For people in wheelchairs, exploring rural Nova Scotia isn't easy
Only 1 in 5 rentals registered with Tourism Nova Scotia are considered somewhat accessible
Shannon Publicover envisioned spending a weekend enjoying the warm weather with her family at a cottage with a fire pit or barbecuing on a deck.
She quickly became dismayed trying to find somewhere to stay in Nova Scotia.
Her 13-year-old daughter has cerebral palsy and Publicover, who lives in Porters Lake, N.S., was shocked to realize how few options there are for people in wheelchairs.
Out of about 680 rentals registered with Tourism Nova Scotia, only one in five are considered somewhat or fully accessible.
Of the 150 potential spots, fewer than half are something other than hotels or resorts. Fewer still are fully accessible standalone units, as opposed to rooms in a main building.
"I didn't find much," she said. "I was frustrated. I thought there would be a lot more options available, especially we're here in 2019 and quite a few people have disabilities and mobility issues."
Publicover's findings weren't a surprise to Tim Atkins, who has used a wheelchair since 1974 and co-manages the Mersey River Chalets and Nature Retreat in Caledonia, N.S.
He started working at the Mersey River property in the mid-1990s when it was still under construction after being approached by the developers, two of whom were also in wheelchairs.
The property features seven wheelchair-accessible cottages with roll-in showers, teepees and tents that people in wheelchairs can use, and a boardwalk system throughout the grounds.
Accessible rural rentals hard to find
Often, he finds himself calling ahead for guests to ensure their next stop is as accessible as they need it to be. He makes recommendations based on his own experiences.
"I'm still not comfortable sending them unless I've been there myself," he said. "The place may have a ramp and be great to get into, but the bathroom isn't right."
Atkins said it can be disappointing and embarrassing to book travel, only to realize tours or accommodations are ill-prepared for someone in a wheelchair.
There have been times he had guests return after attempting to visit other parts of the province only to realize when they got to their destination they couldn't stay in their accommodations.
"If you're from Halifax and it's not good … you can drive back home, which still isn't fun. But if you're from overseas, England or someplace like that, what do you do? It's terrible. Your whole vacation is ruined," he said.
Atkins recommends day trips but said visiting rural communities can be a challenge because many older buildings have steps and don't have enough space for a ramp.
He said he can count on one hand the number of businesses and restaurants in Annapolis Royal, which isn't far from where he lives, that he can get into with his chair.
Publicover said she and her family have also run into that problem trying to eat at local spots outside of Halifax.
"The people are very accommodating and apologetic — 'Oh, I'm sorry we don't have a ramp.' Or they may have a ramp in the back of their establishment, but that's for deliveries and whatnot. They let us use that. But how does it make a person feel when you're coming in a back entrance as opposed to a front entrance like everyone else?"
Transportation, places to eat added challenge
Atkins would like the province to do more to promote tourism for people with disabilities, including accessible transportation options.
He said staying in Halifax is one thing, but it's even difficult for people to get to Mersey River, located near Kejimkujik National Park, if they're flying in. A taxi that can accommodate a wheelchair costs about $300 one way and there are no rental options.
"I do a lot to reach out to people before they come [to Nova Scotia] to make sure they know what they're getting into and tell them the good, the bad and the ugly," he said.
Atkins would like to see people with disabilities involved in working to ensure operators are prepared to host guests with a variety of needs.
"To give everyone credit, a lot of people don't understand that they aren't [accessible]. They don't mean not to be accessible, they just don't understand what accessibility means in some cases," he said.
No one from Tourism Nova Scotia was available for an interview, but in a statement, it said the province is developing accessibility standards for tourism businesses.
There are also some grants available for businesses that want to install things like ramps, doors and accessible washrooms, as well as analog and digital signage to help people with auditory or visual issues.
Publicover, who was eventually able to book a vacation spot after calling ahead to ensure it was suitable, said investments to adapt properties might end up paying for themselves in the long run.
"Since there are so many people that have some form of disability, they may end up getting more business," she said.
Properties can be inspected
Operators in Nova Scotia can pay a $175 fee to have someone from Access Advisor Quality Tourism Services come to their property to determine if it's fully or partially accessible, or if it qualifies for sight or hearing designations. That designation shows up on the Tourism Nova Scotia listings.
Ronald van der Weegen, who works with the service, said he inspects whether doors are wide enough and can be opened easily with one hand and takes note of things such as bendable straws, or the path someone must take from a parking lot to their room.
If someone couldn't get around the property without help, the listing is not classified as fully accessible.
"The consumer must be able to, whether there is a beach wheelchair available, they must be able to enjoy all the beautiful features of the property unassisted or assisted," van der Weegen said.
It's mostly resorts and hotels that have the highest level of accessibility, he said. The biggest barrier he notices is the physical layout of a building and the money involved in making adaptations.
Short rental season poses challenges
Van der Weegen said he'll often explain what changes would allow the building, unit or campground to be considered more accessible.
He said he's seen the mindset of operators change from only doing things because that are required under the province's building code to wanting to make their spaces more inclusive.
"It still is a challenge," he said. "Again, it's a short season of operation and at the end of the season there's lots of maintenance to be done, and putting some of the money into making a property sometimes becomes a challenge. Certainly the will is there, and we've seen some great strides in the last couple of years.
"We all need to be welcomed and feel welcomed. It doesn't just come down to dollars and cents. Often times it's being able to provide the guest with a little extra."
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