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Cambridge 'nowhere close' to being fully accessible by 2025: advocates

'Is that really as good as we can do? I say no,' says Cambridge councillor of efforts to make facilities accessible for those with disabilities
Ward 5 councillor Sheri Roberts has been pushing for improved accessibility measures in Cambridge facilities and public spaces since becoming a member and chair of the city's accessibility advisory committee.

Advocates for people with disabilities say efforts designed to make it easier for them to access services in Cambridge are nowhere near to meeting requirements of the province's Accessibility for Ontarian's with Disabilities Act (AODA).

And as the deadline to implement the act approaches, some local accessibility rights advocates are speaking out about the shortfalls they continue to experience. 

Cambridge resident Ken Roche knows all too well the pitfalls of getting around since losing his sight as a child. 

"It's hard, you know, even though I have my dog with me, just doing everyday tasks can sometimes be impossible," Roche said. 

While some places try to be as accommodating as possible and may in fact meet all AODA standards, there are always elements he knows weren't designed by someone who actually uses it the way he does. 

"Construction sites can be very dangerous for someone who is visually impaired," he said. "If they put a cone up to warn of a huge hole, someone who can see will obviously steer clear, but for me I don't have that luxury." 

"There are so many things that while on paper they might tick a box saying, yup this is accessible, but it doesn't practically work." 

Navigating sidewalks in winter can be an arduous task that requires not only a lot of patience but getting used to slipping on your backside, Roche joked. 

He's noticed that while many businesses and municipalities might meet accessibility legislation on paper, they aren't actually helping people like him. 

Written 20 years ago, the AODA set a goal of making Ontario accessible for people with disabilities by 2025.

It requires organizations across the province to identify and remove barriers to meet standards established for people with disabilities in five areas of daily life.

They include customer service, information and communications, employment, design of public spaces and transportation. 

"I have to walk down this certain road every single day and the snowplow cleans the street and pushes ice and snow onto the sidewalk. Then a smaller plow comes and gets the sidewalk," Roche explained. "Well when the plow comes by again to do the road, all that ice and snow is back blocking my path." 

"So when you check the maintenance sheet, they will all be up to date, but it needs to go beyond a piece of paper or number in a computer." 

He said this example is "just a drop in the bucket" in terms of the dangers he and others like him have to face every single day. 

Cambridge city councillor and accessibility advocate Sheri Roberts has become an expert on AODA requirements.

Before becoming a councillor, Roberts, who has used a wheelchair since suffering a spinal injury when she was 18, was the chair of the city's accessibility advisory committee and helped bring Stop Gap accessibility ramps to businesses across the region. 

She agrees with Roche that the city, region and province are nowhere close to being fully accessible by 2025. 

"He's not wrong, we are being compliant with the current AODA, but is that is that really as good as we can do? I say no," Roberts said.

"The legislation itself has a lot of flaws and is actually in the middle of being reviewed. I imagine it will be coming back looking quite different," she said

Roberts notes that there are a lot of misconceptions about what the AODA will do for accessibility in the city and at local businesses. 

"Some of the things I noticed that people were getting wrong was that every single building that's owned by the city has to be fully accessible. This is not the case," she said. "Older buildings will only be required to make accessibility changes if they are going under extensive renovations." 

The City of Cambridge almost fell victim to this misinterpretation of the legislation last year when they wanted to close the Southwood Fitness Center due to the high costs of fully renovating the space.

Roberts was instrumental in keeping the fitness club open after going over the legislation with city staff and explaining to them how it needs to be used. 

Currently Roche would give the city and region a barely passing grade for accessibility, adding more needs to be done to address the issues people are facing in real time. 

It's not all bad as Roberts heads new projects at the city level and what she calls her "pride and joy" that will shape the way the city approaches accessibility. 

"We've been working on it for years and it's really the holy grail for this kind of standard in a built environment," Roberts said. "It's setting the standard to be way above any AODA requirements or Ontario Building Code requirements for accessibility." 

The Facility Accessibility Design Standard (FADS) has a chance to position the city as a leader in accommodating built environments.

Roberts uses the new recreation complex as a prime example as it goes above and beyond what is required by the city. 

"We have a real opportunity here to show the community that we are listening to them and we care about their needs," Roberts added.

The report will be coming back to council in the fall for approval. 

Roberts faces many challenges herself and hopes to see change soon. 

"I think one thing that needs to be addressed is the parks," she adds. "For such a long time they were not a priority, but we have our parks master plan coming this year and thank goodness, because they're putting a big emphasis on inclusion and accessibility." 

The Region of Waterloo also said they have plans put in place to make its facilities and public spaces more accommodating. 

"The region continues to follow the requirements of the AODA legislation in order to improve our services and public spaces for residents with disabilities," said Jennifer Walker, program manager of client experience at the region. 

The Grand River Accessibility Advisory Committee (GRAAC) is a joint committee made of members from around the region who have disabilities or are part of the disability community. They help give advise to the region and help inform them on what works and what does not. 

"Regional staff seek the expertise of GRAAC members on a variety of initiatives, including space reconstruction, new construction and service improvement projects to ensure we are accessible for the residents in our community," Walker said. 

Despite this, Roberts and Roche don't think we're quite there yet but they're optimistic everyone like them is being considered in a world built for the able-bodied. 

"I know we're not gonna be able to make everything perfectly accessible for everyone and that should never really be the goal. It should be a space where people can access the goods and services that they want and need every day in a safe way," Roberts said.