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Read A Compelling Excerpt on Fighting for Accessibility in Barb Turnbull’s New Memoir – and Other Important News in Our Accessibility Campaign

October 11, 2013


1. Barb Turnbull Tells Her Powerful Story about Fighting for Accessibility

Our unstoppable, non-partisan campaign to make Ontario fully accessible for over 1.7 million people with disabilities is so energized and tenacious because so many wonderful and dedicated people across this province lend their support in their own way, and at the time and place that best suits them. We are indebted to them all.

One of the many heroes in this effort is Toronto’s Barb Turnbull. She works at the Toronto Star as a journalist. In so many great ways, she has used her experience and her talents to press for greater accessibility.

In her most recent contribution, she has written a new book entitled: “What I Know: Lessons from My 30 Years of Quadriplegia.” Confronting and tackling accessibility barriers is one of the important lessons about which she wrote.

On September 28, 2013, the Toronto Star included a compelling excerpt from Barb Turnbull’s new e-book, which focuses on some of her invaluable efforts on the accessibility front. We set out below an excerpt from her book that the Toronto Star included in its September 28, 2013 edition.

To Barb Turnbull, and to all others who help with our cause, we extend a huge thank you. Stay tuned over the next days and weeks, as we offer ideas on how each of you can help us press forward in our accessibility campaign.

2. The Tide Supporting Accessibility Legislation Spreads to Nova Scotia

This week, voters in Nova Scotia elected a new Liberal provincial government. The Nova Scotia Liberals promised during the election campaign that they would develop an Accessibility for Nova Scotians with Disabilities Act.

Ontario is the first Canadian province to enact such legislation. Manitoba has a new bill before it to do the same, Bill 26, the proposed Accessibility for Manitobans Act. Nova Scotia would be the third province to develop such legislation.

This is great news. We are eager to connect up with anyone in Nova Scotia who wants to advocate for the proposed Nova Scotia accessibility legislation, so that we can share our experience. If you know anyone who may be interested, please encourage them to email us at

The federal Conservative Party promised a Canadians with Disabilities Act over six years ago, for example on February 6, 2007. To see the Federal Conservative Party’s February 6, 2007 commitment to develop a Canadians with Disabilities Act, visit

3. AODA Alliance to Make a Presentation to a Standing Committee of the Manitoba Legislature

The Manitoba accessibility bill goes to a Standing Committee for public hearings this month. We are delighted that on October 29, 2013, David Lepofsky, chair of the AODA Alliance, will be making a presentation on Bill 26 via phone or internet hook-up before the Manitoba Legislature’s Standing Committee on Social and Economic Development.

By a wonderful coincidence, those hearings will occur on the 15th anniversary of the day on which the Ontario Legislature unanimously passed its landmark resolution, declaring that Ontario’s forthcoming disability accessibility law should comply with the 11 principles that Ontario’s disability accessibility advocates had crafted to ensure that such a law is strong and effective. You can read the Ontario Legislature’s unanimous October 29, 1998 resolution by visiting

To learn more about the historic events leading up to the Ontario Legislature’s unanimous passage of its October 29, 1998 resolution on the Disabilities Act, visit

We again congratulate Barrier-Free Manitoba, the non-partisan grassroots Manitoba community coalition that has done a fantastic job of spearheading the campaign for the proposed Manitoba disability accessibility legislation. We wish Barrier-Free Manitoba and all Manitobans the best of luck as they reach the end-game for getting their accessibility legislation enacted.

Bill 26 is helpful, but needs to be strengthened. For example, it needs to be amended to set a firm deadline for Manitoba to become fully accessible to people with disabilities. Ontario’s AODA sets 2025 as the deadline for this province.

4. AODA Alliance Makes presentation to Ontario’s Accessibility Standards Advisory Council

On September 12, 2013, AODA Alliance chair David Lepofsky made a one-hour presentation to the new membership of Ontario’s Accessibility Standards Advisory Council (ASAC). He gave a history of the campaign for the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act and an update on progress and problems to date in getting the AODA effectively implemented. He offered ASAC constructive proposals on how ASAC should go about reviewing existing accessibility standards and developing new ones. The presentation was warmly and well-received.

