by Sarah Ferguson
Niagara This Week – Welland|
Rhys Evans looks at the world much differently than most people do.
The 27-year-old Pelham man, who has cerebral palsy, relies on a wheelchair to get around.
“That’s been my mode of transportation my whole life,” the Niagara College student said.
There’s a lot of planning that goes into leaving the house. When he goes out for weekly shopping trips, or out for a bite to eat with friends, or even just to stop for a coffee, Evans must first consider if he can even get his wheelchair into a business, if the door has an accessible button to open it for him, or whether he’ll be able to wheel his chair into a bathroom.
“One of the biggest things is going into a restaurant is if my knees can clear the table while sitting in my wheelchair. I’d say it happens one in three restaurants where I can’t.”
When he was approached by former Pelham mayor Dave Augustyn last year and asked to join Niagara’s joint accessibility advisory committee (JAAC), it was a no-brainer for Evans.
“I wanted to do something to help so 27 years from now when today’s babies have grown up, they don’t have to go through the things that I have gone through.”
The committee consists of representatives from Grimsby, Lincoln, West Lincoln, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Pelham and Thorold and its goal to is identify and break down barriers for people with disabilities in their communities.
One of the initiatives the committee has taken on is the We Are Accessible campaign Evans said will be launched in September, to encourage businesses to identify themselves as accessible.
“This campaign is perfect in terms of timing because of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) legislation, which requires businesses to be fully accessible by 2025.”
Evans said businesses should already be working toward becoming more accessible.
As per the campaign, residents can nominate local businesses, and business owners are welcome to nominate their own establishments.
Evans said a committee member will assess a business using a checklist of items. If a nominee is successful, he or she will receive a We Are Accessible sticker to place in the window of their businesses.
“We’ll look at a lot of things, but the biggest question to answer is if I can use your facility and use your services just as an able-bodied person would be able to do.”
The review will provide business owners with feedback with things they can improve and if they aren’t successful the first time, employers can reapply for the campaign.
For more information about the campaign Evans encourages people to send an email to [email protected] or call 905-380-4782.
Evans said he and other people living with a disability wants what everyone wants; a base level of humanity and dignity.
“There’s a common misconception that just because I am in a wheelchair, I can’t do the same things other people can do,” Evans said, and added that it isn’t true.
“No politician has ever put accessibility in their platform,” he said.
Port Colborne’s Bryan Ingram agrees and said he would like to see the provincial and federal government offering a similar program.
“I’d love to see more government involvement on this. It’s great to have something like the AODA but it has no teeth. There’s no compliance unless a complaint is lodged,” Ingram said.
He thinks the We Are Accessible campaign is a good start, but it’s one step on what he said is a long journey toward raising awareness and promoting accessibility for all Niagara residents.
“I’d love for this to be the biggest success on the planet,” he said.
Ingram reaffirmed the JAAC is doing great work and he hopes more businesses will catch onto the campaign.
A staunch advocate for people living with disabilities, Ingram relies on the use of a wheelchair to get around.
He sits on Port Colborne’s accessibility advisory committee and prior to that, ran a consulting business to help employers become compliant with the AODA.
He said there are many benefits to creating an environment that is accessible for everyone.
Both men said there is a difference between accessibility guidelines under Ontario’s regulations and functional accessibility.
“A business that offer level access to a person with a disability doesn’t have to do anything other than have a bar in the bathroom to be accessible,” Ingram said.
What makes a difference is whether there’s enough space to easily manoeuvre a chair in and out of the bathroom, and if there are obstacles in the way, which might be business supplies.
“Having an accessibly bathroom is great but if you can’t get into it, what good is it?” Ingram said.
“Being accessibility doesn’t just serve people with a disability, it also serves aging people, mothers with strollers, an athlete with injuries on crutches for six to eight weeks,” he said.
Sarah Ferguson is a reporter and photographer covering the communities of south Niagara for Niagara This Week in addition to contributing to Niagara Life Magazine. She’s a lifelong Niagara resident and a graduate of Niagara College’s Journalism-Print program. Find her on Twitter @@s_ferguson25. Email: [email protected]