Maybe you’ve noticed the brightly coloured ramps at the entrances to shops scattered around downtown, in the Junction & along Roncesvalles. These ramps make businesses with a step at the entrance wheelchair accessible, and also raise awareness about a problem that is both often overlooked, and easily solved. On each ramped is stencilled STOPGAP.CA.
Luke Anderson, the project’s creator, uses a wheelchair himself and so knows the city’s accessibility challenges intimately. When he started a new job at an office that did not have a ramp at the entrance Luke had to rely on a coworker to come down and set up a temporary ramp whenever he wanted to come or go. Aside from the huge inconvenience of this, they also noticed that when they had the ramp set up, other people wanted to use it too. A simple ramp could make life a little easier for couriers, parents with strollers, people with bikes and the elderly. And so StopGap was born.
StopGap will provide a free ramp, made to measure, for businesses with one step at the entrance. They are able to do this with donated materials and simple construction. Some of the ramps are made through a partnership with Dixon Hall’s Mill Centre.
When the project was just getting started, they thought they should notify the local councillors in neighbourhoods where they planned to install the ramps. After encountering red tape, and waiting and waiting for any kind of approval from the city they decided to adopt what Luke calls “a renegade type of approach”. They like to get the OK from the local councillor, or Business Improvement Association if they can – but it’s not something they rely on to get things going. Making the ramps removable allows them to avoid a whole mess of nearly impossible to obtain approvals including zoning variances (allowing the ramps to encroach on public property) and building permits, which would require much more involved and costly construction, and which in many cases would not be possible within the space constraints of a particular site. This DIY approach is a great reminder that public space is something we can all have a hand in shaping to our needs, desires and whims.
The project is growing quickly, and there are plans in the works to expand to other communities across the province and the country. Others have taken up the cause and started ramp projects in Vernon, BC and Belleville, ON. StopGap provides guides, information packages and support to anyone hoping to start up a similar project in their community.
As the project’s name suggests the ramps aren’t intended to be the ideal solution. While eliminating the obstacle of steps up into businesses makes a huge difference, there are other more difficult to solve accessibility challenges in Toronto. Transit is a big one – less than half of subway stations are accessible, and streetcars aren’t accessible at all. While this will change when the new streetcars arrive, currently neighbourhoods served by streetcar routes are no-go zones for wheelchair users. Luke explains that for someone like him getting to Parkdale or Roncesvalles is a huge pain (although the 290 licenses for accessible taxicabs approved by City Council this Wednesday will help). He also compared Toronto to cities like Vancouver and Stockholm which are both much more accessible than Toronto and provide fully accessible transit systems. “They think of everybody when they design,” Luke says. We’re headed in the right direction; The Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) will aim to make all public buildings and transit fully accessible, but won’t be fully implemented until 2025. There will be many gaps that will need stopping in the meantime.
There is also a shortage of accessible housing, both in downtown and in the suburbs. The vast majority of homes (excluding apartment towers) have several steps to get up into them. This is a challenge that will only get worse, as our population ages, but we continue to design homes that aren’t suitable for the elderly or mobility impaired. Retrofitting an existing house to accommodate peoples’ changing needs as they age is often difficult and costly – not to mention far less elegant than it could be if incorporated into the original design. Thinking about the elderly when we think about accessibility challenges in general is a good way to reach more people. As Luke points out, people are more willing to accept change if they think of it as something that they or their parents may need in the future.
As Luke observes, “a little goes so far”. Little interventions like the STOPGAP.CA ramps can do so much to make our city more inclusive and to bring potential for spontaneity and exploration to people with mobility impairments. We may still be waiting for a lot of changes when it comes to urban accessibility, but when the new streetcars roll out enabling wheelchair users to start exploring new areas of the city, there will be stopgap ramps waiting for them when they do.
image courtesy of StopGap