April 9, 2012
After four years of knocking on the side door of a local Starbucks to have her latte brought out to her, wheelchair user Joanne Smith was thrilled last October when the property owner installed an access ramp.
“It was a great ramp,” she says. “Built to (Ontario’s building) code, with two railings.”
She exchanged greetings with mothers pushing strollers, who also delighted in the new convenience of entering the Queen St. E. coffee shop in the Beaches. Other wheelchair users started frequenting the shop, too, says Smith.
“It finally gave people with disabilities a fully accessible place to go.”
But two weeks after it was installed, the ramp disappeared overnight. After receiving complaints, the City of Toronto issued a removal order, threatening hefty fines that would accumulate daily if the building owner, First Capital Realty, didn’t comply.
“We thought it was the right thing for us to do, to put the handicapped ramp along the west side of the building to access Starbucks,” says First Capital Realty vice-president Maryanne McDougald.
But the ramp was built on the city-owned sidewalk, forcing pedestrians to walk on the boulevard, says Kyp Perikleous, a city manager in charge of approving permits. “The city’s bylaw requires that the sidewalks be cleared of snow and ice in winter,” he says. “That kind of regulation is not in place for boulevards.”
The property owners were told not to build there when their permit was denied, Perikleous adds. “If we allow individual properties to start putting things right on the sidewalks, we’re not being fair to all residents.”
Under the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA), passed in 2005, businesses in Ontario will be required to be accessible to people with disabilities by 2025.
The Starbucks incident has shone a spotlight on a litany of potential problems that could accompany making businesses accessible.
With tight spots like the tiny storefronts and restaurants that dot not only the east-end Beaches but neighbourhoods across Toronto, City Councillor for Beaches-East York Mary-Margaret McMahon wonders if there is any wiggle room as building owners consider what it will take to implement this coming requirement.
“There is a bigger conversation that needs to be had with the cities, the province and the BIAs (Business Improvement Areas), so we can figure out how to do this in an efficient and not-so-costly, expedited manner.” says McMahon, who called the Starbucks experience a huge education “for me and hopefully for the city, the owners and the residents.”
McMahon is working with the BIA in her riding and planning an accessibility walk along the ward’s Queen St. strip to engage storeowners on the subject.
“It’s a lot of work and the sooner we get the message out, the better,” McMahon says, adding she’ll talk to other councillors to promote similar efforts.
One problem is convincing owners to accept responsibility for creating access with a deadline of 2025, says John Kiru, executive director of the Toronto Association of Business Improvement Areas, which includes 72 BIAs and 30,000 registered businesses.
“The urgency doesn’t seem to be there,” Kiru says. “Some of these guys feel they might not even be in business long enough to worry about it.”
He says his group holds information sessions about the legislation during conferences, to convince owners of the lucrative benefits of universal access.
However, thousands of businesses don’t belong to BIAs and may not have heard of the new access law, says McMahon. Education and communication about how the government can assist small business owners provide accessibility will be key, she says.
David Lepofsky, chair of Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance says it will be difficult to meet the 2025 deadline without cutting the bureaucratic red tape that makes each issue take months or longer to resolve. Lepofsky’s group wants provincial standards to overrule any municipal by-laws that conflict or could delay proposed accessibility renovations.
“Provincial standards are needed to accomplish that,” he says. “The building code has historically not been sufficient to meet all our needs.” Lepofsky says the building code didn’t cover all barriers, require even simple retrofits in existing buildings and failed to live up to accessibility requirements of the Ontario Human Rights Code.
Money spent on accessibility is bound to have returns, supporters say. “Any of the businesses that adapt to this quicker there are billions of dollars that are spent by people that fall into that category,” Kiru says. “It’s only going to increase.”
Accessibility is a wise investment, Lepofsky agrees. “Restaurants without an accessible washroom are losing money. They are losing business of customers with disabilities, their families, seniors.”
Meanwhile, six months later, First Capital Realty has architects working with city officials to bring access to the front entrance of the Queen St. E Starbucks location.