Canada

Pandemic-era patios still too often inaccessible, disability advocates say

More than 16 months into the COVID-19 pandemic, Canadians with disabilities say bar and restaurant patios that have been expanded onto streets and sidewalks to create more outdoor seating are often inaccessible to them.

Patios are 'very frustrating' for people with hearing loss, advocate says

People enjoys drinks on an outdoor patio in downtown Toronto in June. Restaurant and bar patios expanded on to sidewalks and streets during the COVID-19 pandemic are still too often inaccessible to people with disabilities, advocates say. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

More than 16 months into the COVID-19 pandemic, Canadians with disabilities say many restaurant and bar patios that have been expanded onto streets and sidewalks to create more outdoor seating remain inaccessible to them.

They say it's bad for people with disabilities and bad for businesses.

David Lepofsky, a law professor and chair of Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) Alliance said the expanded patios pose two challenges. One is that the patios themselves are often inaccessible for people who have mobility issues, vision loss or hearing loss. The other is that they also sometimes make the sidewalks and streets inaccessible, too. 

Bars and restaurants across Canada have expanded outdoor seating as provinces clamped down on indoor dining to curb COVID-19 infections, which spread more easily indoors.   

Walking into oncoming traffic

Lepofsky, who is blind, said in an interview that he was once forced to step into the street because there was no space to socially distance on the sidewalk next to a patio in Toronto.

David Lepofsky, chair of the AODA Alliance in Toronto, says he once had to step into traffic to get past a sidewalk patio. (Tina Mackenzie/CBC)

"Nobody really wants to walk into oncoming traffic. And if you're a blind person, you particularly don't want to walk into oncoming traffic," he said.

Toronto's guidebook for patios does include a list of accessibility requirements, including leaving a 2.1-metre pathway clear for pedestrians, that the city's accessibility rules and the province's rules under AODA are complied with and that patios have a barrier around them so that people who use white canes can pass by safely.

Workers assemble curb lane patio protection for the CaféTO restaurant program in Toronto on May 21, 2021. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

"This past winter, City staff committed to enhancing the requirements in the guidebook by including feedback from the accessibility community and meeting with the Toronto Accessibility Advisory Committee," City of Toronto spokesperson Deborah Blackstone said in an email to CBC News. 

"Members of the public are encouraged to contact 311 if they observe a public space that has been obstructed or blocked so that City staff can respond as soon as possible."

A 'very frustrating' experience

But Lepofsky said the pathways beside sidewalk patios are often not large enough to allow for social distancing and that the existing rules under AODA are insufficient.

He argues that requirements for new structures under Ontario's Building Code or AODA are inadequate and "have been for a long time."

"And there appears to be no municipal enforcement to ensure that there is a safe, accessible path of travel around the patio," he said.

Lee Pigeau, national executive director of the Canadian Hard of Hearing Association, said dining on patios can be "very frustrating" for people with hearing loss. 

People who read lips are already struggling to communicate because everyone is wearing masks, and street patios add additional distractions with the noise from traffic, he said.

"You get music and noises from all sides, which makes communication very difficult," he said in an interview.

Businesses are losing customers, advocate says

In New Brunswick, where disability rates are higher than the national level, accessibility standards for sidewalk patios are inadequate, says Haley Flaro, executive director of Ability New Brunswick. 

In Fredericton, where Flaro lives, the city lists two accessibility requirements on its application for sidewalk patios. It says patios must be wheelchair accessible and a two-metre pathway must be left beside the patio when possible. 

But Flaro says that's not enough, since there's often not enough room to navigate a wheelchair between tables and the tables themselves may not be high enough for wheelchairs to fit underneath.

"When a business opens or expands the patio and it is not accessible, they're losing about 12 per cent of their business in New Brunswick right off the bat," she said. "So we know accessibility is good for a lot of things and business is one of them."

Spokespeople for the City of Fredericton did not respond to a request for comment.

'Here we go again'

Victoria Levack of Halifax uses a power wheelchair. She's the spokesperson for the Disability Rights Coalition of Nova Scotia and chair of the Nova Scotia League for Equal Opportunities.

"There are times I can't get by [sidewalk patios]. I physically can't," she said in an interview.

Both she and Lepofsky said that the patios are just one small piece of a bigger problem: Canadian cities aren't accessible enough for people with disabilities. 

"So along comes the pandemic and these patios and it's like 'Here we go again,'" Lepofsky said.

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