Access in the City
Walk Leaders: Anne Johnston Health Station with Centre for Independent Living in Toronto volunteers
Text by: Lynda Roy and Robert Saunders
Photographs by: Robert Saunders
Since 2011, the Anne Johnston Health Station’s Barrier Free Consumer Advisory Committee (BFCAC) has organized a Jane’s Walk to highlight the importance of making public spaces accessible and inclusive for all.
The reasons for participating are varied. Spaces that are inaccessible have negative consequences for our social and emotional well-being. Anu, a young woman who uses a power chair for mobility, shared that she hoped to “gain first-hand experience of the difference I could make. I wanted to see if I could open people’s minds in regards to accessibility.” Anu, like many young women her age, loves her tattoos but explained the barriers that prevent her from going to many tattoo parlours in Toronto.
Until very recently, people with disabilities were living in institutions, inaccessible homes, or at group homes. Advances have given us better access to education, employment and recreational activities. However, this history of being left out of the community has created gaps for the general public in understanding and recognizing what accessibility means ands looks like, a disconnect that organizers aimed to rectify.
Jennifer shared: “The day of, I experienced a feeling of pride. I’ve always felt that I’m an advocate, and today I was going to get to educate a lot of people all at once. Sure, we got stares and some rude comments one I heard, ‘what are those people complaining about now?’ And sure, I wanted to stop and say something. I wanted badly to explain to them that we were not complaining, that we were educating. But I think, on the whole, it was truly an amazing experience. I’ll bet we got some people thinking, and maybe on next year’s Jane’s walk, we’ll have more.”
Two million people in the province of Ontario, one in seven, live with a disability and numbers are increasing. Persons with disabilities have struggled for acceptance, independence, dignity, and equality for centuries. The struggle against prejudice, discrimination, and injustice is relevant to everyone, as we are all likely to experience a disability in our lifetime.
Shortly after the first Paralympic Games in Rome (1960), Ontario ushered in its Human Rights Code notably omitting protection for persons with disabilities. After Toronto’s Paralympics (1976), Ontario introduced a Handicapped Persons Rights Act (1979) instead of amending the Code. At the national level, Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms was enacted in 1982. The Charter’s equality rights constitutionalized disability protection, the first of its kind in the world, and Ontario scrapped its separate Act in favour of amending the province’s Human Rights Code.
Advocacy was in vogue, court challenges were tackled with two new legal tools, and discriminatory laws were repealed. The UN International Year of Disabled Persons began in 1981 and the federal government enacted the Employment Equity Act (1986) to cover disability as one of four groups. Grassroots advocacy through the 1990’s brought the Ontarians with Disabilities Act, 2001 into the 21st Century. Though not fully delivering on its aims, there was sufficient momentum to strengthen it.
Rather than litigate every instance, individuals accomplished improvements in broad areas, including automatic bank services, announcing transit stops, restaurant menus, elevator access, among others. The Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act 2005 (AODA) is now Ontario law, its twenty year mandate is to make Ontario barrier-free through guidelines for customer service, information, communication, transportation and the design of public spaces.
It was time to take a look under the hood, and create a context of understanding. The Law Commission of Ontario has created a framework to increase access to the law, policy and practice as they relate to persons with disabilities.
It makes sense giving all citizens an opportunity to participate in the commonwealth of Ontario’s communities and economy. Will Ontario be barrier-free by 2025?