By Christina Stevens
Reporter Global News
Canadian athletes gearing up for the Parapan Am Games said they are looking forward to the prospect of competing on home turf.
“Potentially winning a gold medal right here at home, that’s the ultimate dream,” said Tracey Ferguson who plays wheelchair basketball.
But she is also well aware that the city could be doing better when it comes to accessibility. For example, despite living on a streetcar line, Ferguson can’t board the streetcar when it stops in front of her condo, but has to find other transportation.
“I think awareness is key,” said Ferguson.
Global News has pointed to that need for awareness with stories highlighting restaurants which told customers with guide dogs they were not welcome, and the challenges getting police and the city to act. Both women impacted have questioned whether the city is truly ready to host 1,600 para-athletes.
Such concerns have also been raised by advocates for people with disabilities.
“We are not ready to ensure that these folks will have a place to eat, or even go to the washroom, or assured public transit to get around,” said David Lepofsky, Chair of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance.
He acknowledge that it is great that the new facilities will be accessible and volunteers trained.
“But what about the para-athletes who want to venture outside that bubble and see Toronto?”
Global News took that question straight to Mayor John Tory, who said more needs to be done to get the word out to make sure businesses aware of their responsibilities.
“I think the biggest job that’s not being done, and it is something I want to turn myself to with our own disability issues committee, is public education,” said Tory.
He also said he felt that the stories Global News has been doing have helped increase awareness.
Tory said while information can be provided before the Parapan Am Games, structural issues with older buildings and access to transit will be a longer fix. He added that all levels of government have to do better.
Organizers of the games said they are about to launch a new initiative called “R-U Ready”.
“We are asking businesses to make four small but impactful and low-cost accessibility improvements to their businesses. They include things like ensuring you have a no step entry to your business,” said Naki Osutei, Director of Public Affairs and Social Legacy for Toronto 2015.
Meanwhile, Ferguson is hopeful that seeing para-athletes at their best, will also change people’s perspective.
“They see the disability disappear and see the potential in people and everyone has potential.”