What makes a space accessible?

Langley Pos-Abilities Society is developing an app that maps accessible public buildings across the Lower Mainland

By Joti Grewal | March 14, 2022 |5:00 am

The simple things can make a huge difference. It might not matter to a person walking into a public bathroom stall which direction the door opens, but for someone with a wheelchair, it could mean the difference between using the facilities or being forced to wait.

That experience is one lived by Zosia Ettenberg, who uses a mobility device.

“I went into [a] washroom and the door to the wheelchair washroom opened to the inside. So as soon as I got in there with my wheelchair, there was no way I could close the door,” she said. “So am I going to go to the bathroom in public? I don’t think so.”

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As executive director of the Langley Pos-Abilities Society, Ettenberg hopes a new app can help others with a disability avoid such situations. She and her organization are developing an app that maps accessible public buildings across the Lower Mainland.

The project is currently in the beta testing phase. There are about half a dozen places marked, and clicking on a business reveals how accommodating a site is for those with mobility, vision, and hearing disabilities. The profile also highlights whether a business has parking, signage, and restrooms. The public is encouraged to submit reports for businesses and public spaces in their community. Members of the society will review them before making the business profile public on the map.

The idea for the project came to Ettenberg about a year and a half ago. She found there was a disconnect with the public and what they think makes a space accessible.

Ettenberg had once travelled to Powell River from Langley to adopt a cat. The trip to the Sunshine Coast involved an overnight stay at a hotel. Before making the drive, Ettenberg had called ahead to confirm with the hotel that it was accessible for someone who uses a wheelchair.

“There [was] a step to get into the room. How the hell can I get in it?” she recounted. “So that’s really frustrating because you think it’s okay for you and then it turns out to be not.”

The goal of the society’s new mapping project is to provide information about which buildings are okay for people with a disability, as well as for seniors and families who travel with a stroller.

“Unless you’re in the situation, you don’t necessarily grasp it,” Ettenberg said.

The difference between the construction of an accessible or inaccessible space: education. Ettenberg found that business owners advertise their space as being accessible because it’s built to code, but the two don’t exactly go hand in hand.

“In our opinion code is not adequate.”

To illustrate the point, the society constructed a wheelchair obstacle course to code that they invite anyone to try (with a spotter). The course is part of the society’s Try On A Disability (TOAD) program that is often put on display during community events. The slopes in the course have the ability to kick the chair backwards. And the angles of a hallway aren’t the only areas of concern, but its width too.

“The corridors are wide enough for the chair, but not so wide that you can wheel the chair easily without scraping your knuckles along the side,” Ettenberg said. “So there’s little things like that that make a difference.”

Ettenberg voluntarily audits businesses that were thought to be accessible. She gets the manager or property owner to sit in a wheelchair or put on a blindfold and then have them navigate the space.

Public spaces still need improvement too. Bridal Veil Falls Provincial Park, for example, doesn’t have a wheelchair washroom on site, Ettenberg learned when she visited.

She hopes the full launch of the mapping app will reveal deficiencies before people arrive at a location. And just as important, the app will also display places that have a high accessibility rating, like areas of the W.C. Blair Recreation Centre. Ettenberg had visited the rec centre in the past when it wasn’t accessible to her, but during a recent visit she was pleasantly surprised with some of the upgrades.

“You can get into the sauna from the pool deck, and it’s straight and it’s wide enough that you can go in with your wheelchair,” Ettenburg said. There are still improvements to be made at W.C. Blair that will also be reflected in its business profile. “There was no way in my chair, could I reach the soap dispenser to get soap on my hands. And then the towel, the paper towels, were at the other end of the room.”

The mapping project began in April and grant money has allowed the society to bring the app to the beta testing phase. Now they’re waiting on the next round of funding to take the project to the finish line.

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Joti Grewal

Reporter at Fraser Valley Current

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