A recent walk organized by Ward 32 councillor Mary-Margaret McMahon has raised some issues and concerns in regards to accessibility.
On Nov. 13, McMahon led a group of people with disabilities, some visually impaired, others in wheelchairs, on a stroll along Queen Street, from Brookmount Road to Lee Avenue. The goal of the gathering was to identify and discuss challenges which people with disabilities often encounter on that stretch of the Beach.
Joanne Smith, who is in a wheelchair, triggered the event after a ramp built on Brookmount was removed by the City of Toronto. After observing Smith getting her coffee through the side door of the Starbucks Coffee shop at the corner, the condo board of the building decided they would build a ramp so that people on wheelchairs could access the popular coffee shop. Within less than a year, the City removed it, citing that there were no permits issued for such a ramp.
It is a challenge that many businesses along Queen Street face – not having the ability to utilize the sidewalks to build ramps due to City bylaws.
Adam Smith (no relation to Joanne), a representative of the Beach Business Improvement Area (BIA), suggests temporary ramps could solve the problem. Some businesses have several steps leading to the front entrance, making it impossible for wheelchair and scooter users to enter.
“We have a serious issue with accessibility in the Beach,” he said. “It’s something we need to address within the BIA and in the end I think it will be a combination of the businesses doing their own part, but also seeing where we can get the city, the province, and the BIA itself in on helping the businesses to set it up, and possibly even pay for it. We’ll see what kind of funding arrangements can be figured out.”
Mark VanElsberg, Project Manager, Pedestrian Projects with the City of Toronto, also explained how the City is looking at different ways to deal with pedestrian crossings for the visually-impaired. For one, they hope to tighten wide radius intersections in hopes to slow down turning vehicles. The challenge then becomes placing guidance strips in such tight corners.
Accessibility to stores was not the only concern found along the two hour walk. In front of Meat on the Beach, near Rainsford Road, a fire hydrant stands in the middle of the sidewalk. Most of the visually-impaired participants were perplexed to find the object in the middle of their path.
Flip up signs placed in front of businesses are also challenging to navigate around. Some are placed close to the front door, while others are near the curb. Although they are technically illegal, McMahon explained they are sometimes needed to draw in customers, suggesting that perhaps overhead flags could be an alternative.
The use of tree well plantings is also a serious hazard to people with wheelchairs and scooters. The wheels usually get stuck, especially after rain when the soil is muddy. McMahon suggested placing a grid over the wells to prevent such accidents.
“It was a real eye-opener for many of us who take walking along Queen Street for granted,” said McMahon.
As for Joanne Smith, she hopes to see improvements in the future.
“I’ve been on a chair for 24 years, so I’m used to it. Toronto is a great city, and in terms of respect around the world we’re a pretty accessible place to live. But there is room for huge improvements. There are big gaps on the sidewalks in the Beach and that’s quite difficult,” she explained, adding that she finds that it can sometimes be frustrating not having the independence people with disabilities expect.