Following recent snowstorms that deposited as much as 40 cm onto Hamilton streets, some Hamilton residents are using social media to bring attention to the issue of snow-covered residential sidewalks.
Currently, residents are expected to clear snow from their sidewalks within 24 hours of a “snow event.” If residents fail to comply, the city will issue a 24-hour “Notice to Comply,” followed by possible inspection and a contracting fee for the homeowner.
However, residents say both residential and city sidewalks are still not being cleared, either by residents or by the city.
The Disability Justice Network of Ontario has encouraged residents to participate in the “Snow and Tell” campaign by tweeting out pictures of snow or ice-covered roads and sidewalks using the hashtag #AODAfail, referring to the Accessibility for Ontarians for Disabilities Act.
McMaster student and local community organizer Sophie Geffros supports the campaigns and says it a serious issue of accessibility and justice.
Geffros uses a wheelchair and knows how especially difficult it can be for those who use mobility devices to navigate through snow-covered streets.
“It's people who use mobility devices. It's people with strollers. And it's older folks. People end up on the street. If you go on any street after a major storm, you'll see people in wheelchairs and with buggies on the street with cars because the sidewalks just aren't clear,” Geffros said.
Snow-covered sidewalks also affect the ability for people, especially those who use mobility devices, to access public transit.
“Even when snow has been cleared, often times when it gets cleared, it gets piled on curb cuts and piled near bus stops and all these places that are that are vital to people with disabilities,” Geffros said.
Geffros sees the need for clearing sidewalks as non-negotiable.
“By treating our sidewalk network as not a network but hundreds of individual tiny chunks of sidewalk, it means that if there's a breakdown at any point in that network, I can't get around,” Geffros said. “If every single sidewalk on my street is shoveled but one isn't, I can't use that entire sidewalk. We need to think of it as a vital service in the same way that we think of road snow clearance as a vital service.”
Public awareness about the issue may push city council.
Some councillors have expressed support for a city-run snow clearing service, including Ward 1 councillor Maureen Wilson and Ward 3 councillor Nrinder Nann.
I just don’t find it all that complicated. Cities are for people. It is in our best interest, financial and otherwise, to plow sidewalks. It’s also a matter of justice. I await the city manager’s report and ensuing debate
— Maureen Wilson (She / Her) (@ward1wilson) January 29, 2019
A city council report issued in 2014 stated that a 34 dollar annual increase in tax for each homeowner would be enough to fund sidewalk snow-clearing.
Recently, Wilson requested the city council to issue a new report on the potential costs of funding snow-clearing service.
Geffros sees potential for the current discourse to open up to further discussions on other issues of accessibility and social justice.
Hamilton’s operating budget will likely be finalized around April. Until then, Geffros and other Hamilton residents will continue to speak out on the issue.
Sophia Catania / The Silhouette
Hamiltonians have been voicing uninformed, negative opinions regarding the city’s motion to move away from the current Voluntary Pay program. This transit policy exempts physically disabled individuals from paying the standard fare to ride an HSR bus. However, one must take the time to look at the changes that are being made. It is clear that the city is making a valid improvement by introducing fare parity on public transit.
The Voluntary Pay program is unique to only a handful of cities in Ontario. Of the few cities that still use it, many have begun to adopt a Fare Parity policy. People with disabilities pay standard fares in most cities across the province.
The reason these cities use a Fare Parity policy is to ensure no discrimination takes place. Those advocating against fare parity have criticized the city’s interpretation of the Ontario Transportation Standard made under the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) 2005. This act prohibits the use of a two-tiered fare system. The general public is reminding the city that AODA is intended to prohibit a two-tiered system that charges the disabled a higher fare, not charging them a lesser fare.
Despite this, allowing individuals with physical disabilities to ride the bus for free creates a two-tiered system that discriminates against people who are forced to pay the standard fare and favours certain disabled groups. The HSR determines what disabilities are eligible for the Voluntary Pay program. Currently, anyone relying on the use of a wheelchair, scooter, walker, and/or cane is exempt from paying the standard fare. This is discriminating against other disabled groups, such as those suffering from mental disorders.
