As the city seeks to renew its accessibility plan, those who want to eliminate barriers say some Toronto small businesses are putting them up instead of tearing them down.
Maayan Ziv, founder of AccessNow, an app that finds and rates accessibility of restaurants and stores, recently found out that a place where she used to buy shawarma on Spadina Avenue is no longer barrier free.
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She says she was shocked to find that the entrance to the Paramount Fine Foods, on the corner of Spadina Avenue and Richmond Street West, suddenly has a step.
"There used to be another Middle Eastern restaurant there and in renovating they built over an existing ramp and created a step," said Ziv. "They went in the wrong way in terms of accessibility."
It turns out there is indeed a secondary entrance that is accessible off Richmond Street, though not always used or consistently open, and that the restaurant now has a "StopGap" ramp — a small ramp meant to give access to single-step storefronts — to help make its main entrance barrier-free.
Public consultations begin
Other businesses in her neighbourhood have also added steps where there used to be a barrier free entrance, Ziv says, giving the example of a recent renovation of the Pizzaiolo at 123 Spadina Avenue.
Pizzaiolo manager Anik Gosh says the store did have a sloped entrance before but that steps had to be put in to create a stairway to the second floor. He says his store is also looking into putting in a StopGap ramp.
Ziv's concerned to hear about businesses investing in new barriers rather than in accessible entrances, calling it "absolutely ridiculous."
She voiced her concerns to CBC Toronto amidst ongoing public consultations on how it plans to meet the standards of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) in the areas of employment, transportation, information and in acquiring goods, services or facilities. The law, passed in 2005, aims to have all government, non-profit and private businesses accessible and fully barrier free Ontario by 2025.
Given her recent experiences with eateries in her neighbourhood, Ziv is skeptical about whether that goal is achievable.
'It needs to be a priority'
"The risk when we hear the city is consulting is that it sounds like genuine interest — it sounds good. But it needs to be a priority." she said. "What I'd like to see is that the same way we can invest millions in a new park, that we address accessibility with the same seriousness."
Ziv hopes the city's accessibility plan emphasizes that addressing accessibility should be not be an afterthought, but something that helps create a more inclusive, fruitful economy.
She adds that after the access problem was brought to the attention of Paramount they have since installed a Stopgap ramp.
Luke Anderson, co-founder of Stopgap Foundation, came up with the idea for the plywood ramps so "single-step storefronts" can become accessible. But like the name suggests, it's a temporary solution.
'How valuable it is to live in a world that is barrier free'
He says the colourful ramps are a way to "create conversations about the importance of designing spaces that everyone can enjoy."
Anderson says that for stores to be creating new barriers during renovations is unacceptable.
"It's completely regressive... it make absolutely no sense," said Anderson. "We kind of operate with blinders on. We don't realize how valuable it is to live in a world that is barrier free."
He says even though the AODA requires stores to be accessible to all customers, there are exemptions to those rules, such as, for workplaces under 20 employees.
"When I am told, 'No we don't need a ramp because we don't have customers who use wheelchairs,' at that point I just let them figure out why," said Anderson. "It makes economic sense to become barrier-free, but at root of it is the human right of equal access."
Anderson says to make matters worse, provincial and municipal rules are sometimes at odds.
'Human rights code should trump the bylaws'
He bring up the case of Roncesvalles deli, Stasis Preserves, which has had a Stopgap ramp since 2013. In March, the city ordered it torn down because it encroached on public space in violation of a municipal bylaw.
"We've been working with the city and the province... policymakers from both have been communicating on accessibility issue," said Anderson.
"The keys to a barrier-free Ontario really lie in the municipalities' hands. The province sets the rules, but municipalities need to update their bylaws," he said. "The human rights code should trump the bylaws."
And while in the case of the ramp at Stasis, the city is enforcing the right-of-way bylaw, the province has not been as diligent in enforcing the AODA.
Anderson says pushing for a barrier free society has been a "a slow and painful process. Up until the early 70's we didn't have curb cuts at intersections," he said.
Toronto's public consultation on its accessibility plan continues on Thursday at 6 p.m. at the Etobicoke Civic Centre.