Let's get serious about making Winnipeg public schools more accessible

Creating accessible learning opportunities for all Manitobans shouldn’t be an afterthought. Meeting the needs of all kids isn’t something that may come up, some day.

There are 17 schools in Winnipeg that currently lack elevators, report says

According to a recent report by chief superintendent Pauline Clarke, there are 17 schools that lack an elevator in Winnipeg. (riopatuca/Shutterstock)

When my twins were infants, a neighbourhood grade school invited us to visit a class that was learning about early childhood development. I readily agreed.

Then, I realized the challenges involved.

The second floor classroom was inaccessible to me. I could easily push the double stroller a few blocks from home, but once I got there I would be stuck.

Would I leave one baby (A) alone at the bottom of the stairs while I raced the second one (B) to the classroom, left baby B with well-meaning strangers, including a lot of grade school kids, and then race back downstairs to where I'd left baby A unattended? 

It seemed entirely impossible to manage the visit on my own.

My husband wasn't available to help. In the end, I paid a mother's helper to help get my twins up to the classroom and down again. What should have been a fun outing became stressful — because there's no elevator there.

Later, I reflected on this. My nephew, an amazing, vibrant, bright kid, happens to have cerebral palsy. Due to his disability, he cannot walk more than a few feet, with help, on crutches. 

While he is determined to manage more in the future, he spends more of his time in an electric wheelchair. Many family members remark at his skill and dexterity in the wheelchair; he's a little speed demon! 

Defiance or compliance?

What if a kid who is differently-abled wants to attend his/her neighbourhood school, but the school doesn't comply with the Accessibility for Manitobans Act? 

According to a recent report by chief superintendent Pauline Clarke, there are 17 schools in Winnipeg that lack elevators. How could a person with disabilities reach the second floor? 

According to a recent Winnipeg Free Press article, "Clarke's report said the work must be done in 17 schools in which elevator access to the second floor may be required — and her report underlines the word 'may.' Clarke said the accessibility legislation refers to students, staff, parents and members of the public who may have reason to be in a school."

The article covers the cost of renovations and elevator installations to improve the Winnipeg School Division's compliance with the act. Yet, the implications floored me.

Essentially, many Winnipeg school buildings aren't accessible to those with physical differences. While the public pays for these institutions, the legislation refers to only those who may need to be in the buildings.

Level the field

Creating a fair playing ground for those with disabilities has taken a long time. It's changing very slowly. Yet, in this case, it feels like Canada is way behind the times. 

In the U.S., the Americans with Disabilities Act means that, starting in 1990, every public building has had to be accessible. In fact, many were accessible beforehand, which I learned in junior high. 

I broke my leg over winter vacation. I was playing a pick-up hockey game while visiting friends in Ottawa. When I returned home to Virginia, a school secretary handed me a loaner key to the school's elevator, with strict instructions about how to use it. 

Navigating a big school building with a toe-to-thigh cast and a set of crutches was bad enough. I was extremely lucky that I didn't have to use the stairs every single time I changed class.

Before it passed, the Americans with Disabilities Act faced opposition. Effective protest helped it pass. During the "Capitol Crawl," disability rights activists with physical disabilities arrived, unannounced, at the U.S. Capitol building stairs. They got out of their wheelchairs, dropped crutches and crawled up a long staircase to gain access, chanting "ADA Now" and "Vote."

Facing difficult truths

Several senators, inconvenienced by the crawlers, changed their votes in favour of the bill. Their building's lack of accessibility forced senators to face difficult truths. The U.S. activists who forced them to confront this issue helped improve life for all Americans with physical disabilities. 

When I shovel snow off the handicapped-access ramp at my twins' preschool, I think about accessibility. When it snows and the janitor isn't there, there's less access to the building. 

Although my nephew lives in Virginia, I grab a shovel every time I see a problem with the ramp. 

Worse, this relatively new building lacks any elevator. If my kids weren't able to navigate stairs, they couldn't go to preschool and daycare there.

Manitoba desperately needs new childcare spaces; roughly 12,000 of them. We also continue to build and renovate school buildings. Creating accessible learning opportunities for all Manitobans shouldn't be an afterthought. Meeting the needs of all kids isn't something that may come up, some day.

Our family works hard to teach our preschoolers understanding when it comes to people who are differently-abled. It's important to think about it ahead of time, so that when a child breaks a leg, or has a catastrophic accident, they won't have to change schools just because they cannot get upstairs to their classrooms.

What if you have a child or parent with accessibility needs?  Do your children then have to attend different schools simply due to the lack of an elevator?

As Daniel Tiger, the PBS show, puts it: "In some ways we are different, but in so many ways, we are the same." It's embarrassing for everyone that the Winnipeg School Division hasn't prioritized accessibility for our city's kids, their parents and the wider community. 

Yes, it costs a lot of money… but let's get beyond the numbers.  Elevators might cost $1.5 to $2 million each.

Accessibility for everyone? Priceless.

Joanne Seiff is the author of two books. She writes, designs and teaches in Winnipeg.


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