Why is it so difficult for people with disabilities to score an iced Americano on College Street?
Last week, Starbucks annoyed me.
I went into the coffee chain’s new location at College and Beatrice, ordered a beverage, and took a seat. After a few sips, I noticed a woman in a wheelchair attempting to leave the store. She went to the side door (her best option because the front door has stairs) and attempted, with difficulty, to use the door handle. She clearly had some arm-mobility issues. I walked over to help her but, by the time I got there, she had managed to open the door herself after a couple of attempts and push herself through the doorway.
On the woman’s behalf, I was exasperated. This is a brand-new store, part of a massive, international coffee chain, I thought. So why in the world isn’t there an automatic-door button for this woman to push?
Thinking further about it, I remembered that the nearby Starbucks at College and Euclid isn’t accessible either. When I was pushing a stroller a couple of years ago, I had to avoid going there, because there are interior stairs that make it impossible for anyone on wheels to get up to the counter and order a drink.
What was Starbucks’ problem?
Identifying myself as a Grid reporter, I sent an email a day later, asking to interview someone at Starbucks about the accessibility issue. They set me up to speak to someone this past Monday. But when I drove by the College/Beatrice location Sunday night, lo and behold, they had installed an automatic door that weekend. Score one for the power of the pen!
The next morning, I spoke with Starbucks public-affairs director Luisa Girotto and asked her about the new development. As much as I’d like to take credit for the automatic-door installation, she told me it was already scheduled to go in that weekend.
“That store opened a couple of weeks to go, but there were a couple of construction items yet to be completed,” she said. “[The automatic door] was absolutely scheduled for the weekend, and I called this morning to say, ‘Where are you with that?’” Girotto said the new door was to be tested that Monday morning.
Although all Toronto Starbucks locations meet the current building code, Girotto explained, the company’s new store policy is to go above and beyond the code to increase accessibility; door operators with the automatic button are part of any new store design, as well as other features like accessible bathrooms, and counter heights. “They also being incorporated into renovations, because our stores are slated for light and major renos at multi-year intervals,” she said.
But what about that location at College and Euclid? It’s still totally inaccessible to people in wheelchairs. Girotto says that, though the location is up to current building code, it does present some challenges.
“With the Euclid location, we leased that space in 1997,” Girotta explained. “It’s lovely, because it’s an older building with lots of character and charm, but I think you would see going forward that we [choose] newer buildings or buildings that are easier to work with,” she said. “I can’t confirm to you what our plans are for the building, but I can tell you it is our goal with every new restaurant design and slated renovation to increase accessibility. And when Euclid comes up for reno, there will be decisions to be made.”
In David Lepofsky’s opinion, Ontario is way behind when it comes to accessibility standards. Lepofsky is the chair of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance, and though he didn’t want to comment specifically on Starbucks because he hadn’t seen the College Street locations, he says there is generally a misconception that, just because a building is up to code, it is covered, accessibility-wise.
“It’s not true, because there’s a law that prevails over all these, and that’s the Ontario Human Rights Code,” he said. “If an organization, like a store or a municipality, has a place where they’re providing goods or services, they have a duty to accommodate customers with disabilities. And if it means a person in a wheelchair can’t get in, they’ve got a duty to accommodate them. There are cases where people have brought forward successful claims due to inaccessible premises.” (Lepofsky knows about successful Human Rights cases—it’s because of Lepofsky’s complaint that Toronto subway and bus operators are required to verbally announce stops.)
“It’s amazing to me that any store in 2012 would locate itself in an inaccessible building; it’s not like people with disabilities were just invented last week,” he said. “You’ve had a duty to accommodate under the Human Rights Code since 1982.”
As well, Lepofsky points out that inaccessible premises lose not only the business of the disabled person, but their friends and family as well. “It’s a net money-maker to fix these accessibility problems.”
A lawyer and advocate for people with disabilities, Lepofsky was one of the leading voices pushing for the Accessibility for Ontarians With Disabilities Act, which was ushered in by the Ontario government in 2005. The landmark law will require all businesses to be accessible to people with disabilities by 2025 (in areas including the built environment, customer service, information and communications, and transportation).
But since the AODA was enacted, Lepofsky and his team have been frustrated by the lack of movement when it comes to the built-environment standards. For one thing, the government has decided that the AODA standards will only be required in new builds or major renovations, not existing buildings. As well, Lepofsky said, The Ministry of Community and Social Services has been slow to present the built-environment plan.
“If the government doesn’t promptly pass a built-environment standard, they’re just leaving organizations to face human-rights complaints,” he said. “The longer you wait, the more you’re putting up buildings that [aren’t accessible].”
Girotto said that, now that the College and Beatrice Starbucks location has the automatic door opener, one option for people with disabilities would be to go there instead of the inaccessible College and Euclid location.
“It’s not perfect, but [the new store] is three blocks from Euclid, so there’s choice,” she said.
Unfortunately, when I went into the College and Beatrice location this morning, the automatic-door button was not working. Not much choice there just yet.