The people of Toronto, especially the politicians like to call Toronto a “World Class” city, but Toronto falls behind so many other smaller Canadian Cities when it comes to accessibility. Take for example Montreal has several outdoor accessible public washrooms outside of Metro stations, try finding an accessible washroom any day of the week at Yonge – Dundas Square in Toronto. Don’t worry, this podcast is not all doom and gloom, I will point out some of the stars when it comes to accessibility.
Before I give more examples of where barriers to access still exist in Toronto (many of which could easily be fixed), let me tell you about my story. Over the past year I have started to have some mobility issues caused by complications of Diabetes. I first encountered these problems when I burned the heels of my feet on a heated foot massager because the nephropathy in my feet caused me not to feel the heat. I also started to experience falling issues when my feet got tired and I would not feel them, I would even trip over my own feet.
I use a cane and a walker and sometimes use a mobility scooter to get around, and that is when I started to notice the barriers to access that most people do not realize still exist in Toronto. Not all the barriers that I encountered were caused by lack of infrastructure, many were caused by peoples attitudes and assumptions. Again these are the same attitudes and assumptions that I myself may have made only a year ago. Let me explain a few…
Most public washrooms have 2 or more bathroom stalls, but only one is accessible. This should be enough right? Not when they are occupied by a very able bodied person who just wanted to use a larger stall, instead of the 2 or 3 empty stalls beside it. Then you have entrances to malls and public buildings that have an accessible entrance with plenty more doors that an able bodied person can use, but choose not to. Just go to the Yonge and Dundas entrance to the Toronto Eaton Centre and watch as people file through the accessible door and pass on the revolving door or across the street at 10 Dundas East where people are filing through the accessible door and not letting someone in a wheelchair or using a walker to use the door. The same can also be said about elevators in malls (that also have plenty of escalators), entire families will fill up the elevator while people with mobility devices have to wait. Yes, just watch the attitude a person in a wheelchair gets because they need that elevator (because there is no alternative for them).
Let’s talk about the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC), they have come a long way in being more and more accessible and the overburdened Wheeltrans network is over capacity. One way they have started to address this issue is to encourage users to utilize the TTC Family of Services, meaning to encourage people to utilize the accessible services on a given trip. While this can be possible for some trips, it it not easy sometimes to put an entire trip together on the regular TTC network. Not every subway station or streetcar are accesssible, but they are making inroads. The TTC’s fleet of CLRV streetcars are long beyond their expected date of retirement, so the Commission (with help from the Province and the Federal Government) have made an agreement to purchase 204 Flexity Outlook streetcars that have low floors and self deploying wheelchair ramps. Unfortunately, Bombardier has not been able to keep to the delivery schedule and make many wonder why the province forced the TTC to make that deal and not with Siemens (who is one of the largest builders of low floor streetcars around the world). My other problem with the TTC is the attitude of some buss drivers. I have no problems stepping onto an accessible bus with my walker, but encounter problems stepping off. So often times I will ask the driver to deploy the ramp, but am met with an attitude from the driver who does not understand my mobility issues and thinks if I can get on without the ramp, I can get off without the ramp. When I ride an accessible vehicle with my scooter, the attitude I get shifts from the driver to the other passengers who act like they are being inconvenienced because the driver has to deploy the ramp for me to get on and off.
While I just said where I have problems with the TTC staff and other passengers, I am floored by the amazing customer service and accessibility of the York Region Transit and it’s contractor Transdev (a French-based international private public transport operator). They make riding public transit a dignified way to travel for those with mobility issues. This summer I have taken YRY over 30 times getting to Canada’s Wonderland and every trip has been met with the most courteous and helpful perpetrators and support staff. On one trip with my walker, the Northbound Jane 20 bus was too full allow me onto the bus, so I figured I would have to wait for the next one. But I did not have to wait, it seems that one of their supervisors showed up and offered to take me and my folding walker to the park. I was in awe of how this transit system treated me.
Speaking of going to Canada’s Wonderland, this summer I purchased a season pass (after not being at the park for 16 years) because as part of my mental health strategy, I had to get out of my apartment more. I have made over 17 trips to Wonderland this summer and plan to go many more times (yes, I have even purchased my 2019 season pass). Where to begin telling you about how accessible Canada’s Wonderland is? Well I should first tell you that almost all of their rides and attractions have made accessible accommodations, including rides that were build in the early 1980’s. All of the roller coasters have either ramps at the exit or elevators to accomadate wheelchairs or ambulatory riders. So this is where I tell you about special passes that they have created for those with disabilities. The boarding pass system is not just for people with physical challenges, Wonderland stepped up their game by having a Boarding Pass for those on the Autism spectrum that have difficulties on crowded line ups.