5. Where is the Promised Effective Enforcement of the AODA?

There have now been 259 days since the AODA Alliance wrote the Ontario Government for information on the Government’s plans to keep its election promise to effectively enforce the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act. To date, we have no public response to that request.

There have now been 56 days since AODA Alliance chair David Lepofsky submitted his August 15, 2013 request to the Ontario Government under the Freedom of Information Act for the Government’s plans for keeping its promise to effectively enforce the AODA.

On October 2, 2013, the Ontario Government emailed AODA Alliance chair David Lepofsky, stating that he must pay an estimated $2,325 to get the Government to answer his Freedom of Information application. This fee would cover the time the Government estimated that it would take to find the answers to his application. This suggests that the Government needs to spend a great deal of time digging up answers to very basic questions that it should have right at its fingertips. For example, how hard can it be for the Government to find its own plans for enforcing the AODA?

On October 2, 2013, David Lepofsky emailed the Government to ask it to waive that search fee, since this is a public interest request concerning action by the Government to keep an election promised made to the AODA Alliance. On October 7, 2013, the Government emailed David Lepofsky to say that it is considering his request for a waiver of that fee, and will let him know when a decision is reached. No deadline was given for the Government to decide whether to waive that fee. In the meantime, the Freedom of Information request remains unanswered.

6. Ontario Government Still Has Not Announced Any Planned Disability Legacy for the 2015 Pan/ParaPan American Games

Forty-three days have now passed since the Ontario Government announced its planned legacy for the 2015 Toronto Pan/ParaPan American Games. No disability accessibility legacy has been announced for the Games. We have offered the Government a constructive proposal for a disability accessibility legacy for those Games. We still await an answer.

To read the Government’s announced legacy for the 2015 Games, visit

To read the AODA Alliance’s proposal for a disability legacy for the 2015 Games, visit


To read the AODA Alliance’s unanswered January 22, 2013 letter to the Ontario Government, requesting the Ontario Government’s plans for enforcing the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, visit

Learn more about AODA Alliance Chair David Lepofsky’s August 15, 2013 Freedom of Information application by visiting

To learn more about the Government’s telling the AODA Alliance chair he must pay an estimated $2,325 to get his Freedom of Information application answered, visit

The Ontario Liberal Government’s 2011 disability accessibility election pledges, including the reaffirmed commitment to effectively enforce the Disabilities Act, are set out in former Premier McGuinty’s August 19, 2011 letter to David Lepofsky as Chair of the AODA Alliance. Former Premier McGuinty’s August 19, 2011 letter to the AODA Alliance is available at:

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Text of the Toronto Star’s September 28, 2013 Article on Barb Turnbull’s New Book

The Toronto Star September 28, 2013


Barbara and Goliath; It was the 1990s and Famous Players was turning away people in wheelchairs. Until this indomitable movie fan came along, that is.

Star reporter Barbara Turnbull has been an outspoken advocate for accessibility.

PHOTO: “If you ever wonder why we people with disabilities demand equal access, it’s because too often, still, we have to demand access,” says Barbara Turnbull, shown as she receives an honorary degree from York University. PHOTO: Colin McConnell/Toronto Star

I filed a complaint with the Ontario Human Rights Commission 20 years ago against Famous Players Theatres. In 1993, the company ran 10 theatres in Toronto (before amalgamation). Only the Cumberland was advertised as accessible.

In 1994, Viacom Inc. purchased Famous Players and invested $500 million dollars in building 43 new theatres across Canada over four years, from 1997 to 2001. But before those new accessible venues were built, there were many small movie houses with stairs. The film distribution business was very different in the early ’90s. Most movies played in either a Famous Players or a Cineplex Odeon theatre; rarely did one run in both. As an avid filmgoer, I had my eye on the scene.

