
The accepted style is to have an attendant grasp the blind person’s upper arm as they walk to warn and guide. Having Accessibility Advisory Committee secretary Amy Rappl play this role was helpful, he found, because he tended to veer as he progressed.
Taking turns in a wheelchair, Burns and director of works and engineering Peter Angelo encountered a gentleman on a motorized wheelchair, who challenged them to a race when they hit an uphill stretch.
They had to cross the bridge from the Ganaraska River fishing area to the fish-cleaning station, which involved getting through a gravel parking lot with much difficulty and encountering a lift of several inches at the foot of the bridge.
“If you are on your own, it’s basically impossible,” Burns said.
The fish station has no accessibility button on its heavy steel doors, and the counters are slightly higher than your average kitchen counter. Burns took a look and saw that there is already room to install a lowered counter-and-sink area.
Approaching the beach, Angelo said, a person operating a wheelchair alone could not likely hope to cross the grass and sand. Burns agreed, saying the tires were buried as soon as they hit the sand.
“You are always wondering, ‘where’s the best route to get to the water, where’s the best route to that coffee place,’” Angelo said.
“What about signage designating an accessible route?”
Councillor Les Andrews was impressed with the variety of wheelchair-accessible programming available at the Town Park Recreation Centre — but not so much with his tour of the facility, where several awkwardly arranged doorways and areas challenged his wheelchair. He also found drinking fountains and fire extinguishers were set too high.
Director of parks, recreation and culture Jim McCormack ventured that someone in a wheelchair could not negotiate the facility’s soccer fields. Between the steep slope and the gravel on the ground, he said, “You can get down, but you won’t get out.”
Andrews did make his way for part of the distance, McCormack added. But it was very tiring, even on this unusually warm June day where the soil is not as soft as it would normally be.
Councillor Terry Hickey and Port Hope Police Detective Constable Mathew Lawrence found the economic-development office could provide a list of prospective properties for the business they hoped to set up, but could not always specify which were accessible.
One challenge they encountered was to park in the Elias Street lot and get on to the elevated Lent’s Lane pathway in a walker. Not possible, Hickey reported.
“There’s no physical way to get the walker up the stairs. We had to walk all the way back to Augusta street through the parking lot, and enter there,” he said.
A lot of downtown doors are up a step from the sidewalk and then open outwards. This is an impossible approach for someone in a walker, Hickey added.
Deputy clerk Brian Gilmer played the part of someone in a wheelchair who has moved from Toronto but wants to keep his job.
The Port Hope Via station is not accessible, Gilmer discovered, so you’d have to catch the train from Cobourg.
Even then, Via offers only one accessible area per train — not per car, per train. One accessible area for the whole train. And it must be reserved 48 hours in advance.
A woman in the gallery whose son is in a wheelchair said that, when he travels with his curling team, he cannot sit with his teammates.
Gilmer didn’t like that they called this special area the tie-down area.
“That made me feel like cargo, rather than a passenger,” he said.
Even beyond the Via problem is the quandary of getting to Cobourg each day. There’s no bus to either the Port Hope or Cobourg station. Basically, the only options were to rely on the kindness of strangers or take a taxi.
“I’d have to have a heck of a job in Toronto to afford that,” Gilmer figured.
Chief librarian Margaret Scott encountered similar problems as she played the part of a co-op teacher helping a student in a wheelchair reach a placement in Garden Hill.
Scott’s first thought was Community Care Northumberland, which has a variety of transportation options. But she discovered none fit this particular need. The various services are either confined to urban destinations or have a timetable which does not work out for this very specialized need.
At the Canton municipal office, where director of finance David Baxter was sent, he tried out the washroom and found no automatic door opener. While he was able to open the door from his wheelchair, Baxter said, “it has a really, really effective door closer on it. It’s difficult to keep open.”
Without help, he said, there’s a good chance he would have caught his hand in the door.
And while the Garden Hill library was closed and he and his escort couldn’t go in, they said, they did notice there was no automatic door opener.
Polutnik declared the exercise an enlightening experience.
“One of the biggest things I found is that, because I have accessibility, I have 100% of the choices available. In a wheelchair, it was down to like 10% of the choices,” he said.
“I am very thankful I don’t have to be in a wheelchair.”