The Ramp Project: tackling access for the disabled one storefront at a time

Being confined to a wheelchair by a mountain bike accident forced Luke Anderson to find a new way to look at the urban environment, and to help fix it, Natasha Fatah writes.

It has become a mantra of our progressive, polite society to insist that appearance doesn't matter, that it's what inside that counts.

But, fair or not, our physicality affects not only the way we live and what we are able to do, but how others perceive us.

Luke Anderson has been on the extreme ends of the physical spectrum, the ability one as well.

As a child and young adult, he defined himself primarily as an athlete. If an activity involved a ball, a chase, a run, a ski, a dive or a bike — Luke was interested, and he excelled.

His physical strength and love of activity dominated so much of his life that upon graduating from university, he moved from the Toronto area to Rossland, B.C., to, as he puts it, "do nothing but mountain bike."

Luke Anderson, speaking at the Canadian Urban Institute forum in November 2011. (Marlena Rogowska)

But one day in 2002, a biking accident resulted in a massive spinal cord injury that changed his whole life as he knew it.

Anderson lost the ability to walk, as well as most of the control of his hands.

He went from being a popular, all-around star athlete, and a pillar of strength, to a young man who needed help getting dressed in the morning and must use a wheelchair.

It was challenging to say the least. But these are the times when it is what's inside that counts.

And Luke Anderson showed that what he has inside is the tenacity to tackle the problems of getting around the big city, for himself and others, when you are physically challenged. 

Just getting around

At a recent Canadian Urban Institute forum on accessibility and cities, Anderson gave a presentation to a group of about 100 people, who were charmed by his easy, surfer speak and intrigued by his message.

He talked about the obvious things involving the physically disabled, like wheelchair ramps and push-button door openers.

But he also opened our eyes to the things most of us don't necessarily think about — like how difficult it can be to navigate a narrow apartment elevator when you are in a wheelchair.

Most elevators are big enough to allow a wheelchair to get in, but not to turn around. So if you are in a wheelchair by yourself, you don't always know if you have reached your floor because your back is towards the numbers and the door.

Then there is the problem of getting out of an elevator. You either back out and risk running into someone or something because you can't see clearly where you are going; or you try to manoeuvre a challenging three-point-turn within the confines of the elevator itself.

Redesigning the city

For the physically disabled, there are also issues with those everyday things that "seemingly" have nothing to do with accessibility — like air conditioning.

Former British PM Tony Blair places a temporary ramp in front of 10 Downing St., the official residence, for a visitor in 2005.

Anderson told his audience that because of his physical status and the fact that some of his muscles don't get used enough, he has really bad circulation.

So the extra-cool air conditioning in most of our big office buildings and retailers actually affects his health directly by slowing his circulation even more and causing numbness.

Used to having defined himself by what he could achieve against the toughest of physical environments, Anderson now has given himself a new challenge — to change the environment of ordinary life itself.

An engineer, with a job in a successful Toronto firm, Anderson is also the founder of  STOPGAP, a group of artists, design professionals and architects that wants to transform Toronto's built-up urban environment into "a place where everyone has access to what they desire through art, design, discourse and community action." 

The first place he started in on was his own neighbourhood.

The Ramp Project

Despite all the progress, technology and social will that is out there, Anderson still found it difficult, if not impossible, to access many of the local businesses, shops, restaurants, cafes and bars nearby, primarily because most storefronts have a single step.

A brightly coloured Ramp Project ramp in a Toronto neighbourhood. (Stopgap)

That is one small step for someone who can walk. But it can be a giant obstacle for someone in a wheelchair.

So Anderson and STOPGAP began what they called The Ramp Project, a simple but effective plan to build and provide temporary, weatherproof, slip-resistant ramps to local businesses at no charge.

The materials and money are donated by sponsors and the labour is provided by volunteers. And because the ramps are viewed as "temporary," they don't have to fall within the strictures of the building code. 

STOPGAP hopes that their colourful ramps will become a staple throughout the city, and maybe even other Canadian cities, until permanent accessibility solutions can be found.

The result has been a dozen or so brightly painted, cheerful and useful ramps along a West-end neighbourhood, to help not only people with physical disabilities, but the elderly, parents with strollers, pregnant women, people carrying heavy packages. The list goes on.

That's the thing about improving our built environment to make it more accessible. It doesn't just help those with disabilities, it improves the standard of living for all of us.