Regent Park is a challenge for people with disabilities. A new partnership is trying to change that

Residents of Regent Park are teaming up with a accessibility app and a developer to map the neighbourhood and make it easier for people with disabilities to navigate.

AccessNow, The Daniels Corp. teaming up with local volunteers to make Regent Park easier to navigate

People with disabilities joined AccessNow and The Daniels Corporation to review and rank businesses and public spaces throughout the neighbourhood on their overall accessibility. (Spencer Gallichan-Lowe/CBC)

As someone who uses a wheelchair, Saleh Sheihk says newer buildings in his Regent Park neighbourhood are mostly accessible, but others need upgrades that aren't always obvious to people who don't have disabilities.

"When you go to a place, you don't know what's missing," said Sheikh.

"Every place should be accessible for everyone." 

That's why he joined a group of local volunteers Wednesday to review and rank how accessible Regent Park's public spaces and businesses are. The data they're collecting will help AccessNow, an accessibility crowd-sourcing firm, and The Daniels Corporation, a developer, map the neighbourhood to help people with disabilities navigate it better.

While AccessNow has hosted many initiatives like it, this is the first time the tech app has worked with a developer that has a history of shaping a community.

"Daniels is obviously responsible for a lot of the infrastructure, and now we're actually engaging with people who live in the neighbourhood to comment on how they navigate the spaces," said Maayan Ziv, the founder and CEO of AccessNow.

"It really creates a dialogue between builders, property managers and citizens."

A start of a partnership

Regent Park, which was built back in the 1940s, was Canada's first social housing project. For half a century it had few amenities and its narrow streets closed it off from the rest of the city. For decades, tenant activists pushed for change, saying poor urban design, an aging housing stock and a lack of investment was keeping the community poor and isolated. Finally, in 2005, the city responded by starting the long process of redesigning the neighbourhood.

The Daniels Corporation shaped the first three phases of the Regent Park Revitalization Project. When the fifth and final phase is finished, the neighbourhood will house new community services and centres, and potentially 3,000 new residential units offered at market, affordable and geared-to-income rates. 

Jacob Cohen, COO of the Daniels Corporation, says accessibility has traditionally been a focus internally within buildings, and not externally. Now, he says it's important to start looking at how communities function as a whole.

"By doing this, we'll be able to have a better chance at allowing people to go in and out, and be able to transport themselves throughout the community in an easier fashion," said Cohen.

Anthony Frisina, a spokesperson for the Ontario Disability Coalition, says he wants to see these kind of partnerships more often, and in ways that involve people with disabilities at the start of planning, not afterwards.

"Disability could happen to anyone at any time — temporary, permanent, or even catastrophic,"Frisina said.

"To have this kind of initiative and roll it out in a more prevalent manner, a more aggressive manner ... would be a benefit not only for the disability community, but for the community at large."

Looking to the future

Next month, Daniels and AccessNow will share the data they've gathered with users on AccessNow's app.

The partnership, Ziv says, is a way to approach accessible planning through a lens of reflection and accountability — both for city planners and for businesses.

"Our purpose is not to shame businesses that are not accessible, but really just to create transparency about what barriers still exist," she told CBC Toronto.

"We do hope that that information can kind of motivate and propel people to think about how to remove those barriers," Ziv added. 

"But it starts with just acknowledging that they exist in the community."

With files from Spencer Gallichan-Lowe and Vanessa Balintec