Because I lived above a Cineplex Odeon cinema – it was a strong consideration in my condo purchase – the lack of access at Famous Players bothered me, but I gave them points for at least running one accessible venue.

However, the situation meant that at any given time, about half the films showing were inaccessible to me, unless I drove to the suburbs, where most theatres were newer and built accessible. I figured that if there was one I really wanted to see on the big screen, I would make the effort.

That’s what happened in 1993 when I went to a Friday matinee at what I thought was the only accessible cinema run by Famous Players in Toronto.

I requested and was sold a ticket to M. Butterfly. Then the employee gave me an odd look, so I asked him which direction to go in.

“Can you get out of that thing?” he asked. “No,” I replied. “I can’t get out of this thing.” “Then you can’t go,” he said. “It’s up the escalator.” He told me that only one of the four screens was accessible. Instead of seeing an art film by David Cronenberg, my only option was Rudy, a football flick.

“But you advertise this theatre as accessible,” I said. “That’s head office,” another employee said with a casual air. “You’d have to contact them about that.”

At the time, a recent Human Rights case over a lack of accessible parking in a strip mall had concluded that any business open to the public must be accessible to all members of the public. I followed up with Famous Players, noting that it was in violation of the Human Rights Code. The company’s mailed response to me contained this line: “The recent Human Rights decision was not clear in its implication for theatre owners.”

‘Court of public opinion’

What else could I do but make it crystal clear? In response to my complaint, the company renovated the Cumberland Cinema but resisted changing others. Over the next eight years, four other people with disabilities launched complaints against Famous Players, all with similar (or worse) experiences. During the public hearing, Famous Players refused to provide any financial data, arguing that its ability to pay for the renovations was not an issue. However, a spokesperson for the company was quoted in the media as saying that the cost of the renovations could force two theatres to close.

“If these expenses were a genuine issue causing undue hardship to Famous Players Theatres, the Board of Inquiry could have addressed the matter,” Chief Commissioner Keith Norton said in his decision. “Instead, the corporation attempted to try its case in the court of public opinion and in doing so, unfairly pitted the legitimate desire of those who want to protect heritage buildings against the rights of persons with disabilities.”

When the decision was released, on Sept. 11, 2001, we won. A story about the ruling was the only article in the Star the next day unrelated to the 9/11 attacks on New York’s World Trade Center. Understandably, the decision was largely ignored by the media. What’s important to note is that over those eight years the landscape had significantly changed in the city. Famous Players had built multiplexes that were accessible and closed several of the smaller, inaccessible venues.

However, what was important to me was access to the annual Toronto International Film Festival, which I attended regularly. The festival was then spread over a few cinemas, most notably the Uptown, one of the most revered movie houses in the city. Along with the Art Deco Eglinton, they were Famous Players’ signature theatres. Every year there were films I wanted to see at the festival but couldn’t, because they were scheduled at the Uptown. If at any point during those eight years the company had renovated the Uptown, I might have dropped my complaint. I never expected every single old cinema to be fully accessible, but I expected the same choices as those available to the able-bodied population.

As for the film festival, CEO Piers Handling said Uptown’s inaccessibility wasn’t their issue, because they simply rented the venue. Using all accessible cinemas wasn’t possible because “our overall philosophy for the 20 years of the Festival has been to create a ‘Festival village’ atmosphere at Bloor-Yonge-Bay,” he wrote to me in a 1995 response to my suggestion the festival’s borders be broadened to be fully accessible.

However, the law does state that every public business must be accessible and so, in losing the complaint, Famous Players was given three months to come up with a plan to make all of its facilities fully compliant with the law. After three months, the company announced it was closing inaccessible venues rather than renovate them. Renovating the Uptown would cost $1 million, the company claimed, a figure parroted by reporters unaware that three-quarters of that quote was to gut and redo the interior.

