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Working to make Hinton more accessible

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Resident Jon Halvorson, who was born with Spina bifida and requires a wheelchair, says there are numerous accessibility challenges with businesses and housing in Hinton.

Masha Scheele

Next time you enter a building, look around and think about whether someone with a disability would have problems entering, getting around, or even living there. 

Jon Halvorson was born with Spina bifida and is a full-time wheelchair user. He pointed out that if able-bodied people notice these things more the chances of adapting businesses and affordable housing for disabled people are higher.

He says a lot of businesses and housing in Hinton are currently not accessible. Once inside a building, some stores also have very little room to move around with a wheelchair, stroller, or walker, and these are places Halvorson avoids.

“When I go into a store I want to enjoy the shopping experience. I shouldn’t have to worry about the front end of my wheelchair breaking an item or having to watch my hand from getting pinched from my push bar and a shelf,” he said.

Not only can these places be a hazard in emergency situations, they can also be tiring for elderly and disabled people to maneuver, he added. In the 12 years Halvorson lived in Hinton, he noticed a lot of establishments have one or more stairs, which are impossible to enter with an electric wheelchair. 

With a manual wheelchair, Halvorson is sometimes able to get out and lift the chair up one step, but not everyone is able to do this.

Pushing and lifting his chair has also left him with bad shoulders. 

Michelle MacNeil from Community Futures West Yellowhead is hosting a focus group discussion as part of the Hinton Accessibility Initiative on Jan. 23, with the goal of having an open and honest discussion about accessibility with local businesses. The session is only a preliminary stage of the initiative and it’s a way to start the dialogue and come up with ideas to make Hinton more accessible.

“In the summer of 2019, the federal government rolled out accessibility standards for all federally regulated private sectors, crown corporations, municipalities, anybody that is either owned or controlled by the government, they all have to meet certain accessibility criteria now,” she stated.

This Accessible Canada Act states that the realization of a Canada without barriers will be required on or before January 1, 2040.

The Town of Hinton was approached by a member of the Alberta Paraplegic Foundation in 2012 to create a report on making Hinton more accessible, stated Ewa Arsenault, maintenance services supervisor of the Town. 

The Town has slowly chipped away at this list over the past few years, while new builds and renos within the past 10 to 15 years have been built to accessibility codes. 

“The Town of Hinton is setting a really great example,” said MacNeil.

Ontario created the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act in 2005, enforcing standards to reach a goal of an accessible Ontario by 2025. They are the first province and also one of the first jurisdictions in the world to enact specific legislation establishing a goal and time-frame for accessibility.

This act also helps organizations identify and remove barriers and includes standards for customer service, information and communications, transportation, employment, and design of public spaces. A lot of existing businesses there were grandfathered due to the cost of becoming accessible, but that didn’t stop the conversation.

“I do believe the legislation is coming [federally], it could be two years, it could be 10 years. Ontario did this 16 years ago, it could be 16 years from now, but why wait? We’re alienating a population of consumers and human beings that don’t deserve to be excluded to do these things,” said MacNeil.

MacNeil borrowed some of the literature on initiatives and legislation from Ontario, and wants to talk about the no cost and low-cost options.

“It comes down to the business owner and whether they want to address these issues or not. What would encourage them to, what’s holding them back. Have they even thought of it?” she asked.

She originally wanted to apply for grants to help local businesses achieve some accessibility goals, but she added that grants are currently hard to come by. Instead, she found some low cost ideas like the stopgap foundation and lightweight rollaway ramps.

“[Stopgap] creates little triangle pieces that go in front of a door jamb with a gap. It creates a tiny little ramp for someone to go over a one inch or two inch door jamb. The Other Paw in Jasper has one from stopgap, they love it,” she said.

“It has gone a long way. As opposed to paying a construction company to fix something like that they paid a couple hundred dollars. A couple hundred to be accessible to all people, that’s a pretty good investment in my head.”

For some businesses, building a ramp isn’t an option as they may step out  onto a public sidewalk and it could block the sidewalk, becoming a tripping hazard. Things like lightweight rollaway ramps are another option.

“People that have accessibility issues, a lot of them can recognize those ramps now, so when they see one they know they can get into that business,” said MacNeil.

MacNeil wants Hinton to be one step ahead of legislation, and if standards ever roll out she hopes Hintonites can say they’ve already done this years ago.Since introducing the accessibility initiative, MacNeil has received some negative responses but she emphasized that she’s not pointing the finger at anyone.

“Disabilities are real and they don’t just come down to mobility, Safeway is now doing sensory nights on Mondays with lower lights and music and quiet beeps and there’s so many aspects of accessibility that I think people just think I’m calling them out for having stairs and that is not my goal,” she said.

She hopes the focus group will give some guidance for a next step and open the discussion. A few local businesses were invited by CFWY to attend the first focus group and start the conversation. In the future, MacNeil hopes to have a session with people living with disabilities to discuss ways the community can improve their accessibility.

Halvorson also talked about affordable and accessible housing. After living with his parents due to the lack of accessible housing in Hinton, he moved into a basement suite that was brought up to accessible standards by putting a ramp over one step. That step, Halvorson said, would have been easier to access without the ramp.

Finding a place to get his wheelchair around and that was also affordable was a nightmare, he said. Halvorson and his partner did eventually find an apartment building that contained the minimum accessibility standards of what he needed.

“If they think the price of accessibility is too much, there are grants the Alberta Government will provide to make homes and businesses accessible,” he said.

For more information about the accessibility initiave contact CFWY at 780-865-1224.