In response to the community’s concerns, the city has deferred their decision until April 3, in the hopes that a method of evaluating individual circumstances can be developed. If they are successful, the Fare Parity policy may not be enacted. Instead, the Voluntary Pay program will remain with modifications. The city will attempt to develop a confidential testing system to determine if standard fare is beyond one’s means, regardless of the nature of their disability.
The problem then lies in determining who would qualify for such fare exemptions. The most feasible solution to this problem is to replace the Voluntary Pay Program with the Fare Parity policy. This will eliminate any discrimination, without introducing the difficult task of picking and choosing which disabilities should qualify for fare exemptions. Are people with physical disabilities exempt from paying the standard fare because they must rely primarily on public transportation? Does their disability impede them from being able to afford the standard fare rate? If this is true, it should also be true for those with disabilities beyond physical impairments, such as an individual with Autism or suffering from depression.
Many people have argued that the city is imposing an unnecessary financial burden onto the physically disabled. However, there are many systems in place to provide individuals with affordable public transportation. For example, the Affordable Transit Pass program allows those with yearly incomes below $17,570 to purchase an HSR monthly pass for half the price. Anyone can apply for this program, including those with physical and mental disabilities.
In 1996, 25 wheelchair accessible low floor buses were introduced in Hamilton, allowing passengers with disabilities to the use the HSR. However, only a handful of accessible buses existed.
People with physical disabilities often had to wait for an accessible bus to come. As such, it was decided that it would be an effective compromise to adopt a voluntary pay system for those users. Today, the entire fleet of over 200 buses is wheelchair accessible. Therefore, all users can use the HSR at any time. A compromise is no longer necessary.
The city has finally realized the need to re-evaluate the function of the outdated Voluntary Pay program. The Fare Parity policy is simply the best method of ensuring fair and inclusive transit for everyone in the city of Hamilton.
McMaster complies with provincial regulations regarding accessibility, but can the institution address what accessibility means for different students and foster a culture of accessibility across the university?
Ramps, braille design and test accommodation are just some of the ways campuses strive to be more accessible to students with disabilities. But is the University doing enough to understand the many facets of accessibility and the issues that come along with aiming for a completely accessible campus?
The McMaster Accessibility Forum, which will be held on Nov. 15, aims to address issues concerning accessibility on campus. This will be the second such forum held, where organizers hope to compile a list of student concerns to bring to different bodies across the University.
Removing barriers of all kinds
Mainstream definitions of accessibility typically conjure images of physical barriers or buildings with highly accessible design features such as ramps or wheelchair lifts. Removing physical barriers and creating a more physically accessible environment has been an institutional priority for many years.
Tim Nolan, Manager of Disability Services, mentioned that McMaster overall has been steadily improving physical accessibility and conducting building wide accessibility audits for years.
Nolan noted that new technology can be extremely helpful in diminishing physical barriers. He gave the example of Urban Braille Design, which uses texture contrast in paving sidewalks to give visual orientation to those who are blind and visually impaired. This technology has just been installed in new sidewalks in front of the McMaster Museum of Art.
However, Nolan also noted that when some technologies are developed, “accessibility is not always a forefront.” And while new buildings should comply with Built Environmental Standards according to the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disability Act (AODA), navigating campus is not always the easiest task.
Meghan Hines, a fourth year Commerce student and one of the organizers of the forum, remarked how for a first-year student with a physical disability it can be cumbersome to initially get around campus.
Hines, a student with a physical disability herself, noted that the wheelchair lift in MUSC requires a special pass to use, which discourages more students from using it and therefore negates its main purpose.
However, students with physical disabilities are just one group who require special attention, according to Ann Fudge Schormans, Assistant Professor in the School of Social Work and member of the Disability Action Group.
Fudge Schormans highlighted how issues surrounding students with learning disabilities or disabilities related to mental health issues often go unnoticed. She emphasized how this can be especially significant because of the high degree of stigma attributed to both types of disability.
While mental health awareness has been a major focus point of both University Administration and MSU strategy, it does not necessarily address mental health issues from a disability framework.