The reaction from the public was swift and visceral. Though there were five complainants, we were “Turnbull et al. versus Famous Players.” As a Star reporter, I was also the most public and easy to reach, so I became the target for able-bodied people who were enraged they were losing theatres they loved.

People phoned and emailed the Star. Some said I should “resign in disgrace,” that I had “set the disability movement back 10 years,” that I was “denying future generations the historical significance of these theatres.”

One Tom K. wrote to me: “I can’t believe how the handicapped . . . are calling the shots for the majority. I’m tired of bending over backwards for these people, just to have them demand more. Now we’re losing our historical institutions because of unreasonable demands. You are not the majority, so please go back to being the minority and save me my tax dollars and quit being a burden on society.”

Piers Handling was quoted in a Star article: “There are about 1,800 seats in the three Uptown (theatres) we use. It has been an integral part of the festival mix for about 15 years. And a closing of this kind will obviously leave a huge hole in our festival mix – it’s a major issue.”

Andy Barrie, on CBC’s Metro Morning, earned a permanent place in my heart for the kind way he reported our side. All other debates that I heard on radio shows sounded negatively skewed to me, the majority of callers angry. “I go to the movies all the time and I never see people in wheelchairs anyway,” is a memorable line from one indignant citizen.

Two years later, when the Uptown was being demolished, a wall collapsed, killing one and injuring 17. An email came to me with one line: “I hope you’re happy.”

Let’s be clear: the company made business decisions and used disabled people as scapegoats. And they overwhelmingly won the PR battle in doing so. Those theatres would have closed eventually anyway, but I’m still known by many as “the one who shut down the Uptown.”

I was pretty fragile for a spell. But the Human Rights Commission ruling was an important legal decision and I stand by it. The case is examined in high school law classes across the country, with a page devoted to it in the textbook currently in use.

Yet sometimes I hesitate before speaking out. I get the feeling that people want to throw their arms up and walk away. Maybe they’re thinking “Is this really such a big deal? Can’t you just be OK with how it is?”

Sometimes I feel too demanding, and that we can do more harm by making a fuss. It’s like being a whistleblower – you make as many enemies, maybe even more enemies, than you do friends. But should I lower my expectations because others won’t raise their standards?

If you ever wonder why we people with disabilities demand equal access, it’s because too often, still, we have to demand access – whether it’s a workplace party, a new park or an entrance to a public business run by a wealthy corporation.

No bold action yet

That is also why we need a strong and effective Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, with mandatory standards that go far beyond current building codes and are effectively enforced. What the Ontario Legislature passed in 2005 was promising. It required the Ontario government to lead the province to full accessibility within 20 years, by 2025. That was fully achievable if the government acted promptly and effectively, and if it kept all its promises about this legislation.

Unfortunately, the Ontario Government in recent years has repeatedly dropped the ball. It makes great speeches about why accessibility is good for business and for our economy, and about its plans to be a world leader in the area, but there is no bold action. Accessibility standards passed to date, while helpful, don’t go anywhere near far enough. Even if they were strictly obeyed, they won’t ensure full accessibility by 2025. Ontario has been dragging its feet about making new standards and about keeping its promise to effectively enforce the accessibility law.

There will always be people who just don’t get it. Some can be educated and, even though that process can be tiresome, the end result is usually worth it. The fact remains that there are some people who don’t think we belong at gatherings for able-bodied people, because we are inconvenient. “If there’s a barrier, just stay away,” is the message.

My experience has taught me that for every truly ignorant individual I have come across, there are many others open to learning, or with the beautiful spirit of that photographer, a man who extended such kindness to me when I needed it so badly. The day I stop believing in the greater good of humanity will be the day I give up.

Until that comes – I’ll carry on.

get the full read

What I Know: Lessons From My 30 Years of Quadriplegia is available through the weekly ebook program Star Dispatches. Simply go to and subscribe for $1/week. Single copies of What I Know are available for $2.99 at



Barbara Turnbull Toronto Star


NOTE: For those who are interested, we understand that it might be easier to acquire the book for $2.99 by visiting