A single step might as well be an insurmountable wall for Pamela TurnerSmith.
In the eight years she has lived in Niagara-on-the-Lake, TurnerSmith says she hasn’t been able to enter many of the businesses on Queen Street because she is mobility impaired.
“I cannot go into 60 per cent of the stores and support them,” she said.
“If I am here with friends, I have to wait on the sidewalk.”
Last year, TurnerSmith, who used a mobility scooter, photographed every store on and around Queen Street.
Her research determined that 60 stores out of 100 were inaccessible.
In many cases, just a single step is the barrier. In fact, Turner Smith found that to be the case at half of those 60 retailers.
“A single step is a closed door,” she said.
In some cases, the solution is more complicated. Customers need to climb more than one step to enter some popular spots, including Balzac’s Coffee Roasters, Greaves Jams and Corks Restaurant, to name a few.
Last June, Turner Smith sent a letter to the town and to NOTL council outlining her frustration with accessibility on Queen Street.
“The mayor and the council (were) all about access and inclusion. This is the time for action. It’s the right thing to do,” said TurnerSmith.
She also sent her letter to the new council and received a written response from Lord Mayor Gary Zalepa expressing his support.
In her letter, she “offered an immediate solution that was low-cost and high impact,” she said.
She introduced StopGap, a Toronto-based foundation that makes portable ramps to allow people with mobility issues to enter any store that has a single step at the entrance.
The StopGap costs $280 to $460, a small price for something with such an enormous impact.
To bring StopGap to stores that need it along Queen Street would cost no more than $15,000, Turner Smith said.
“It will increase revenues because it’s throwing open the door to all of those tourists and residents like me that have not been able to go in and support them,” she said.
The ramp could be an affordable option for a historic or heritage building.
In 2017, about 6.2 million (22 per cent) of Canadians aged 15 and older had a disability, says Statistics Canada.
And according to the World Health Organization, about 16 per cent of the world’s population lives with some form of disability.
Niagara-on-the-Lake expects more than three million visitors annually, bringingin revenue of about $648 million, according to the town’s website.
About 65 per cent of that number comes from domestic tourists while 35 per cent is generated by people from other countries.
That revenue potentially could be much higher if more stores were accessible, TurnerSmith says.
NOTL Chamber of Commerce president Minerva Ward says tourists have complained about the lack of accessibility along Queen Street.
Even the chamber’s headquarters isn’t “ideal for people with disabilities,” she admitted.
The chamber’s basement office space is accessible through the old Court House, but she’d like the agency to have a space where it’s easily accessible to everyone.
She’d also like to see every store have a removable ramp if it needs one.
Luke Anderson, co-founder of StopGap, says, “being able to access space is a human right.”
Anderson has used a wheelchair since 2002 when he was injured doing tricks on a bike ramp. He started the StopGap Foundation in 2011.
Last year, he travelled to Niagara-on-the-Lake and described his visit as “horrible, very unpleasant, disappointing (and) frustrating.”
“I think maybe I could get into a quarter of the locations,” he added.
He described NOTL as a “gem” but said it has many barriers that still need to be removed.
Once that happens, he thinks business owners will see the economic value of having an accessible space.
Turner Smith has been in contact with the town’s chief administrator, Marnie Cluckie, since last summer.
Cluckie said she has been taking steps to address the accessibility problem in Old Town and noted it is the responsibility of individual businesses to make stores more accessible.
“That said, of course, as a town, we’re interested in making sure that we have an inclusive environment and that includes removing any barriers,” she said.
Since a StopGap ramp would be temporary, a retailer wouldn’t need a heritage permit, but would need to consultat with the municipal heritage committee, Cluckie said in an email to The Lake Report.
It would be similar to what businesses need to do with temporary structures like A-frame signs, she said.
“If a program such as the StopGap Foundation program were in place, the town would seek to streamline the process with its partners,” said Cluckie.
The town and the Chamber of Commerce plan to work together to bring accessible options to store owners.
The town has applied to the province’s Seniors Community Grant Program to try to get funding for ramps.
“We hope to be successful as offering free temporary access ramps to local businesses could help support them in their accessibility efforts,” Cluckie said.
Melissa Achal of NEOB Lavender says her storefront in Elora, Ont., had a step out front and the town invested in getting ramps for many of the businesses.
With a new storefront location in downtown Niagara-on-the-Lake, she’d like to see a similar program here.
She also foresees maybe getting together with other businesses to buy the ramps, as long as they don’t pose a tripping hazard or stick too far out onto the sidewalk.
“I would totally be into that,” she said.
Ramps, temporary or permanent, would not only open doors to those with mobility issues, but to new parents with strollers, aging seniors or someone who is injured and using crutches, said TurnerSmith.
“There is no person that I have ever encountered that says accessibility is not a good idea,” she said.