Natasha Fatah: Planning for a more (wheelchair) accessible future

Canada has come a long way in making our public spaces more accessible to the physically disabled. But with an aging population, much more will have to be done.

When I was in high school, I was involved with a community group that organized a fundraising dinner. We booked a great venue, arranged for entertainment, sold all of the tickets. It was going to be a terrific night for a worthy cause and we were pretty pleased with ourselves.

But on the night of the event we were made painfully aware of an oversight in our planning. The venue was not wheelchair accessible.

A gentleman who couldn't walk had bought a ticket and when he arrived at the venue he had to be carried, in his wheelchair by four men, up a flight stairs to the reception area.

We were all embarrassed for not taking the accessibility of the location into consideration and the reason was simple, it just wasn't something we had thought about.

The truth is most of us never think about the accessibility of our homes, workplaces or communities unless we are forced to. And when you do take a careful look around, you quickly realize the number of obstacles facing those with mobility issues.

The price of aging

Don't get me wrong, Canada is a leader and sets a high standard for the care and treatment of people with disabilities. Our inclusive culture socializes us to look out for the vulnerable.

Many national and provincial parks have wheelchair accessible areas and walks. But much of Canada's outdoors is off limits to those with physical disabilities. (Associated Press)

From the little things, like giving the best parking spots to people in wheelchairs or with other disabilities, to making it mandatory for businesses to have push-button openers for their doorways and to making sure our schools and public buildings have wheelchair ramps.

We have made it a legal and moral obligation to make our meeting places and public squares accessible to those who face physical challenges.

But the effort cannot stop there. For most of us, those who use wheechairs may seem like a small fraction of our population. But Statistics Canada reported there were 4.4 million Canadians with a physical disability in 2006 and that number is about to explode.

The large cohort of baby boomers are moving into their later years and they will be undoubtedly be dealing with the kinds of ailments (arthritis, diabetes, cardiovascular problems) that bring on mobility issues.

This is something that Canadian governments, and all of us, will have to start paying more attention to.

Thousands of baby boomers will be in the situation where they won't be able to live in their homes or enjoy the same kind of easy access they once had to getting around in their communities.

The simple act of going up and down stairs will become a challenge. The average stair lift for a home costs about $2,000, and if you have to get a customized one the price can be four or five times that amount.

Universal design

Think of all the small obstacles in your home that you don't give a second thought to. Are there a series of steps to get to your front door? Are there narrow hallways that may not allow for a wheelchair to pass? Would someone in a wheelchair or using a walker be able to open the heavy doors or manoeuvre around the washroom?

If we don't start preparing now for these inevitable challenges, not just through our health-care system, but through community infrastructures like transit, shelters and workplaces, we could be looking at a much bigger problem down the line.

Recently, I've been accompanying a family member on WheelTrans, which is part of the Toronto transit system's special program for those with mobility issues. The drivers are pleasant and almost always helpful, but there have been times when the drivers don't show up for hours and we have missed appointments.

The issue is one of options. Why aren't there more cabs that can accommodate wheelchairs? Why don't the car companies make more affordable cars that can be driven by hand?

In a recent edition of Zoomer magazine, Moses Znaimer writes about the idea called universal design — the concept of designing products and environments so that they are useable and accessible by people with many different attributes.

Znaimer explains how simple modifications to our homes and consumer goods, and as a general philosophy, benefits not only those in wheelchairs or senior citizens but all of us by making these things more streamlined and usable. 

Nature's way

During the devastating floods in Pakistan last year, I interviewed Asim Zafar, the president of Sayaa Association, an organization there that helps those with disabilities.

We know from the pictures and news stories how difficult life was for millions of Pakistanis who lost everything during the flooding.

But Zafar described to me the added suffering of those who had mobility limitations. Many had lost their wheelchairs in the floods and the confusion and they were being transported around in wheelbarrows.

There was no one to help them bathe, dress or eat. The transit shelters and camps were next to impossible for them to access.

We in Canada are unlikely to allow such neglect and indignity to fall on those who are vulnerable.

But we shouldn't rest on our laurels, there is so much more to be done. People in wheelchairs may face some limitations on their mobility, but that doesn't stop them from contributing.

I recently learned about the Lyndhurst Rehabilitation Hospital in Toronto, which offers a program every year to take wheelchair-bound patients camping for three days.

The patients pay nothing and the hospital takes them to a beautiful campsite where they stay in a completely wheelchair-accessible cabin and enjoy nature's wonder in a way that many of us take for granted.

Despite being in the middle of the woods, that for me is the height of civilization.