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Lucy Greco

  Accessibility in Education


Accessibility of Commercial Premises: My Experience in Calgary

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Lucy Greco, a native of Canada and now a web accessibility expert at UC Berkeley, California, shares her experience of accessing commercial spaces in her home town of Calgary.
In my last post, I compared accessibility levels between my current residence California and my home town, Calgary's public transit system. The latter doesn't seem to adequately consider commuters who are blind and visually impaired, wheelchair users and other people with physical disabilities who use the system on a daily basis. 

One of the other areas that I was sadly disappointed in was physical access to commercial properties, for instance, restaurants. During the 20 days that my husband and I were in Calgary, not once were we at a restaurant that was fully accessible. Most of the outlets we ate at, in fact, had no access whatsoever. From steps at the front door with no ramps to getting in to bathrooms that were narrow, cramped and completely inaccessible for wheelchair users, I had a tough time navigating restaurants because I am blind.

Calgary cityscape

Image: Calgary skyline

I remember going to a restaurant where the sinks were so high that the counter was at my mid chest level. It’s not like a wheelchair user would ever find this out though because the bathrooms were up a flight of stairs. One of the better restrooms with reasonably accessible fixtures was up two stairs. Many of the places we ate at were new and or renovated very recently. In California, this kind of exclusion would have never been allowed. According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, if you’re renovating an existing place or building a new structure you must include accessibility for people with physical disabilities.

There were a few things in Canada that have actually surpassed access here in the United States.  For example, Access Media has done a wonderful job of increasing access to Described Television content. Included with everybody’s basic cable package are two television channels where all content is audio described. Nothing similar is available anywhere in the United States. For movies, the situation is reversed. Here in Berkeley, I have access to six theaters that have described movies with closed captioning. And those are just the ones I know of. Calgary, one of the largest cities in Canada, has only one theater where description and captions are available. I am told that even people at the Canadian National Institute for the Blind weren’t aware that such a theater existed!

The one other thing that Canada has done correctly is provide accessible currencies. It was a wonderful thing to hand somebody bills and be sure that I was really handing them a $10 note and not $20. I have met very few blind people who have not encountered problems with inaccessible currency. We have all handed somebody a bill in a cab or at a store thinking it was one thing and it turned out to be another. We all have our own techniques of knowing what currency we are handling by folding the bills or by taking the help of an electronic recognition device, but inevitably situations which require you to trust what you are receiving still arise. With Canada’s accessible currency, you are not relying on a machine or someone else to tell you what the bill is.

I am still a Canadian at heart and one day my husband and I will return to Calgary as that’s where our family is. However, it’s going to be a difficult transition. As I age, I realize that those inaccessible bathrooms and restaurants may actually be inaccessible to me one day, not just due to my blindness, but also due to some unforeseen physical disability. As I work in California to ensure web accessibility for students and professionals in the academic arena, I wonder if I shouldn’t have done the same for my native land. However, this is not the job of a single person, but something that requires everyone’s concerted interest, empathy and effort. So, I call out to my Canadian friends and colleagues and say get off your laurels and get to work.  When I come home I want Canada to be one of the most accessible places in the world.