You don't really know the meaning of accessibility unless you use a wheelchair or hang out with someone who does. I only started to understand one fall evening while wandering the streets of downtown Montreal with my friend André, in search of a bar or restaurant where he could get his wheelchair through the door.
It took us 45 minutes to find a place, by which time I was feeling quite indignant. How could so many places not bother to make the small ascent to their threshold – usually just one step up from the sidewalk – manageable for people with disabilities? André seemed to take the hassle more calmly, because he had been dealing with it for years.
More recently, I went with Omar Lachheb and his girlfriend, Luz, to a Montreal sushi restaurant that we knew had no way of allowing his wheelchair in. But they had brought the solution with them: a wooden ramp, custom-built for that very doorway. It was one of 20 that Lachheb had arranged to supply to businesses in Montreal since September. A waiter laid down the ramp and voila! – instant accessibility.
Lachheb's not-for-profit program is called the Community Ramp Project, and its initial goal is to get customized portable ramps around town and into public consciousness. The brightly coloured ramps not only get people in the door, they make visible a problem that's often easy for the able-bodied to ignore.
Laccheb's approach to most businesses is direct and dramatic. "I knock on the door or the glass, and just wave and say, 'Hi,'" he said, during a chat in his condo. "I can't go in, so I have to wait outside." By the time someone comes out, they know, if they didn't before, that there's a problem with the doorway. Rather than complain about it, Lachheb offers them a simple fix, and a clear business motive for doing it.
"Accessibility is a social issue, about equality and dignity for people with disabilities," he said, "but it's also about considering people with mobility issues as customers. They have jobs and money to spend. Having a ramp and being accessible is a smart choice for businesses."
If they say yes, Lachheb gets the measurement of the step outside – the ramps are only feasible with a single step – and consults a spreadsheet that lays out the dimensions for a ramp of any given height. The ramp is then made from plywood by Le Boulot vers, a social organization that teaches woodworking and life skills to young people in need of a new start. Volunteers apply the bright slip-resistant paint, though the most recent ramps were painted by Luz on the couple's balcony.
"This is not the solution," Lachheb said. "It's just the starting point for something bigger." He and J'accède Québec, the not-for-profit organization he founded in 2011, want to use the ramps as a wedge to make accessible building design the default option in Montreal.
Lachheb is working with a McGill PhD student to develop a checklist for accessibility once a person with a disability is in the door. Is there room to move around the restaurant or down the shop's aisles? A J'accède Québec sticker of approval is available to all businesses that do well on the checklist. Lachheb, who spends his workdays in a bank, also has plans for a smartphone app to help people with disabilities find out easily where they can do business. (OnRoute.org already maintains an online guide for accessible shops and services in Montreal and other parts of Quebec).
It costs about $80 to build a ramp. So far, about 60 per cent of the businesses who have received one have covered the cost themselves. The rest of the money came "from my pocket," said Lachheb, and from StopGap Foundation, the Toronto organization that pioneered the kind of ramp he is promoting in Montreal.
StopGap was launched five years ago by Luke Anderson, who uses a wheelchair and says he likes "to convert my frustration into positive action." StopGap has distributed about 500 ramps in Toronto, and related or similar groups have placed 300 more ramps in Ottawa, Guelph, London, Halifax, Vancouver and Charlottetown.
"All the materials and the skill set exist in every community," Anderson said. "It's just four pieces of wood."
StopGap's ramps are built by Dixon Hall Neighbourhood Services, often with donated materials. Like J'accède Québec, StopGap Foundation is a not-for-profit entity, though it sells about 20 per cent of its ramps at market cost.
One continuing issue has to do with the legality of the ramps, which some municipalities regard as a trip hazard or encroachment on the public sidewalk. None of the ramps in Toronto has been ticketed so far, said Anderson, perhaps because they're not permanent, and because the city's preferred solution is so impractical. It favours installation of a $60,000 mechanical lift that can freeze up in winter, needs someone to come out and operate it, and can take eight minutes to get one wheelchair-user through the door.
At the sushi restaurant where J'accède Québec's ramp had just met the pavement for the first time, Lachheb told the waiter that the ramp should be kept indoors till someone arrives who needs it. But with a wide sidewalk and little real risk of being ticketed, it seems likelier that the restaurant will do as the 43 StopGapped shops in my Toronto Roncesvalles neighbourhood do: put the ramp out at the start of the day, and bring it in at closing time. It's not a perfect solution, as Lachheb and Anderson both say, but it's one step toward greater equality and better business.