Accessibility: Change can’t come quickly enough for some

Published in the Ottawa Business Journal newspaper and website.
Jan. 15, 2007

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The wheels are in motion to make Ontario businesses accessible for people with disabilities by 2025, but Ottawa’s disabled community is expressing concern about what’s going to be done for buildings in the historic ByWard Market.

The province introduced a bill a couple of years ago to improve customer service for people with physical, mental, and intellectual disabilities within the next 20 years, which includes making sure that businesses, workplaces and accommodations will have ramps and wide doorways to make entry possible for people with disabilities.

However, advocates within the disabled community say the move won’t come quickly enough, especially in the ByWard Market, which is notoriously difficult for people with disabilities to navigate.

Small steps leading to the entrances of bars and restaurants, narrow spaces in between tables and downstairs washrooms are just a few of the barriers encountered in the Market’s establishments.

“This is the national capital, and it is the main tourist area for the city. We have guests coming in from all over the place and it’s not accessible, you can’t get anywhere in the restaurants,” says Bob Brown, former head of the city’s accessibility advisory committee and a wheelchair user.

Mr. Brown, who lives in the ByWard Market, estimates that 75 to 90 per cent of the popular area’s buildings are inaccessible, not only for people using wheelchairs but also for mothers with strollers, elderly people, and deliverymen using carts or trolleys.

“And it’s probably (even) worse in the summertime because they’ve all gotten to putting up decks which aren’t accessible, where you may have to go down a side alley or back through the garbage cans and around through the kitchen to get in,” he adds. “It’s not dignified access, especially for the capital city of Canada.”

Mr. Brown notes that while it does cost some money to retrofit buildings to comply with accessibility standards, the businesses in the Market are essentially shooting themselves in the foot because they are turning away the patronage of a sizeable chunk of the population.

Approximately 14 per cent of Ottawa’s population has some form of disability, and that’s not even accounting for the aging baby-boomer demographic, nearly half of whom will have a disability, Mr. Brown says.

However, while the Market’s businesses acknowledge that the issue is an important one to address, and say 20 years is more than enough time in which to comply, many say it could be difficult to renovate their businesses to provide elevators or wider washrooms, for example, because of the limited amount of space in the Market.

“Disabled people have the right to come to these places and enjoy themselves like everybody else … but a problem we might have specifically is putting washrooms on the main floor, as we’re obviously not going to put elevators in this old building,” says Chander Bhalla, owner of the MTL & Co. bar. “It is almost impossible given the amount of space we have to put washrooms on the main floor … because that would take away a lot of good space which can be used for generating revenue, so I don’t know what we’re going to do.”

Mr. Bhalla says it’s not even a cost issue, and that it would be pretty much impossible to put accessible washrooms into the Market’s old buildings without affecting revenue.

Even the accessible businesses in the area find washroom placements problematic, as they say it would be difficult to reroute the plumbing, although some have found ways to accommodate the needs of people with disabilities.

Melissa Greco, general manager of the Empire Grill which is one of the Market’s few accessible restaurants, says they have managed to circumvent that problem as they are connected to a mall with an easily accessible washroom.

The Empire Grill is also planning to put a ramp at the front entrance of the restaurant during its upcoming renovations.

“We’re a pretty adaptable restaurant, and we’ve managed to accommodate people with wheelchairs when they call in with reservations, we know which tables are better for them,” says Ms. Greco.

For people with disabilities, however, the biggest problem isn’t even having access to wheelchair-friendly washrooms or getting around the establishment, but getting into the restaurants, bars, and stores in the first place.

Even a tiny step leading up to the entrance of a business can be a huge barrier to wheelchair users. It’s often more difficult to lift a person or the heavier power wheelchairs or scooters, which can weigh more than 300 pounds, than to put in a ramp.

Phil Major, another ByWard Market resident and wheelchair user, recalls the time when he took Ottawa West-Nepean MPP and then-mayor Jim Watson around the area in a manual wheelchair.

Mr. Major says he showed Mr. Watson that he essentially has to be served on the sidewalk while grocery shopping, with storeowners having to go back and forth to bring him his groceries and change.

“I told Watson, I want to go to the baker and see what their specials are. You think they put their specials out on the sidewalk for people in wheelchairs? No, they’re inside on the counter,” Mr. Major says.

He adds that he’s tried to convince local businesspeople to purchase lightweight, portable aluminium ramps which can be taken out and used every time a person with a disability needs to get in, but in eight years he’s sold only five ramps despite the fact that it’s a cheap, tax-deductible alternative to building a permanent ramp.

“We acknowledge that it is too hard for some businesses to renovate… but these portable ramps are the quick and dirty and cheap solution, and it’s not rocket science to use them,” Mr. Brown says.

Both Mr. Major and Mr. Brown say Ottawa’s businesses are very close to being accessible and that it is a simple matter of adding the ramps and so on during renovations, but many businesses just don’t do it.

And what about those businesses that are afraid of getting in trouble with the city for harming the heritage character of their buildings?

Stuart Lazear, co-ordinator of heritage planning for the city’s Department of Planning, Transit and the Environment, says businesses don’t have to worry about updating the interiors of their buildings to comply with accessibility standards, as the only concerns the city would have would be with the external portion of heritage buildings.

“I don’t think it’s going to be an extra hardship; businesses have been doing it all along when planning makeovers, just as they have with sprinklers, smoke detectors, and smoking areas,” says Mr. Lazear. “Do I think it’s onerous? I think businesses will find a way… it’s part of that restaurant evolution.”

And even with the exteriors of the buildings, Mr. Lazear notes, there are ways to work in tasteful renovations.

He cites the examples of the former teacher’s college which is now part of City Hall and the NDP headquarters at Bank and Laurier, both of which have managed to adapt their front entrances to be wheelchair accessible.

“It’s just good business sense to provide accessibility,” he adds.

At any rate, Mr. Brown says Ottawa is a long way from becoming fully accessible, and notes that both the city and proprietors need to “get their heads around” the issue.

“There’s money to be made here; you’re missing out on a tenth of the population,” he says.

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