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Muskoka Looking to Brand Itself as an Accessible Tourist Destination

Kirwin wants to promote Muskoka as an inclusive community instead of an accessible community

MUSKOKA – Muskoka Tourism Marketing Agency is working toward branding Muskoka as an accessible destination, but those with accessibility issues say it’s not quite there yet.

Right now Muskoka Tourism is in the process of collecting information on which of their members offer accessible services.

Sheila Creighton, marketing manager for Muskoka Tourism, said they are looking at ways to serve tourists and locals.

“There are probably a lot of accessible things out there people don’t know about, even locally,” she said.

According to provincial statistics, 10 per cent of the population has a physical disability.

Seven years ago the province implemented a plan to have an accessible Ontario by 2025. That gave municipalities 20 years to implement all the requirements.

Rick Williams, commissioner of community services for the District of Muskoka, said Muskoka is moving toward that goal with everyone else.

“We’re progressing at the average level, not the slowest or the fastest,” he said.

Williams doesn’t think becoming an accessible destination is very far away, noting “it’s an awfully good goal. I think we could get there quite quickly.”

Debbie Kirwin, chair of the Muskoka’s accessibility committee, is working with Muskoka Tourism on the initiative.

“We really have to do some homework first before we can boast that we are an inclusive community,” she said.

The agency needs to really understand how accessible resorts and attractions are, she added.

Kirwin wants to promote Muskoka as an inclusive community instead of an accessible community.

“Whatever we offer, we offer to everyone,” she said. “It’s not just the people with disabilities they (businesses) are losing, but it’s their families and friends.”

She mentioned a large party she booked at Clevelands House; had the facility not been accessible, she would not have booked the party there.

There are many resorts that are not accessible, Kirwin said, especially the smaller, older resorts.

The District of Muskoka is also taking a look into how easy it is for disabled people to get around in Muskoka.

One of the difficulties Williams mentioned is the challenge of old sidewalks and areas like the hill in downtown Bracebridge.

Huntsville, on the other hand, has come a long way. Kirwin said there are only two restaurants there that currently are not accessible.

“They’re (business owners) often fearful it will cost them lots of money and that stops people from even researching it, but it won’t cost them lots of money, and the benefits in return — it’s an increase in business,” she said.

Kirwin said if people don’t see someone struggling with a wheelchair, they often don’t think about the difficulty people with disabilities face. People need to change attitudes, and attitudes change by education, she said.

“I’ve always believed that education creates change,” Kirwin added.

Part of that is by example. Before the Parasports took place in Huntsville, Kirwin took yellow ramps to store owners which they could place in front of their store to make it more easily accessible.

She said it had a ripple effect — people started to call asking for them; others shaved down the concrete in front of their stores.

“You just can’t go into a place and say you have to do this or you have to do that,” she said.

Accessibility doesn’t stop with wheelchairs. It includes the blind, those with assisted listening devices, people with strollers, walkers or scooters.

Williams said this year the accessibility committee will be touring various district buildings throughout Muskoka to see how they are measuring up to accessibility standards.

So far the committee has mostly been dealing with policy, now it wants to get individual feedback, he said.

Creighton said Muskoka Tourism is hoping to have a guide for tourists by next year, but for now, the information will be published on the website.

“It will probably be an organic project that starts from grassroots,” she said.

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