The ability to brush your teeth, get dressed, use the bathroom or simply open a door are some of the routine activities many take for granted on a daily basis. For someone living with a mobility issue, such as being confined to a wheelchair, these daily tasks are not only obstacles but often can only be overcome with the direct physical assistance of others, sometimes even strangers just passing by.
“I’m still getting used to having someone help me wash myself,” said Luke Anderson, in a presentation to Bowmore PS students in December, 10 years after a biking accident left him with a spinal cord injury.
Anderson, 34, was an avid mountain biker and passionate athlete, whose world changed in a split second missing a gap jump in a British Columbia forest. Once an independent, able-bodied individual, he said he was “thrown into a world that was not well suited for someone with a wheelchair,” and was “introduced to all the barriers that exist in our built environment.”
Single step storefronts were one of those popular barriers that he encountered. Anderson’s frustration turned to innovation, and so he created, with close friend Michael Hopkins, StopGap, an organization that helps raise awareness of accessibility issues.
The Community Ramp Project was the first project taken on by StopGap, whose goal is to make businesses more accessible one ramp at a time. With donations from community hardware stores and labour from inspired volunteers, brightly coloured ramps are being made for single step storefronts – all at no cost to the business owners.
“It creates independence, so no longer is somebody waiting at the curb to ask for help and possibly put themselves in a risky situation getting lifted up and into a store – all of a sudden their lives are simplified,” said Anderson.
Last spring, Bowmore principal Thelma Sambrook, at that time principal at Summit Heights PS with teacher Lisa Anderson, Luke’s sister, wrote the children’s book The Ramp Man about Luke’s life.
Bowmore Grade 8 teacher Peter Gazzellone, after learning Luke’s story, inspired the school’s Me to We group to take on the ramp project. According to the organization’s website, “Me to We is an innovative social enterprise that offers socially conscious and environmentally friendly products and life-changing experiences.” With that philosophy in mind, Gazzellone thought this would be a great initiative for the Bowmore group to tackle, to create and see immediate change on a local level.
To help students begin to understand what it meant to be confined to a wheelchair, they had the opportunity to spend half of their school day getting around in one. The common sentiment from the participants was that it was hard and not as easy as it looks. Even opening doors was a challenge.
“You need one hand to hold the door and with the other you back up. It’s not easy to back up with one hand because you keep on swerving,” said grade 8 student Kiara Watson.
“Stairs are a pretty big problem too. You need assistance from others,” added fellow student Dylan Prosser.
With a newfound understanding of some of the barriers wheelchair users face, the students canvassed local businesses to see how accessible they were, and noticed that very few were accessible by wheelchair. They invited many of the owners to come to their assembly to hear Luke speak, informing them of the Community Ramp Project.
In October the City of Toronto passed a motion to support StopGap’s ramp implementation program. The program has already seen great success with over 100 businesses with ramps in Roncesvalles, the Junction and Kensington Market. The businesses canvassed by Bowmore students were “really supportive of it, and really want to participate, especially since it’s free to them,” said Gazzellone.
“It’s so cool to see students embrace the initiative and really get the issue at hand, because these guys are going to be the difference makers,” said Luke, a smile on his face, upon learning of the students’ work. “They’re the ones that are going to be coming up with great solutions to the problems that exist.”
By January 1, 2025 it will be mandatory for Ontario business to be fully accessible by persons with disabilities. With a little help from a brightly coloured ramp, the target might be met sooner.