An attitude of accessibility

The other day, I was given a note from Rachel’s teacher announcing a class trip to a local conservation area. Arrangements were made to transport Rachel with a bus equipped for wheelchairs, and the teacher received a note from the location staff that yes, there was an accessible washroom on site.

Accessible is an overused and over-applied word. It is mostly commonly thought of as a person, place, thing or state of being that is reachable, attainable or capable of being understood. It is also a consumer-friendly word, such as the Sherwin Williams paint colour Accessible Beige, toted as “the perfect neutral.”

‘Just a few stairs’
What does it really mean when something is accessible? An automatic door-opening button does not make a place any more accessible if there’s a one inch gap between the ground and threshold at that door, never mind “just a few stairs” between the ground and the button (as a business offhandedly shared with a friend recently). Cottage rentals and hotels here in Ontario will label themselves accessible because they have wide doorways and grip bars in the bathroom.

When I inquired further about the accessible washroom for Rachel’s class trip, I was told that there were bars alongside the toilet and the washroom was large enough for a wheelchair to make a full turn. Though this may have been appreciated by some, this washroom was not accessible for Rachel. Rachel needs two adults to transfer her from her chair onto a bench (read: adult change table) that allows the caregivers to change her briefs (read: adult diapers).

In our limited travels, we’ve found accessible washrooms that can accommodate our girls in places like McMaster Children’s Hospital, the Ron Joyce Children’s Health Centre in downtown Hamilton and African Lion Safari. I can safely say Rachel and Janneke see only one of these three places as fun.

Dignity with accessible living
As much as we might boast about our accessible healthcare here in Canada, we have a lot to learn from our neighbours to the south when it comes to accessible living. The Americans with Disabilities Act (1990) means I can walk into a hotel in Michigan and see a lift system to lower my kids into the hot tub and into the swimming pool. This same act means we can wheel into a restaurant through the front door in the U.S., unlike coming through the rear kitchen as my friend here in St. Catharines has experienced.

Our Ontario government promised in 2005 to make the province fully accessible by 2025. Little has changed since that promise, so the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance is determined to catch the government’s attention with their 2016 Picture Our Barriers Campaign. They are asking Ontarians to take photos of barriers in public spaces and share them with the hashtags #accessibility and #AODAfail. The hope of the AODA Alliance is to capture the Premier’s attention with these photos and encourage bold action with this seemingly forgotten promise. The idea of our province being fully accessible is long overdue.

Creating space
When I explained to a staff member at the conservation area that we needed a bench and enough private space for two adults to transfer and change Rachel, she didn’t hesitate to create a generous and accessible space for Rachel’s personal care in their staff house.

A generous and accessible space is more than just physical adaptations to the status quo. Our language and relationships can also reflect – and affect – accessibility. Real accessibility is a concept transcending disability and covering all of us. This means learning from each other and learning from our mistakes. This means recognizing our privilege of ability, race, gender or status and seeking ways to promote equity. When we say “all welcome” or “everyone is invited,” do we really mean everyone? What does all welcome look like? Is it a button next to the door? Or is it more?  

  • The Pot family story is about faith and disability as experienced through a life of caregiving for daughters Rachel and Janneke.

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