How do the Boarding Passes work? They allow those facing mobility and other barriers to access to enter the ride via the exit. Befor you start thinking that these Boarding Passes are like Fast Passes, let me correct you. While people with these passes do get to enter by the exit, they first have to get a time from one of the operators based on the lenghth of the line. If the line is 45 minutes long, the rider is given a time to return to the ride as if they had waited in the line just like everyone else. The person whose name is on the pass can only have a time for one ride at any given time. This is a fair system and works. So, there are 3 different boarding passes: A white pass for people with mobility issues that can not climb stairs or stand in long line ups; A yellow pass or those on the Autism spectrum who have difficulty with standing in lines with people; And a 3rd blue pass that gives those on the ASD pre set times for specifically selected rides. The only thing that Canada’s Wonderland has to do a better job at is helping the general public understand that these passes are not fast passes and can sometimes be a longe wait than those in the regular lines. I think I might have to make a video and post it on my YouTube channel.
As part of getting out of my apartment more this summer, I have also taken to visit some of the great neighborhood festivals that I have enjoyed over the years. Unfortunately, this is where I faced the most barriers to access. Where should I begin? I guess I will start of with my all time favorite festival that also gave me the biggest challenges. The Beaches Jazz Festival, in particular the street fest has always been my go to event of the summer. This year I went down to the street festival anticipating a great time, only to be met with frustration and bitterness towards the planning or lack of planning when it comes to mobility issues. The street fest takes place on Queen Street East between Woodbine and Beech avenue to the east, the first barrier to access was the entrance at Woodbine avenue was very narrow and I had to squeeze my scooter through. Having to go from side to side of the open street was made complicated by the streetcar tracks, in a scooter or a wheelchair you can not just shuffle like those walking, you have to cross the track perpendicular (so not to get stuck in the tracks). After trying to navigate the roadway for several blocks, I decided to to take to the sidewalks, this proved even more futile. Instead of the sidewalks being a barrier free route to any store or restaurant, the planners allowed some places to take up the entire sidewalk. This would be no problem for someone walking, they could just walk out onto the street and around, but someone in a mobility device has to go all the way back to the last intersection to get onto the road and then go to the block past the barrier and come back to a store on the other side. A temporary ramp would have solved this problem, but the planners did not think about sidewalk accessibility. I had a similar issue at Taste of the Danforth, I entered the festival from Broadview ave and proceeded East along the sidewalk aiming to pick up some sunscreen at Shoppers Drug-mart. Halfway down the block a bar had its patio extended the full width of the sidewalk and no ramp for people to get off the curb. I had to go all the way back to Broadview to get off the curb and then had to fight my way along the very crowded road with a stage in the middle. As part of the planning of these types of events, the city has to make sure that the planners make sidewalk accessible with ramps to get on and off the curb past obstacles.
So what fair is getting it right? The Canadian National Exhibition (CNE) has taken more steps than any other, but that is not giving them a full pass on barriers to access. I like the fact that along the midway they have large humps to cover power wires, instead of steep plastic bumps that are not easy to get over in a wheelchair or scooter. For the most part the CNE takes great lengths to make the fair accessible, but it is the public who fails. The food building has designated table that people in wheelchairs can use, but this does not stop others (who do not need it) from pulling up a chair from somewhere else and taking over the table. There are plenty of accessible bathrooms, but people forget who they are intended for and line up to use them when there is lines at regular restrooms. The CNE offers a free express train from one end to the other, unfortunately all off the lines to get on are not accessible.
While great strides have been made to make Toronto more accessible, more needs to be done before we can rest on our laurels and say that we have done enough. I have learned so much from my experience with limited mobility issues that it has opened my eyes to the challenges faced by those who have much greater barriers to overcome. It is not just the job of the government to set policy and enact legislation it is also the job of the government to educate businesses and the public on what role they play in making Toronto a more accessible city.
I would like to talk more about accessibility issues, but I will leave it for now and want to know what you think about the barriers to access in Toronto, share your stories and experiences. I think my next podcast/blog will be about the barriers that those with hidden disabilities face, I want some other voices to join me on a future podcast talking about those issues.
Listen to the podcast version of this