By Michelle McQuigge, The Canadian Press
Peter Athanasopoulos attempts to raise the front wheels of his wheelchair high enough to board a subway car at the platform of Toronto’s Eglinton subway station on Friday, June 26, 2015. Athanasopoulos knows full well that he likely won’t be able to take part in his hometown’s Pan Am Games festivities.
He’s aware that fewer than half the city’s subway stations and only seven of its more than 200 streetcars are accessible to him in his manual wheelchair. He’s accustomed to waiting hours for taxis that can accommodate him. He’s familiar with the struggles of navigating the city’s public spaces and needs no reminder of the myriad restaurants he’ll never be able to frequent.
He’s learned first-hand of Toronto’s accessibility challenges in the 20 years since a diving accident rendered him a quadriplegic. But Anathapoulos fears disabled athletes and tourists flocking to the city for the Pan Am and Parapan Am Games may be arriving with higher expectations.
Those expectations may be fully realized in the venues and accommodations designed specifically for the Games, but Athanasopoulos suspects disappointment looms for those who venture outside of that bubble and into the rest of the city.
“I think Toronto is aspiring to become a world-class, accessible city, but I think there’s a lot we need to do to get there,” Athanasopoulos said in a telephone interview.
On paper, Toronto should be well on its way to being friendly to people with all manner of disabilities. The Access for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA), which went into effect 10 years ago, promises to make the entire province fully accessible by 2025.
Buildings constructed since the legislation took effect have been designed with broader access in mind, and memos from the Ontario government suggest the needs of disabled athletes were taken into account when erecting Pan Am and Parapan venues.
In a letter to advocacy group AODA Alliance, Drew Fagan, the deputy minister of tourism, culture and sport, touted sports facilities designed to cater to the needs of people with disabilities.
New venues boast features such as service animal relief areas, pools equipped with lifts, oversized workout equipment and elevators designed to accommodate multiple wheelchairs.
Fagan’s letter also promoted Checkin Canada, a non-governmental hotel search website that shows accessibility ratings for some accommodations within the city. But there are some barriers for people using screen-reading software.
Alliance Chair David Lepofsky said the website, which relies entirely on self-reported, non-standardized criteria, highlights one of the city’s most glaring accessibility shortfalls.
“Right now we are not a good tourist destination for people with disabilities, and that’s because too many of our tourism and hospitality services are not fully accessible,” he said.
Lepofsky said the majority of the city’s restaurants and many of its stores are barred to wheelchair users, adding narrow entrances or even short stairwells are enough to keep patrons with mobility challenges outside.
Those same businesses also often lack large-print or braille material for the blind, sign-language services for the deaf and other features designed to help disabled customers, he added.
Lepofsky and Athanasopoulos agree, however, that public transit remains Toronto’s most significant accessibility barrier.
The Toronto Transit Commission reports that while all 1,800 of its surface buses are able to accommodate wheelchairs, only 34 of its 69 subway stations are similarly equipped.
In Athanasopoulos’ experience, even those stations pose challenges.
“In order to get on the train, you literally have to jump over about a four to five-inch gap from the platform to the train,” he said. “And also the height of that train in comparison to the platform is a lot higher as well.”
More problematic still is the city’s fleet of streetcars, which are the primary public transit vehicles on the streets of the downtown core.
TTC spokesman Brad Ross said that while more than 200 streetcars will be on the road during the Games’ peak travel periods, only seven of them will have wheelchair accessibility.
Despite the barriers, Athanasopoulos said disabled visitors won’t be without features to enjoy. Many of the city’s museums, art galleries and other attractions offer accessibility services, while he has found Toronto’s public spaces, theatres and sports facilities comparatively easy to navigate.
He encourages would-be tourists to research their trip ahead of time, but not to let the city’s inherent accessibility challenges keep them away.
“It may be difficult to access the things you’re going to need, but come anyway,” he said. “Toronto’s a fantastic city. Everyone needs to experience it at least once.”