An event in downtown Whitehorse served as a chance to foster empathy with those who have mobility challenges and also a friendly audit of downtown businesses’ accommodations for those who use crutches, wheelchairs and more.
Organized by Compassion Yukon, a peer support network focused on assisting differently abled people in the territory, the “Accessibility Olympics” held on March 31 and April 1, offered those without mobility challenges in their day-to-day lives a chance to step into the shoes of those who rely on mobility aids.
Participants, among them Mayor Laura Cabott, city councillors and staff members, took turns with the provided crutches, walkers or wheelchairs. The participants navigated tasks including getting in and out of a van fitted with a wheelchair ramp, traversing sidewalks and entering downtown businesses while volunteers followed along and recorded their impressions of accessibility.
Myryja Friesen, one of the Compassion Yukon organizers, said the goal of the Accessibility Olympics is not only public knowledge and awareness, but also actual changes to help better accommodate people with disabilities.
“What we hope to achieve is better policies surrounding curbs and accessible parking, in the downtown core first and then expanding out eventually to all of Yukon. Reforming parts of the health-care system as well, like who can receive their accessible placards, as the forms can be a little bit naive and truly outdated,” Friesen said.
“Yukon, we are awesome but we can be better. All we need is people with lived experience, a will for change, lots of compassion for those who don’t seem to understand us and reasonable, possibly even revolutionary, dare I say, ideas for better accessibility inclusivity for all.”
Friesen said these kinds of measures will not only make life better for differently-abled Yukoners but might also make the territory a more inviting destination for tourists.
Organizers and volunteers noted that while the run of mild spring weather and the efforts of city maintenance crews had cleared sidewalks fairly well in the downtown core, the slush, packed snow and ice that would have been present a few weeks earlier would have been an additional hindrance to mobility for some people.
Along with Compassion Yukon, Inclusion Yukon was on hand, using its van fitted with a wheelchair ramp to demonstrate the challenges faced with finding enough space to extend the ramp and in getting up over the curb and onto the sidewalk.
On their walks or rolls through Horwoods Mall and other downtown businesses, Accessibility Olympics participants found a range of challenges. Matt LeBlanc described getting around Horwoods Mall shops using a wheelchair as “three out of 10 challenging.”
He had wheeled the chair around a few of the mall’s shops with helpful staff in one of them shuffling a display table over the space between it and some cabinets was found too narrow for the wheelchair. LeBlanc took a couple of tries to get the wheelchair up the ramp and into the van.
Following LeBlanc and recording the areas he found challenging was Inclusion Yukon executive director Chris Vainio.
Vainio said that some of the participants found that even in situations where accessibility features such as ramps were in place, their layout was tricky or they were in disrepair.
Ren Pumphrey, one of the participants who visited Main Street businesses on crutches, noted that construction in the area created some challenges including a cone placed on an accessibility ramp but that workers quickly removed it. Another challenge Pumphrey found was heavy doors and a lack of accessibility buttons at some businesses.
Outside the scope of the Accessibility Olympics, Pumphrey said lack of seats for employees at some businesses and accessibility around public transport are aspects of Whitehorse’s accessibility that could be improved.
Cabott was among those who participated in the Accessibility Olympics on April 1 pushing a walker on a tour of some businesses. She was joined by city counsellors and staffers.
The mayor described the event as “important and enlightening to experience,” particularly in the ways that small glitches or cracks in the accessibility system can make it challenging to get into some buildings. She noted the challenges she encountered herself including the steep grades of some accessibility ramps. Cabott said she hopes Compassion Yukon and Inclusion Yukon share what they learned with businesses so they can improve accessibility.
Along with the situation in private businesses, Cabott said there was a lot to be learned for the city, including the challenges for wheelchair ramp vehicles posed by the size of accessible parking spaces and obstructions like signage and parking metres.
She said the city is very supportive of improving accessibility and improvements in ramps, accessible curbs and other features will be included when upgrades are made to city streets or underground services.
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