During the snow-covered heart of winter, wheelchair user Janice Wilby has faced barriers in navigating downtown Kingston, where the icy sidewalks and a lack of ramps present great hurdles to her mobility.
The trials and tribulations faced by individuals with disabilities persist across all seasons. With winter creeping up, these obstacles will be magnified.
“Speaking as a person who uses wheels to get around, snow removal, or the lack thereof, from sidewalks, intersections, and adjacent to handicap parking spots, determines whether those with mobility issues can leave their residences, go grocery shopping, get to appointments, or if we are trapped in our residences,” Wilby said in a statement to The Journal.
Often unable to eat at many downtown restaurants due to the lack of accessible washrooms, Wilby recognizes the role the City plays in advocating for greater accessibility, while noticing the shortcomings of private business owners.
This week, The Journal spoke with members involved with Kingston’s Municipal Accessibility Advisory Committee (MAAC), as well as Innovation Strategist Ian Cholmondeley of Extend-A-Family Kingston (EAFK) to capture a comprehensive view of Kingston’s accessibility landscape, especially when the weather is non-permitting.
According to Section 29 of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act of 2005 (AODA), any municipality with a population of at least 10,000 is required to form an accessibility advisory committee, with the majority of its members being individuals with disabilities. MAAC was established in 2003, consisting of 15 members of the public, the majority of whom have disabilities.
Wilby, MACC’s vice-chair, said navigating winter in Kingston is a challenging time for mobility and accessibility for everybody.
Mitigating winter weather issues and the challenges they present isn’t an easy task to tackle, but the City has a large snow removal budget, Wilby stated.
“The City of Kingston has a priority sequence to snow removal, and unfortunately, save for investing incredible sums in infrastructure and staffing, it’s a difficult challenge all cities in cold climes must deal with,” she added.
However, Wilby noted there are many other accessibility challenges—particularly in the downtown core. Entrance steps to many older stores, inaccessible washrooms located upstairs or downstairs, and manual doors all pose challenges to people with physical disabilities.
“All of these [challenges] are located at private businesses for which the City can educate and promote accessible solutions,” Wilby said.
Businesses can improve their accessibility by utilizing Stop the Gap, a program that helps communities by providing ramps to businesses without an accessible entrance. The City awards Accessibility Awards every year to celebrate businesses that go above and beyond in providing accessible services, education, health care, and more.
Wilby elaborated on her own personal stories as a wheelchair user that highlight the need for improved accessibility in Kingston.
“This past summer, I decided I could try a patio and then use the washrooms, if needed, located under City Hall, but unfortunately, when I got down the ramp, they had been locked for the night. What followed was a comical search for a restaurant that would let us in for an emergency bio break—the good people at Jack Astor’s were kind enough to let us in,” she said.
“There are countless heartwarming stories of residents and business owners that are more than willing to help those that are having challenges with accessibility. I have had many strangers jump from their car in winter to dislodge me from a snowbank when I have become stuck and there are many store owners that will come to the door of their establishments to bring me food or goods and then take my payment outside,” she added.
Wilby said the City does a spectacular job in promoting and ensuring accessibility in public buildings, and it’s private owners who lease or rent out their spaces that should be made more accountable for accessibility.
Derek Ochej, acting deputy city clerk in the City Clerk’s Department, provided further insight on MAAC and its contributions to the City’s accessibility.
“Internally, the City works to ensure accessibility requirements are met under the AODA and the Integrated Accessibility Standards Regulations (IASR) through the creation of policies to be adhered to by staff,” Ochej said.
Ochej explained staff are currently in the process of reviewing and updating the Accessible Consultation Process Policy—found in the 2023 to 2025 Multi-Year Accessibility Plan—while reviewing the Accessible Customer Services Standards Policy next year. As part of this work, there is and will be future consultation with members of MAAC.
Accessibility in Kingston is catalyzed by the contributions EAFK makes to the community through its dedication and support of people of all ability levels.
As a registered charity, EAFK has provided support services and inclusive programming for kids and adults with developmental disabilities and their families since 1981.
“You don’t know what people’s challenges are until you’ve met somebody who has different exceptionalities where they need to be supported in different ways,” Cholmondeley said.
Acknowledging the historical beauty of Kingston’s infrastructure, Cholmondeley underscored the challenge posed by the aging buildings, particularly on Queen’s campus, where these buildings have become outdated.
“They [the buildings] aren’t set up to be fully accessible and even when you think that there are accessibility options like ramps or other ways to get into buildings, they’re not always fully inclusive,” he added.
Although EAFK doesn’t necessarily work with the City of Kingston, Cholmondeley said they do have their first upcoming collaboration which will assist in advocating for the families and the people in their community.
EAFK is an official partner for a community-led advocacy group called the Inclusive Play Project. The collective mission is to construct a fully inclusive and accessible playground in the Kingston community.
“Right now, Kingston says we have accessible playgrounds, but the reality is that they aren’t fully inclusive, and they have accessibility features without being fully accessible,” Cholmondeley said.
The City of Kingston is donating land at Shannon Park in the north end of Kingston to construct an inclusive playground, which will ultimately raise awareness about the lack of accessible spaces in the city, he added.
“Even when we think some things are accessible, they’re not always inclusive for everyone,” Cholmondeley said.
The innovation strategist spoke to the transportation options EAFK offers, and the challenges behind offering these services.
Cholmondeley said Kingston has made great strides in implementing more accessible transit options, but the reality is there’s a growing number of people who require accessible and inclusive forms of transportation.
“As the demand and the need go up in the community, then so should the focus on providing more options,” he said.
With a population who yearns to be active community members, particularly in the wintertime, it becomes increasingly difficult to get them from place to place, posing a challenge to EAFK participants.
“Public transit does have accessible options, but it’s limited to either one or two spots. If you have a group of five individuals, then you’re always excluding somebody—that’s just not a position we want to ever see in our community,” Cholmondeley added.
“What we want to do is be the standard. We want to set a standard for the community that hopefully others will follow, and we want to be advocates for the people we support.”
Occasionally, wintertime activities must be fully cancelled if there isn’t any reliable form of transportation.
“It’s just to the point where the sidewalks and roads aren’t passable for somebody in a wheelchair, or somebody with physical challenges. Transportation was a big issue,” Cholmondeley said.
“If we can’t get everybody there, then we aren’t really doing what we’ve set out to do, which is to make sure that everybody can be included.”
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