Many shops and offices could use some accessibility upgrades, Barrie woman says News 06:55 AM by Chris Simon
Barrie resident Marlene Watson, 73, has been a double-amputee for about two years. She needs a wheelchair, but is also training to use a walker. She says many properties throughout the city, from businesses to health-care facilities, could do more to promote accessibility.
The stress builds in Marlene Watson every time she visits a new place in Barrie.
Watson, a double-amputee who lives in a retirement community, knows there’s a good chance she’ll need assistance at some point while travelling around the municipality. Front doors aren’t always automated or capable of opening with a push-button. Bars on wheelchair ramps are too high. Washrooms aren’t equipped with high enough toilets or emergency buttons.
The aisles in some stores are too packed with merchandise for a wheelchair to navigate.
“The person in the wheelchair likes to shop and do things,” Watson said, at her dining room table. “I’m like most people; I don’t want to spend the rest of my life sitting in a wheelchair and not being able to continue on with my lifestyle. I like to do my own grocery shopping. When you’re sitting in front of the door, it’s frustrating. A lot of people are very helpful; they’ll open the door or ask if I need help. But you shouldn’t feel like a second-class citizen.”
Unfortunately, there may never be a day when the city is fully accessible, Gwen Kavanagh, chair of the seniors advocacy group Barrie CARP, said.
While new buildings are constructed to modern Ontario Building Code accessibility specifications, many offices and retail stores run out of older sites that were constructed before up-to-date accessibility standards came into effect. An existing building is not required to conform unless there are plans in place for extensive renovations.
“100 per cent, I don’t see the day,” Kavanagh said. “We can keep working toward it, and I’m sure we are. It’s this problem with older buildings and the cost to renovate. If you’re building from scratch, it’s going to be included in your plans and not be a problem. But trying to amend some of the older sites that just don’t lend themselves to it easily, what are they supposed to do? If I’m a downtown merchant, am I supposed to move my storefront back to put in a ramp? A building that’s been there for 60 years and is not seeking a permit, I’m not sure there’s anything we can do.”
While full compliance may be too costly for many small businesses, there are a few steps that can be taken to make life a little easier for people living with disabilities from doorway widening to lighting checks and railing installations. Entrances, walkways and sidewalks should also be clear of snow and debris.
“There are lots of little things; they do help,” Kavanagh said. “Falls are one of the biggest problems, especially with seniors. They may not have a disability, per se, but they do have problems with stairs.”
Agnes Park, who has owned Casa Cappuccino in the downtown core for nearly eight years, has overseen several accessibility improvements at the restaurant. The entrance has push-buttons for the door and a ramp and the washrooms have railings.
In December, Casa Cappuccino received a business award from the City of Barrie’s accessibility advisory committee. The restaurant was recognized due to its “exceptional accessible customer service.”
An easy-to-navigate entrance also makes a business more appealing to families, since parents often place young children in strollers during foot travel.
“This is not a franchise; it’s a community here,” she said. “We get a lot of moms with kids here. The moms bring their babies here in (strollers). If we don’t have those kinds of (accessibility) things, it’s not going to be easy for them to come in here. We want everybody to come in here.”
Businesses have some financial motivation in building a more accessible business. Accessibility Directorate of Ontario projects that improved accessibility can generate $9.6 billion in new retail spending and $1.6 billion in new tourism spending, Independent Living Services of Simcoe County and Area public awareness co-ordinator Christina Strong said.
The Conference Board of Canada notes the number of Canadians living with a physical disability that impairs their mobility, vision or hearing will rise from 2.9 million in 2017 to 3.6 million by 2030. Real spending by this group will rise from 14 to 21 per cent of the total consumer market.
Improvements to workplace access would allow 550,000 Canadians with disabilities to work more, increasing the country’s gross domestic product by $16.8 billion by 2030.
That amount would also translate into a $10-billion increase in consumer spending, Strong said.
She said staff can be trained to deal with people living with disabilities. And businesses should consult their customers while considering changes.
“Asking how to better serve them is a good place to start,” Strong said. “Once you know their needs, you can improve your service delivery. Whether it’s spending time or money on training staff, changing your layout, offering large print or hearing assistance, it’s a sound investment to become more accessible.”
Chris Simon is a journalist with the Barrie Advance. He can be reached at [email protected] . Follow him on Twitter