One of the hats I wear in our community is board director on a local non-profit called the Canadian Adaptive Network (CAN). CAN strives to be a catalyst for more inclusive communities like Fernie by championing accessibility, and currently recognizes the need to increase education and awareness locally on this critical issue. I love Fernie’s beautiful historic downtown and all the heritage buildings with so much character that make our town what it is. Unfortunately, a lot of these buildings that were constructed over a hundred years ago did not properly consider accessibility and universal design. The result is that we have inherited a charming downtown core with many vibrant shops, restaurants and attractions that are not able to be accessed by a significant percentage of our population.
According to the 2017 Canadian Survey on Disability undertaken by Employment and Social Development Canada, more than six million Canadians aged 15 and over (~22% of the population) identify as having a disability, and it is expected actual numbers are likely higher. The first thing that comes to mind for most of us when we think about accessibility issues due to a disability is people with mobility issues – like those who use wheelchairs, for example. With an aging population, mobility issues are certainly a key area of consideration but there is a wide array of disabilities that make certain spaces inaccessible to folks. For example, those with hearing issues may find certain environments way too loud to be in comfortably. Or visually impaired people may be unable to properly navigate a building or know where the exits are as they can’t see the signage.
CAN recently participated in a Community Needs Assessment study of Fernie conducted by students from Moravian College in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania studying Occupational Therapy. Of those interviewed as part of this study, all agreed that residents of Fernie are aware and believe in providing an inclusive community for individuals with disabilities. Yet less than a quarter of those interviewed for the study believed that persons with disabilities can easily access public buildings within the City of Fernie. This demonstrates a willingness to learn about and advance accessibility in Fernie, but also shows the challenges we face.
One of the major barriers identified to creating a more inclusive community in terms of accessibility is the cost often required to retrofit older buildings or make significant changes. It is true that dramatic changes to buildings (like installing an elevator, for example) can be prohibitively expensive. But often there is a lot of low-hanging fruit like reconfiguring furniture to create more space for wheelchair maneuverability, for example. For those bigger projects, there are pots of money available to apply for when making your workplace or business more accessible. For example, Small Business BC currently has a Workplace Accessibility Grant available. There is also the federal government’s Enabling Accessibility Fund which opens up for applications periodically. If you’d like to learn more about making your business or building more accessible, please reach out to CAN by visiting their website at canadianadaptive.network/.
The Arts Station’s accessibility ramp, V. Croome Photo