In the summer of 1995 my husband Mike and I moved to California from western Canada for work opportunities. When we first moved here we only expected to stay for five years at most. However almost 18 years later now we are still here with no plans to move back to Canada in the near future. During a recent trip to Calgary to visit family I realized that when we do move home that it’s going to be very difficult to transition to that lifestyle. California offers a great deal to me that is not currently available in Calgary or probably very many other parts of Canada.
During the time I have been in California I’ve been an active part of the advocacy community. For the first few years this was because we were still on Mike’s work visa and I had no ability to work. However once we got our green cards I realized that advocacy was a very important part of my life. I’ve been involved in several advocacy movements and I’m very proud of all of them. Over the years I have helped work on issues such as point-of-sale machines in grocery stores, accessible credit reports, and access to education, and improving services for people with disabilities. I’ve served on a great deal of boards such as the Bay Area Rapid Transit accessibility advisory panel and related commissions. I was an active member of the California Council of the Blind and have participated in many efforts to improve access for guide dog users.
During my recent trip home to Calgary I was greatly disappointed to see how accessibility has improved very little in the past 18 years. At least in the realm of public accommodation nothing is going on in Calgary at the level it is here in the Bay Area. The biggest disappointment to me was in transportation. When I walked onto the light rail transit platforms I was dismayed to notice that even though all the platforms are being extended and renovated not one platform yet has a detectable edge strip. In one station I went to on the perimeter wheelchair users still have two go through circuitous routes to get to the platform. On the train platforms signage for the next trains rarely verbalized. I remember the day my brother went to work shortly after the flooding and called home because he was having difficulties because the train announcements were not working at all. It seems to me that if the trains were able to be up and running again after the floods one of the things that should’ve been included in the testing was the announcement system for people who could not read the signs. Whenever I took the light rail I was still shocked and appalled to see the train doors still required a passenger to push a button to open and close the doors. And after many many years the Calgary light rail system still has an obnoxious pole in the middle of every doorway that blocks a wheelchair user from getting in and out of the train or causes a blind person to bump into it. When I was a teen graduating high school I remember falling between the train cars on the light rail system. To this day I do not see any barriers placed on that large gap between each car. The Calgary transit system doesn’t seem to adequately consider the people who are blind and visually impaired, wheelchair users and other people with physical disabilities use the system on a daily basis. Can you start addressing their needs?
One of the other areas that I was sadly disappointed in was physical access to commercial properties. During the 20 days we were in Calgary I don’t think I once was at a restaurant that was fully accessible. Most of the restaurants we ate at in fact had no access whatsoever. From steps at the front door with no ramp to get in to bathrooms that were narrow cramped and completely inappropriate restaurant access was horrible. I remember going to one restaurant where the sinks were so high the counter was at my mid chest level. It’s not like a wheelchair user would ever find this out though because the bathrooms were up a flight of stairs. One of the better restrooms with reasonably accessible fixtures was up two stairs. Many of the places we ate at were new and or renovated very recently. In California this would never be allowed to happen. According to the Americans with Disabilities act if you’re renovating or building a new structure you must include accessibility for people with physical disabilities. How these restaurants that we went to in Canada were able to renovate themselves or build new facilities and still not be accessible shocked me. I’ve become quite spoiled in my time here in California.
There were a few things in Canada that have actually surpassed access here in the United States. For example Access Media has done a wonderful job of increasing access to describe television content. Included with everybody’s basic cable package are two television channels where all of the content is audio described. Nothing similar is available anywhere in the United States. For movies the situation is reversed. Here in Berkeley I have access to six theaters I can get to quickly that have access to described movies with closed
captioning. And those are just the ones I know of. In Calgary, one of the largest cities in Canada, is sadly lacking such description and has only one theater where description and captions are available. I’m told that even people at the Canadian National Institute for the Blind weren’t even aware that that one theater existed.
The one other thing that Canada has done correctly is access to the currency. It was a wonderful thing to hand somebody bills and be sure that I was really handing them $10 and not $20. I’ve met very few blind people who have not encountered problems with inaccessible currency. We’ve all handed somebody a bill in a cab or at a store thinking it was one thing and it turned out to be another. We all have our own techniques of knowing what money is by folding the bills or electronic recognition devices but inevitably situations which require you to trust what you are receiving still arise. With Canada’s accessible currency you’re not relying on a machine or someone else to tell you what the bill is it tells you itself. I’m still a Canadian at heart and one day my husband and I will return to Calgary as it is that’s where our family is. However, it’s going to be a difficult transition. As I age I realize that those inaccessible bathrooms may actually be inaccessible to me one day. Maybe I’m partially to blame for the inaccessibility in Calgary as I left there to come here and do my work. But I am only one person. So I call out to my Canadian friends and colleagues and say get off your laurels and get to work. When I come home I want Canada to be as or more accessible than anywhere else in the world.