By Jeff Lee, Canwest News ServiceMarch 12, 2009
Three years ago, when spectators using wheelchairs tried to get to and from the cross-country venue at the Turin Winter Paralympics, they found themselves
stranded by a gulf of mud.
The lack of access irritated International Paralympic Committee president Sir Phil Craven, who was among the stranded. He ordered mats be put down over
the mud and around Sestriere, the Italian mountain village that was playing host to some of the Paralympic events.
The incident highlighted one of the failings that has often shadowed the Paralympics: A lack of progressive thought towards accommodating people with disabilities.
Invariably, sporting venues at Paralympics are suitable. The washrooms and change rooms for players are adequate. The fields of play, the ski runs, the
curling venues and the cross-country courses are modified and acceptable for competition.
But the Paralympics, unlike the Olympics, are not just a grouping of sporting events where the best athletes come to compete. They also serve a parallel
social agenda of raising awareness around the issues of accessibility, human rights and equal treatment for people with disabilities.
It is in this regard that many Paralympic cities fall short, even as they try to improve. It has a lot to do with age-old societal constructs about people
who look, walk, talk and communicate differently from the majority.
But when the Vancouver Paralympics begin one year from today, visitors will find a city and a province that are among the most disabled-friendly places
in the world.
Vancouver and B.C. have long been recognized for progressive attitudes toward people with physical disabilities. A large part of that stems from some progressive
advocacy in the 1970s to amend civic building codes to make facilities more friendly to the disabled. There are 4.4 million people with disabilities in
Canada, with 638,000 living in B.C.
The value of what is now called “accessible tourism” is also growing. In North America alone, more than $13 billion a year is dropped into local economies
by tourists with disabilities. It also hasn’t hurt Vancouver’s reputation by having, at least until recently, a mayor in a wheelchair.
The images of Sam Sullivan twirling Olympic and Paralympic flags attached to his wheelchair at the closing ceremonies in Turin firmly sent a message to
the world Vancouver is a city where someone with a physical disability is treated as an equal.
That’s in stark contrast to some of the other Paralympic cities.
In Athens in 2004, tourists with disabilities found a Paralympic host city where drivers park on sidewalks, where there are few wheelchair access ramps,
and where building codes still promote construction of disabled-unfriendly apartment buildings and shops.
In Turin, similar age-old barriers were firmly in place when the 2006 Games began, despite efforts by the Italian hosts to improve transportation and access
They hired a fleet of wheelchair accessible vans to ferry athletes around. But Turin’s trolley system can’t handle wheelchairs, and many businesses in the
commercial core have tall stone lips that bar access to wheelchairs and serve as hazards for the visually impaired.
In Beijing last summer, Sullivan was impressed to find Chinese authorities had made great strides in making the city and its many tourist sites accessible
to the disabled, even if society still encouraged families to keep their disabled relatives out of public view.
The new airport is fully accessible. New subway stations are all lift-equipped, and stair railings have braille signs welded at the top and bottom.
Beijing also invested in a small fleet of wheelchair-accessible taxis.
But then Sullivan was also reminded of how far China has to go, too. On his first night in Beijing, he had to be carried up the stairs of a restaurant in
his wheelchair. And when he went to meet the mayor of Beijing, he was again subjected to the indignity of being carried because City Hall isn’t wheelchair-accessible.
Which bring us to Vancouver.
Want to roll down a couple of blocks to a restaurant? You’ll find every downtown street corner cut down with a wheelchair ramp. Most crossings also have
audible signals. Throughout the residential districts, the number of uncut curbs is decreasing as work crews routinely install ramps.
You’ll also be hard-pressed to find a restaurant that doesn’t have a wheelchair-accessible washroom.
Need to go somewhere? As of June 2008, every one of the buses in Metro Vancouver became wheelchair-accessible, completing a pledge of full accessibility
made in 1989.
In Vancouver, 15 per cent of the 475 licensed taxis are equipped for the handicapped. Every SkyTrain and Canada Line station also has lifts for those with
Drive into most parkades and parking lots and you will find at least one — and often a row — of parking spaces reserved for those with disabilities.
Every public building and most new residential buildings all have wheelchair ramps or at least one entrance that is accessible to people with disabilities.
Go into a bank and you should find at least one teller or desk fitted to accommodate a client in a wheelchair.
It’s an anomaly now to find businesses or public buildings that are geographically unfriendly to those with disabilities.
How did all this come about?
Attitudes toward the disabled shifted in large part because of the Second World War. Just as the Paralympic Games were born out of an effort to help rehabilitate
soldiers with catastrophic injuries, so too have many of our attitudes toward the disabled changed because of the war.
In 1949, Vancouver became the first city in North America to have a free-standing physical rehabilitation centre devoted to helping both those disabled
by accidents and war, and those born with or rendered disabled by diseases such as polio.
The first manager of that new G.F. Strong Rehabilitation Centre was Ed Desjardins, who became a quadriplegic as a result of a wartime training accident.
When you see a cut-down curb, a wheelchair-accessible toilet stall or a parking space for the disabled, you see largely the legacy of Desjardins. In the
late 1960s, he began advocating for changes to bylaws and building codes to help the disabled who, until then, had to cope with a society built by and
for able-bodied people.
In the 1970s, Desjardins became the chair of the architectural barriers committee of the Social Planning and Review Council of B.C, which lobbied for developers
to make their buildings more accessible to the disabled.
The advocacy of SPARC, Desjardins and others led to Vancouver’s adoption of a new bylaw in 1973 called the “Provisions for the Handicapped.”
Desjardins and others continued to advocate for changes, and in 1979 the province also brought in building code standards. Since then, the city and provincial
building codes have been strengthened and modified to make it mandatory for all public and many private buildings to meet minimum accessibility standards.
For all the improvements and advocacy, however, Patrick Jarvis believes Canada still has a ways to go before people with disabilities are fully treated
“For many of us, yes, the issue of equal treatment has moved into our area of consciousness,” he said. “But I’m suggesting there is still a lot of work
to be done.”
Jarvis, an elected member of the International Paralympic Committee’s board of directors, says something as simple as where pay stations for street parking
are located underscores his concerns.
In his home city of Calgary, Jarvis watched as new pay stations were installed two feet from the curb rather than at curbside, creating “landmines” for
visually impaired pedestrians.
Jarvis, who is also a member of the Vancouver 2010 organizing committee’s board of directors, also thinks public transportation remains one of the areas
where improvements are most needed.
“Getting from buses to light rail transit or even to an accessible bus stop that has ramps is an example of what I am talking about. We’ve come a long ways,
but often it is now an economic issue, the cost of making changes rather than accommodating people with disabilities.”
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