Guelph turns 190 years old this year. For the first century of its existence, and much of the second, not a lot of thought was given to the fact that buildings, both public and private, were not accessible.
Progress, as they say, is slow, but for people with a physical disability it still sometimes feels like it’s moving at a glacial pace — even in 2017.
In the Roncesvalles neighbourhood of Toronto, my old Ontarion colleague Julian Katz faced a dilemma. To enter his deli, Stasis Preserves, you had to hop up a couple of steps. Easy when you’ve got two solid feet and legs working for you, somewhat more difficult if you get around in a wheelchair, or maybe if you’re out shopping with a stroller.
Three years ago, however, Julian found a workable, though inelegant solution: a collapsible ramp designed by StopGap.
StopGap is a company started by engineer Luke Anderson who lost the use of his own legs in a bike accident. Anderson designed the ramp to work within the restrictions of the space, and not how one might design a wheelchair ramp if one were building the neighbourhood from scratch. It’s literally a stop gap and that’s why it has to go.
Let’s put aside that the ramp has been there for three years. After one complaint, it has to be pulled with five days notice.
Let’s also put aside that the Government of Ontario has established the goal of making the province barrier-free by 2025 (that's eight years from now).
Let’s consider the hard, fast truth of the matter — business owners are caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to their older buildings and the demands of accessibility.
Do we want them to: a) try something even if it means not checking every box demanded by code, or b) never make a move to be accessible knowing that meeting all standards 100 per cent is a lengthy, and likely cost-prohibitive, endeavour?
Business owners in Downtown Guelph can relate.
It’s been almost a year since Matthew Wozenilek passed away, and the mere mention of his name made a lot of people downtown sweat due to his tireless activism to make the area more accessible. What made them sweat wasn’t Wozenilek’s work, which was noble, but it was being forced into a corner having to acknowledge the need for accessibility while admitting that their hands were tied by the last century’s inaccessible standards.
The result was a trip to the Human Rights Tribunal that might not have resolved anything, except cost people time and money to admit that you can’t reshape reality like those guys in the movie Inception.
Take the Bookshelf, as an example. I don’t have the numbers handy, but I think it can be said without hyperbole that it would probably be more cost effective to knock down the Bookshelf’s building and rebuild it as accessible than it would be to retrofit as accessible. I’m not sure how deeply the Minetts have researched the construction options, but you can’t really know what you’re dealing with when it comes to an older building until you start tearing it apart. I imagine being upstanding human beings and successful business people, the Minetts have done the due diligence, but who knows what surprises wait behind the walls?
Ask the people behind the renovation of the Petrie building. They thought they had it all figured out when they went to work renovating and modernizing it, but on a behind the scenes tour a few weeks ago, we were told about all the unexpected things that the construction crew encountered — things like a brick chimney with a dirt floor that needed to be reinforced as it went up against where they were installing the elevator. Donald Rumsfeld called them “unknown unknowns,” things that you don’t know you don’t know.
Putting an elevator in isn’t as simple as saying “let’s put an elevator in.” What’s going on in the Petrie building is an interesting test case for what it might take to make all of Guelph’s older buildings accessible according to 21st century standards. The Gummer Building was decimated by fire and rebuilt, the only original aspect to it was the facade, but Petrie, it had to be updated keeping its heritage features intact, using the building’s footprint, sandwiched between two other buildings. It’s almost like renovating a house of cards between two Jenga towers.
So knowing how hard it is to bring 19th century construction into the future, why is the City of Toronto making it hard for my old friend Julian? His ramp has got no railing and a 90 degree turn, and even though the City of Toronto says the ramp is infringing on sidewalk space, it’s actually not. And on top of it all, the ramp that Julian has to his deli was designed by a man in a wheelchair! Presumably, he stands by his design otherwise why would he design a wheelchair ramp he himself couldn’t or wouldn’t use?
The problem we sometimes trip over in these situations is idealism. We want things to be ideal, and this is troublesome because this is not an ideal world because there’s never enough money, space, time, or political will to get done the things we need to get done.
Think of it this way, what’s the better solution: having a less than ideal accessible entrance, or having no accessible entrance at all?
Idealism is quickly becoming the thing that stops us from accomplishing anything because, for whatever the reason, so many of us have the opinion that something has to be perfect to be worthwhile. If we were living in Plato’s Republic that would be no problem, but as the great philosopher himself observed, nothing in reality is perfect. Every person, object or emotion is has an essence of the form, but only the form itself is perfect. In other words, there are many different accessible ramps in the world, but at the core of each one is the form of a ramp.
To put that in laymen’s terms: it’s not perfect, but it works.
Does it work according the mandate of the municipal government?
Does it work if one might be building that entrance now and not 100 years ago? Maybe not, but can more people enter the deli with it, than without it? I think we know answer to that.
Government regulation gets a bad rap, and this is the reason why. I think we understand that there has to be such a thing as standards, but the people administering those standards need to make allowances for reality.
What are we told as kids? “It’s the thought that counts.” The thought here was “Let’s get more people into this neighbourhood deli.” A barrier broken, but now the government’s saying that it’s not breaking the barrier that matters but how you break it down. Does that make a lot of sense?
I don’t think anyone wants rickety ramps that could fall apart. I don’t think anyone wants to shortchange those with a physical disability by not giving them the access they deserve. But here we have a business owner and an engineer saying, “We can solve a problem,” and a city official saying, “No, you can’t.”
Is that the message you want to send?
Is that not just another kind of barrier?