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Cut Frustrate Disabled

ACCESSIBILITY: Council chopped a $500,000 contribution to a reserve fund for upgrades
By Jordan Adams, Special to The Free Press
Last Updated: February 23, 2012 8:02am

The new wheelchair ramp at London city hall has made life a bit easier for Jeff Preston. He no longer has to drive over rough pavement in his wheelchair to get to his committee meetings. It’s improvements like these that make the city more accessible to disabled citizens.

With changes to Ontario regulations for accessibility on the way, the city will have to make sure its public buildings, facilities and services are fully accessible under the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act.

In years past, funds were put away by the city, earning interest to save up to meet the regulations when they finally kick in.

But city council voted this week to reduce by $500,000 its contribution to a reserve fund for accessibility upgrades to city infrastructure, a major disappointment to Preston and many other disabled Londoners.

“This decision sends a bold, clear message that the needs of the disabled just don’t matter,” said Preston, a PhD student at Western University and an advocate for people with disabilities.

He’s concerned the city won’t have the money when the time to pay for needed upgrades arrives.

“We’re cutting money from what we know we’re going to need funds for,” Preston said. “It’s just backwards.”

Coun. Joni Baechler, who opposed the cuts, said it was a shortsighted move. More stringent accessibility regulations are coming, and the city will have to pay the price.

“It’s to the tune of multi- millions of dollars,” she said. “We’re simply not getting ourselves fiscally prepared.”

Some of the accessibility upgrades could include wheelchair-accessible city buses and new crosswalk signs, Baechler said.

“We’re not prepared, nor do we have a plan in terms of how we would cover those costs.”

The reduction helped Mayor Joe Fontana deliver a promised tax freeze to voters in a marathon budget meeting that stretched into Wednesday morning.

The disabled community is speaking out against dipping into the reserve fund for accessibility upgrades.

“(It sends the message) that we’re not important. That we can be pushed off,” said Kimber Bogema, vice-chair of the city’s accessibility advisory committee. “Being undermined is really frustrating.”

Preston agrees the city isn’t looking out for the estimated 43,000 Londoners who have some form of a disability. “It’s deplorable. Absolutely deplorable.”

Despite making some strides in the past, there’s still a lot of room to improve accessibility in the city, Preston said.

It’s nearly impossible for him to use sidewalks in the winter. He also said he can run into trouble when a building only has one elevator — getting stuck at the top is not something he wants to deal with if an elevator breaks.

With the regulations from the province yet to be released, it’s unknown exactly what upgrades the city will have to make.

Reproduced from http://www.lfpress.com/news/london/2012/02/22/19411816.html