People with disabilities have lost a tireless champion for equal access to buildings and services in Guelph and across the country.
Matthew Wozenilek died April 27 from complications related to a twisted bowel.
“We had a private service at his home,” said his son Matthew Wozenilek. “That’s what he wanted. He was a private person.”
He was a private person but he didn’t shy from the spotlight if he believed in something. His campaign to “Stop Ableism” made headlines across the country and dragged the issue of accessibility into the national spotlight.
“He got lots of coverage but he didn’t do it for the coverage and the attention,” said his son. “He did it because it was right.”
A page on Wozenilek’s Stop Ableism website lists 27 local businesses and government offices that, in response to his efforts, added wheelchair friendly doors and made other changes to improve accessibility.
“He piled together a big string of changes,” said Wozenilek. “There are some cases you will never know about.”
Ableism is defined on the website as a set of practices or beliefs that assign inferior value or worth to people who have developmental, emotional, physical or psychiatric disabilities.
By convincing businesses to make the necessary changes Wozenilek was creating what he described as “entrances with independence and dignity.”
“People would say just ring the bell or get my attention and I will help you but he’d say I don’t want to have to ask for help,” said Wozenilek. “I just want the same access as everyone else.”
Wozenilek was born in Toronto. He moved to Guelph in 1985 and for 22 years he was a high school computer science and business teacher at both Guelph Collegiate and Vocational Institute and John F. Ross CVI.
He is the divorced father of three adult sons Matthew, Joshua and Thomas.
Wozenilek was diagnosed with a degenerative neurological condition when he was in his early 20s. As the condition progressed his mobility declined.
“He was never in a wheelchair whiling teaching,” said Wozenilek. “He left teaching because of health issues and his disability. He went from using a walker to a wheelchair. He would have retired from teaching next year.”
It was after he was confined to a wheelchair that he began to see how inaccessible many businesses and government services were to people with disabilities.
“He was doing things that impacted him directly,” said Wozenilek. “He lived alone with his dog Irene. The two of them went around town making sure things were accessible.”
He considered inaccessibility a form of discrimination. If a business refused to make the changes required he filed complaints to the Canadian Human Rights Commission.
After running into problems gaining access to his polling station during the 2011 federal election he took Elections Canada in front the Human Rights Tribunal.
The case was settled through mediation in August 2014.
“He felt government should lead the way and set the standard for accessibility,” said Wozenilek. “That is why he targeted any government offices or services that weren’t accessible.”
Largely because of Wozenilek’s campaign all polling stations during the last federal election were required to meet more than a dozen accessibility criteria.
Heart problems and other health issues caused him to slow down much of his activism during the last couple years. In early April he was diagnosed with a twisted bowel and required surgery.
“Doctors told him he may not survive the surgery,” said Wozenilek. “He had a couple hours before his surgery to get his affairs in order. He had surgery and was in the ICU for two weeks.”
He never recovered. He was 64 years old.
Wozenilek has many fond memories of his father and is proud of his activism.
“He was not afraid to fight for what he believed in,” he said. “He was content with the progress he’s made.”