The buzz of power tools overtook the Hamilton Tool Library workshop on King Street East on Saturday with volunteers building accessibility ramps to specifications by business owners around town.

The simple ramps are made of plywood, painted bright colours and made portable via a rope handle. Following the lead of a Toronto-based organization called StopGap, the local project aims to provide an easy solution to businesses that have steps at their entrances. 

"If you walk around downtown, if you had any mobility issues, most places you just can’t go into," said Halden Sproule, founder of the Hamilton Tool Library. 

'If you walk around downtown, if you had any mobility issues, most places you just can’t go into.' - Halden Sproule, founder, Hamilton Tool Library

The project was the brand-new library's answer to a call for community activities to run as part of the city's Winterfest. But city bylaws about businesses encroaching on the sidewalk and provincial accessibility laws left some business owners feeling too nervous to sign up for one of the ramps, which the library was offering to build to custom specifications for $25. 

Provincial legislation requires buildings to be accessible by 2025, a benchmark a new report this week said is out of reach at Ontario's current pace.

"We had a lot of interest from businesses that wanted them but they don’t want to run into issues with bylaw," said Halden Sproule, founder of the Hamilton Tool Library, which opened officially at the start of January.

Sproule's team was hoping to make 250 ramps over three days this weekend. But by the end of this week, only 12 businesses had signed up.

"I just thought it was a good idea; it just seemed like it made sense," said Peter Lahie, who ordered a ramp for his family's shop, Jack Carruth Shoes Ltd., in Westdale. "We don't have a big step but if you're in a wheelchair or something that's a huge step."

Sproule said it was disappointing to see such a small response, but was happy to see big community response from volunteers, including a Flamborough hockey team. 

"We’ve got a small number of ramps to build," Sproule said. "It’s better than nothing."

'On-demand only'

Two issues businesses may be worried about are triggering the need for a permit, and getting fined for encroaching on the sidewalk.

Hamilton's public works department wouldn't require a permit for the ramps as long as they're not attached permanently to the building, said spokeswoman Kelly Anderson. The city's building department added that the ramps would need to be "on-demand only" and removed immediately after each use. 

"If the property owner brings it back indoors when it is no longer needed (whether it’s after a customer uses it or at the end of the work day) that’s OK," Anderson said.

That's how Lahie said he plans to use his ramp.

Beyond permitting, bylaw officers would be the ones to decide whether the business owner could get fined for encroaching on the sidewalk even temporarily. A representative for the city's bylaw enforcement did not return a request for clarification.

"Any effort by local businesses and community groups to address those barriers is highly commendable," said David Lepofsky, an attorney who runs the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance. "The city should be promoting accessibility, not impeding it. We think that cities should be working with businesses to make it easier for businesses to build ramps. And the businesses shouldn't be afraid."

StopGap's founder, 36-year-old Luke Anderson, uses a wheelchair to get around Toronto. He said there are 500 ramps in this style being used by business owners around the country. Though in practice, some store owners may just leave the ramps out on the sidewalk during business hours, StopGap policy is that the ramps are to be deployed when needed. StopGap advises business owners to put up a sign, post a phone number, or rig up a simple doorbell to alert staff that there is someone outside who needs to have the ramp deployed.

"That's how we've managed to negotiate the current bylaws, is with that clause," Anderson said. "But there's been a lot of interest from the municipalities to take a look at what current bylaws look like."

'A storefront that allows everyone to access it'

The approach isn't perfect, Anderson said. But like any stopgap, he said the measure may help businesses — and municipalities — realize how many parents with strollers, wheelchair users and even delivery people they're making it easier for with a simple ramp.

"I think the ramp project is really shining a light on what it means to have a storefront that is inclusive, that allows everyone to access it," Anderson said. "It's not a perfect solution but what it's doing is it's creating conversation. It's getting people talking about the need for good, permanent solutions to be in place."

In Hamilton, Sproule said he hopes to hold another ramp-building event soon to provide ramps for more businesses. 

Anderson said he didn't think the numbers would stay small for long. 

As for the 12 business owners who signed up for the first wave -- "they're pioneers, they're trailblazers, they're champions of Hamilton, for sure," Anderson said. "You watch there'll be other businesses recognizing them and wanting one as well."