How easy—or difficult—is it for the disabled to experience all our city has to offer? We pounded the pavement to find out.
If a nation’s greatness can be measured by how it treats its weakest members (as the old saying goes), then surely a city’s greatness is also tied to how well it provides for those needing a little extra help. So how does Toronto—world-class city and all that—measure up for those with accessibility issues both permanent (elderly or disabled) and temporary (broken foot)? Setting aside schools, government offices, and other such institutions where an enhanced degree of access is presumed, how much more difficult is it to grocery shop, dine out, or meet a friend for coffee when mobility isn’t something you can take for granted? That’s certainly a worrisome question for people like me, whose chronic foot problems are unlikely to improve with the coming years. People with compromised mobility already know the reality. But what will the rest of us discover when we actually start taking note or needing special support because of age or infirmity? I roamed the city doing random everyday things seeking to find out. Turns out where you live is very important. Also, while it may hurt to admit it, big chains are your friends.
Three cheers for Wheel-Trans, which provides door-to-door accessible transit service for people with physical disabilities and is operated by the TTC (meaning you must provide a regular TTC fare each trip). Still, you can schedule regular pick-ups to happen week over week, book your trips online, and receive telephone confirmation of your trip with full details including the times, destinations, and vehicle type. What you can’t do is be spontaneous. Even those still able to ride subways and streetcars—those in a cast or walking with a cane, for instance—are consistently challenged by easily solvable things. I live at Greenwood and Danforth, but I’d need to travel four stops west to Broadview to access an elevator in a subway station. And after a big storm like the one last week, streetcar commuters had to gamely traverse mini-mountains of curbside snow to board the vehicles. Impossible for the disabled but surely controllable if the City put its mind to it.
The cynic in me says the reason accessibility isn’t an issue with major retailers is because they want my money. I say let them have it. Virtually every grocery store I entered—from the Metro on Front Street to the Longo’s on Dundas West at Bay to Loblaws at Broadview south of Danforth—was accessible. Ditto for the St. Lawrence Market—both the Saturday North Market and the regular South Market, including washrooms—plus Canadian Tire and Best Buy at Bay and Dundas, the Bay on Queen Street, and pretty much the entire Eaton Centre, including stores such as Indigo, which cover two levels (thanks to an elevator). LCBO stores, banks, Shoppers Drug Marts, and Dollaramas I visited citywide were also accessible with few exceptions. (Newer Dollaramas like the ones at Front and Sherbourne and Bathurst and Bloor also boast accessible washrooms). Where accessibility breaks down is at the mom-and-pop shops where steps at the entrance are common and aisles can be hopelessly narrow. No big deal if you live near Yonge and Eglinton, but a serious challenge to navigate in emerging neighbourhoods like mine in the east end or west in Parkdale.
As with stores, independent restaurants—while potentially cheaper and more innovative than the chains—rarely offer comparable accessibility. For example, both Spring Rolls and Jack Astor’s on Front Street near Jarvis are completely accessible; the former has an accessible washroom discreetly tucked away upstairs at street level while the latter has a wheelchair lift in the entrance to help disabled guests descend to the lower bar/restaurant area. By contrast, both the Jason George pub and the Corner Place restaurant nearby are awesome but have washrooms downstairs. Similarly, if you’re mobility challenged and want to meet a friend for coffee, Starbucks or Tim Hortons will save potential headaches even if Orange Alert at McCaul and Dundas (with its step at entrance) or The One at Danforth and Donlands (with stairs down to washrooms) offer hipper environments. Indeed, the washroom-in-basement conundrum is a doozy; many otherwise accessible eateries fail on this point. And it’s hard to see how the situation could be rectified by even the most conscientious proprietors.
Not only is the Art Gallery of Ontario wheelchair accessible (as it damn well should be), it has free wheelchairs available on site for patron use. The Royal Ontario Museum allows persons with disabilities to bring helpers in with them for free. Like most major cinemas citywide, Rainbow Cinema Market Square is fully wheelchair accessible and is also equipped with assistive listening devices for the hearing impaired. The Toronto Public Library is accessible and offers enhancements like special furniture and book stands. Massey Hall is a beacon of accessibility, not just for patrons coping with mobility issues but also blind and visually impaired patrons and those hard of hearing. As for nightclubs, it depends. But on balance, Toronto seems to be holding its own where entertainment is concerned.
Worshippers attending service downtown at St. James Cathedral will have no problem accessing the building through the door at the west side facing Church Street, though they will miss the gorgeous expanse of the main entrance that can only be accessed using stairs. Getting your locks clipped at Stylistics Hair Salon on Chester Avenue is doable; walk further east and grab dirt-cheap fruit and veg at either Valley Farm Produce or Fruitland Market, both accessible (if tight) at Logan and Danforth. On its website, GoodLife Fitness outlines a clearly defined Accessibility Policy offering “alternative methods when possible to ensure that members with disabilities have access to the same services, in the same place and in a similar manner” as able-bodied members. And Baldwin Naturals Health Food Store in Baldwin Village offers ramp-access to its front door.
Toronto emerges as fairly accessible (albeit using completely random and unscientific methodology). However, where in the city you live makes a huge difference. Those lucky enough to be near the St. Lawrence Market area, for example, can expect to grab coffee at Starbucks, wine at their local LCBO, and browse antiques on Sunday at the North Market building with ease. Those at Greenwood and Danforth can get coffee at Tim Horton’s and mussels and brews at Sarah’s Café & Bar (and use an accessible washroom there) but patronizing other local businesses is going to be much tougher. Still, to cite another maxim, admitting there is a problem is the first step to solving it. Something as simple as installing ramps at storefronts would make the city friendlier for all. Someone ought to lead the charge.
What accessibility issues have you encountered in Toronto? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.