Alisa, a student and psychiatric survivor, emphasized how the current framework tends to promote an overtly medicalized view of mental health issues. She believes this leads to accommodations primarily being made for physical disabilities and then the same accommodations being uniformly applied to mental health cases.
“The issue stems from how we think about mental health in terms of thinking of it as solely a medical idea… The way Mac talks about mental health awareness obscures the fact that these people belong to an equity group which can be connected to others with different disabilities.”
Raihanna Hirji-Khalfan, an Accessibility Specialist with the Human Rights and Equity Services Office, also argued that equity for students with disabilities is a major issue, especially in regards to attitudinal biases.
“Attitudinal barriers are a huge issue. So trying to create a culture of accessibility is extremely important. You can’t necessarily eliminate all barriers but if there is a culture of accessibility it can limit or negate the effects of exclusion or barriers on campus.”
Since AODA came into force in 2005, post-secondary institutions and other organizations have had to comply with various regulations, especially with regards to customer service. The goal is to ensure a fully-accessible Ontario by 2025. Tim Nolan asserted how important this timeline is, in order to provide an end-date for institutions to make themselves fully accessible.
According to the McMaster Accessibility Plan, the University has smaller milestones to comply with prior to the 2025 end goal. Online AODA training modules were some of the first measures that were undertaken by the University. Some education- based regulations must be complied with by Jan. 1 2013 and are extremely relevant to students and staff.
One specific regulation requires institutions to provide accessible educational materials such as textbooks, in a variety of formats. Another regulation mandates that educators receive adequate training in accessibility awareness.
But McMaster does not have standard training for instructors across faculties on disability awareness, beyond the limited AODA online modules.
Fudge Schormans explained that, “more could be done in terms of AODA compliance training, more than just the modules.” She suggested that a broader range of tools should be made available for instructors to increase the accessibility of the curriculum and lectures.
According to Nolan, the University will soon be rolling out a tool from the Council of Ontario Universities that should help improve instructional design.
Part of $700,000 in funding from TD Bank was allocated to make textbook and resource accessibility a more attainable goal and allowed a new staff position in Library Services. The TD Coordinator for Library Accessibility Services is responsible for working with students with disabilities and adaptive technologies.
However, students with disabilities and accessibility awareness are still not at the forefront of McMaster’s administrative strategy. As outlined in recent OUSA documents, it remains difficult for institutions to address the diverse array of needs of different disabilities, given the complex process and documentation required to receive government funding. Students like Meghan often pay out of their own pocket for special documentation or services.
Leaders in accessibility
While McMaster has long recognized the value of an accessible campus, even prior to AODA, some Ontario universities have excelled in addressing equity for students with disabilities.
York, Ryerson and Toronto all have programs in disability or equity studies, which create a higher degree of student awareness of accessibility issues. Guelph is recognized as a leader in the field as the host of an annual Accessibility Conference.
Some campuses, such as Brock, provide a higher degree of direct student support to students with disabilities, offering students with physical disabilities attendant care to help with their daily living. Other campuses offer students with disabilities their own spaces for peer support and student campaigns.
UOIT has an entire virtual unit dedicated to universal instructional design. McMaster’s School of Social Work has recently begun inviting students with intellectual disabilities to audit courses in order to open up otherwise unavailable opportunities for these students.
Fudge Schormans explained that faculty have remarked upon how all students have benefitted from this experience and introducing new teaching methods has created greater dialogue and diversity in the classroom.
The Accessibility Forum creates an open and inclusive atmosphere for students with disabilities to voice their concerns about how McMaster approaches the issue of accessibility. Katie, a student with a hearing disability, is planning on attending the forum but isn’t sure what will come out of it. “I think it’s hard to be fully accessible because everyone has such different issues,“ she said.
McMaster has set out to create an inclusive environment for students of all abilities, as mandated in the President’s Advisory Committee on Building an Inclusive Community (PACBIC). But in trying to create a culture of accessibility, students have argued that the institution must both address the group as whole while also avoiding the amalgamation of diverse accessibility needs into a homogenous category.
Students with disabilities are a group that strives to be more recognized, and fostering an accessible environment is just the first step towards recognizing this group’s needs.