In the winter, Montrealers often gripe about the inconvenience of snow and wet roads. For Paul Tshuma, however, the city’s snow removal sometimes piles up on the ramp outside of his apartment, making it impossible for him to leave.
“I cannot just decide and say ‘I’m going out, I’m going downtown,’” said Tshuma, a member of the group Accessibilize Montreal, which tries to raise awareness about discrimination against people with disabilities in the city. “I have to call special transport, and I have to plan all my days in advance. That’s why I’m limited in Montreal.”
Accessibility in Montreal is an issue often overlooked by large swathes of the population. “I’ve realized that there’s a lot of ignorance,” Tshuma said. “If you don’t have a friend or a family member that has a disability, [certain things don’t] ring a bell in your head.”
“The thing that [Accessibilize Montreal is] asking for, perhaps the most, is just openness among Montreal residents,” said Aimee Louw, co-founder of Accessibilize Montreal. “Just […] hearing our message and trying to make things more inclusive for everybody.”
Accessibilize Montreal was born out of discussions with Louw’s friends about different experiences of accessibility in Montreal. Although the group is still fairly small, Louw said that membership is not identity-based. “It’s cool to have such diverse perspectives too […] and it only strengthen[s] how we view accessibility.”
The group currently blends traditional political activism, such as lobbying for changes in infrastructure, with workshops and “Strateg-teas,” or meetings where members can share their stories.
“We also want to change the mindsets of people in Montreal, because it’s one thing to have a physically accessible place for people with physical disabilities, [but] it’s another […] to have an accessible or open perception of people in Montreal,” Louw said.
Access to the public transportation system managed by the Société de transport de Montréal (STM) is one of the focal points of Accessibilize Montreal. Currently, there are only seven metro stations that have elevators, and although a few bus routes are wheelchair-accessible, information is often unavailable or incorrect.
Accessibilize Montreal has started to organize “Question Bombs” at the question and answer components of monthly STM board meetings. Prior to the group’s participation, Louw explained, most of the people at the question and answer sessions were people with disabilities, “a sign that things need to change.”
“I’m going to be honest, it’s a slow process […] there have been hundreds of people, if not more, fighting for it since the beginning of the STM; it’s not a new fight,” Louw said. “But what we’re hoping to bring is some more public awareness so there’s a stronger base of support for it.”
According to the CBC, the STM is behind on a ten-year transport plan adopted in 2008, which pledged to renovate three metro stations per year. The plan is currently behind schedule due to a lack of funds, according to a City of Montreal employee.
Money is often cited as a barrier to renovations of the current STM service, Louw said. “In any big institution, I find that excuses for not making things better are because of finances. So there’s pretty much a unanimous statement that there just isn’t enough money to make the regular transit [and the paratransit] system more accessible.”
Accessibility at McGill
At McGill, the Office for Students with Disabilities (OSD) helps students with physical, mental, and other disabilities. For smaller accommodations, such as switching the classroom for a course, students contact the OSD.
After years of questions about how to effectively handle bigger requests from students with physical disabilities, the Universal Access Capital Projects Working Group was formed. With a budget of around $400,000, according to Frédéric Fovet, director of the OSD, the Working Group will channel any requests for renovations or other large-scale projects.
The next impending project – renovations to make the First Peoples’ House accessible – will take place in the summer. A project to renovate Morrice Hall was approved by the Working Group on February 10, and a project at Otto Maass Chemistry building is undergoing a review process.
According to Louw, there are significant barriers to making McGill’s campus more accessible, and McGill’s administration is one of them. She pointed to McGill’s alleged unwillingness to renovate the CKUT and QPIRG building on University as an example of “McGill […] putting aesthetics above universal access, which is a big problem.”
However, according to Fovet, McGill’s hands are tied by strict municipal regulations regarding alterations to a building’s historical appearance. “At [the] First Peoples’ House, building a ramp on the front was never an option,” he said. “That’s why they started looking at access through the Brown building, and going for the first floor instead of going through the street [entrance].”
“Universal access to all the buildings is unfortunately not feasible, simply because if you did a tally of the costs, it would go beyond anything that McGill has available, or that even the government would be willing to provide,” Fovet said, estimating the cost of renovating one of the historical houses on Peel or University at over $1 million.
“It’s not just McGill, it’s something that affects the whole city and province, the […] lack of interest in disability. But it is surprising given that it’s a place of learning and a place of openness and free talk,” Louw said.
Fovet was hopeful overall about the state of physical accessibility at McGill. “I can’t tell you it has been great in the past few years, because nothing much has happened,” he said. “Thankfully [now] there is movement that is actually […] going in the right direction.”