Monday, November 09, 2015

The Essential Components of Welcome, Inclusion and Accessibility

Photo Description: A map of Toronto's Underground PATH showing the routes through buildings, skywalks and underground passageways.
Sunday, at my place, we were buzzing with activity. Getting two kids and ourselves ready to get out the door and down to the 'meeting place' for Vita's first annual Accessiwalk was a bit of a challenge. But we managed to get there in time, and maybe even a little early. So we introduced the kids to those who were there and explained to them, again, what the Accessiwalk was.

Vita was participating in a United Way fundraiser, on that same Sunday, where people were climbing the stairs up to the top of the CN Tower. Because we have a new policy at Vita, a 'Safe Space' policy, we looked at that activity differently. In our policy we included some parts of what it is to be safe. Being safe isn't just being free of physical harm - it's also about feeling welcome and included. The CN Tower fundraiser is a fun one, it's a high profile one, but it's one that, by its nature, excludes a lot of our members and our staff. The decision was to have a parallel activity where we would walk the Toronto Underground/Overground PATH from Dundas Square to the base of the CN Tower. That way, everyone could choose the activity that best fit their needs and everyone, therefore could be a contributor.

Of those that gathered at Dundas Square were people who had bad feet or bad knees, who were slow walkers or who didn't walk at all. It was a wonderfully diverse group that was in the best of spirits as we set off. About a quarter way into the walk, we hit our first bump, one of the elevators, that was working two weeks ago when we mapped the route out, was down. We went into problem solving mode - this is the mode which people who use wheelchairs or walkers know only too well. We separated and aimed to join up again in the next building.

The next building was a problem because all the accessible elevators were shut off because it was the weekend. So we talked on the phone with the larger group and eventually met up at Union Station and went on from there problem free. All of us arrived at the end point pretty much at the same time and we agreed that it was a fun day, even with the problems.

You see the essential parts of Welcome, Inclusion and Accessibility is a spirit of willingness, a sense of humour and a creative approach to achieving the goal. I didn't say it there, at the end, and maybe I should have but I was incredibly moved that this happened at all. That, as an agency, we were asked to think more deeply about how inclusion and welcome happen, because we thought more deeply about safety and what it meant to be really safe. I was incredibly proud to see others, like me, who, though they didn't use wheelchairs, were able to choose to be part of an activity that paralleled an alternate activity.

Did we learn stuff from our first annual Accessiwalk? Yep ... like accessibility can be determined by the day of the week. Will we be able to do it differently and better next year? Yep ... the subject of next years walk came up seconds after finishing this years walk.

Inclusion doesn't happen just because you will it ... it happens because you do it.

Welcome doesn't happen just because you offer it ... it happens because you make it visible.

Accessibility doesn't depend solely on a lack of physical barriers ... it happens because minds are ramped when curbs aren't.

Knowing these things, we are simply going to be better at more than just planning next years Accessiwalk.


clairesmum said...

Vitas doesn't just "talk the talk" but truly "walks the walk"!!

How about inviting some students who are planning careers working in city planning, architecture, government, etc. to do the 'accessiwalk' next year? Experiencing inclusion and getting to know individuals with mobility challenges a little bit might be a great help to those who will be or are involved in the creation and maintainance of barrier free spaces.

Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt said...

Unfortunately, you shouldn't have to.

I hope all your work results in a world where you don't have to work to get from one place to another - it's hard enough just moving!

You would have had me in tears almost immediately - because each step hurts, even with the walker, I frequently lug the walker up flights of stairs - because the 'accessible way' is so far away that the extra steps negate any benefit from having to push a walker up a long ramp.

If the ramp isn't near the stairs, if the ramp's entrance isn't right next to the bottom and top steps, I have choices I don't like to make.

And if the ramp is steep - there might as well not be a ramp.

I realize this is limiting to the ramp builders, and the people who retrofit ramps and accessible entrances. I don't care. If I can't get there in a reasonable way, it is NOT accessible.

Anonymous said...

Awesome idea! Architecture training programs, sadly, still do not always teach about universal design concepts -- sometimes not at all, and when they do it is often in its own stand-alone course, often only as an elective that students can easily ignore, and not integrated into the entire curriculum as it should be. Participating in an event like this could help architecture students -- and their teachers!!!! -- to better understand why they need to incorporate the principles of universal design into every single design they ever develop in their professional career (not just the ones oriented to disabled users).

In other words, if you do this, I hope you invite these students' teachers as well as the students themselves!


Princeton Posse said...

I was very surprised to find out that accessibility is only Monday-Friday. What reason could someone have for turning off the accessibility elevator on the weekends? Very interesting...