By Erika Mathieu
Sunny South News
Coaldale’s council recently heard from Access Coaldale member Christina Scott, and planner for the Town, Melanie Messier in response to an accessibility audit conducted within Coaldale. Scott, a full-time wheelchair user, spoke to the ways barrier-free design can impact the way people engage with their communities, and how infrastructure design can be either an equalizer or a hindrance, depending on the degree of accessibility. Barrier-free design refers to infrastructure which has been designed and constructed to allow for access without barriers, regardless of the user’s age, disability, size, or level of mobility. Effective barrier-free design allows for the greatest number of people to utilize the space. Barriers refer to obstacles that would limit or reduce the usability of a space by a user with reduced mobility.
Scott said she does not believe the primary reason for deficits in accessible infrastructure is primarily a result of intentional resistance, but rather a result of a lack of insight into how universal or barrier-free design elements are essential to ensure democratic access to spaces.
“I don’t think it’s a matter of resistance, but more so a lack of awareness. If people don’t deal with a disability themselves, the concept of universal design may not be on their radar. As a society and community, I think it’s human nature to want to improve spaces and do better. People just may not understand the path needed to get there. That’s where we hope the Accessibility Audit Report will serve as a guide to achieve that, so Coaldale is a community for people of all abilities.” Scott added. “There are also costs associated with renovating spaces to create barrier-free access, depending on the scale of the project and the improvements needed, cost can be a significant barrier.”
Although advocates are still fighting for accessibility within the disability community, barrier-free access benefits the entire community.
“Universal design benefits society at large because it is not just for persons with disabilities. It benefits seniors, caregivers, and people with young children. The reality is, we are all aging and will need adaptations at some point in our lives. Why not get ahead of the curve and be prepared for that? It may involve planning, capital, and resources now, but it will be worth it to all in the long run. No one will ever complain about community access being made easier,” explained Scott.
Although ableism is alive and well in a myriad of contexts, there are inherent design features that can be observed in infrastructure and architecture which are needlessly exclusionary. Oftentimes this results in limited employment opportunities, social alienation, and in some cases, erodes the capacity of independence for those who are excluded from assessing space due to barriers beyond their control.
Scott said, “speaking personally, inaccessibility has alienated me in different ways throughout my life. Lack of access has prevented me from securing jobs I would be highly skilled at. It has prevented me from enjoying restaurants, bars and community spaces with my family and friends, and it has hindered my ability to be an independent, fully participating citizen. I am capable of so much, and it is frustrating to be limited by barriers beyond my control.” Peter Stein, who is also an Access Coaldale member and uses a prosthesis on one leg. “I have experienced not being hired for a job just because I drive with my left foot.”
Scott explained how the lack of barrier-free design can pose considerable challenges for users of gravel pathways, parking spaces with inadequate barrier-free stalls, building entrances with no ramps or ramps which are too steep, entrances that lack power-operated doors, washrooms which do not incorporate barrier-free features, and sidewalks which are difficult or impossible to navigate for wheelchair users, or people who rely on a device such as a cane or a walker to move around. A design feature such as a sloped curb, versus one with a hard 90-degree angle, determines whether some people can access crosswalks, and creates additional work to access and utilize public space. Paths with obstacles, such as bumpy or disjointed surfaces, or gravel parking lots are less navigable for wheelchair users, or people with visual disabilities who must navigate their surroundings using a cane.
The barrier-free design allows people with disabilities or reduced mobility to retain their independence. Scott noted, “independence is extremely important for people with disabilities, and it may not always be possible or ideal to have to ask for assistance.” She referred to how a lack of automatic or power-operated doors can be a significant hindrance for some users, and said, “it can be frustrating if a person with mobility issues has to struggle to gain entry into a facility by fighting with doors that are too heavy to open or operate themselves.”
Scott expressed although she is aware all recommendations would likely not be adopted or implemented overnight, the audit serves as a benchmark for areas in the community which could be improved to ensure every resident has equitable opportunities and can access the spaces they need. “Access Coaldale is extremely fortunate to have the opportunity to work with the Town of Coaldale on this initiative,” adding, “we are appreciative of the positive and receptive response we have received from the Town of Coaldale, and Mayor Jack Van Rijn and council. We are fortunate to have allies who see the value in providing access to all.”
The accessibility audit was the first step in Access Coaldale’s mission to make the community the most accessible in Alberta and will serve as a benchmark to determine what physical barriers exist in public buildings, streets and pathways and provide council with recommendations for improvements. Access Coaldale will return to council at a later date to request additional funding. Scott pointed out during the council meeting, “at some point, these improvements are going to be valuable for every citizen. Barrier-free access is not a privilege, but a right.”