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Accessibility in a Montreal Winter

Earlier this month, CBC News reported that Charlotte Gibson, a resident of Dollard-des-Ormeaux (DDO), is facing more than $13,000 in fines for erecting a tempo over her driveway. Tempos are tent-like structures used by many Quebecers to protect their vehicles and driveways from winter weather, but they are banned in DDO. According to the city’s mayor, Alex Bottausci, the structures can interfere with snow clearing and could impede access to a person’s front door in the event of an emergency.

Gibson has been disabled since breaking her leg and ankle eight years ago. She has trouble walking, has difficulty getting up if she falls, and relies on a service dog to help her. Gibson says the tempo, which prevents her from having to wait for someone to clear the snow from her car and driveway each time she has to leave the house, “is a matter of independence.” The city denied her request for an exemption to the tempo ban in 2018, but after finding herself trapped inside her parked car one day, unable to walk across her icy driveway, she decided to put one up anyway. Since late 2019, Gibson has been issued about 25 fines, most of them for $646.

Gibson’s story is a reminder of the additional challenges that Montrealers with reduced mobility face in the wintertime. It is also just one instance of the city’s reluctance to provide accommodations for people with disabilities. This reluctance creates unnecessary personal and financial strain for people with disabilities and their loved ones; Gibson says she’ll have to dip into her retirement savings if she’s forced to pay the $13,000 in fines.

People with reduced mobility can face extreme or even life-threatening barriers to getting around Montreal in the winter. In 2019, Laurent Morissette of the disability rights group RAPLIQ (Regroupement des activistes pour l’inclusion au Québec) told Global News that “we don’t go out” because “there’s a high risk of getting stuck.” Morisette added that every time he leaves his house, he feels like he’s putting his life on the line.

Slow snow removal times are especially disruptive. Vaudreuil resident Piero Gervasi, who uses a wheelchair, said in 2019 that the snow removal near his condo was so poor that he frequently had to wait in his vehicle for crews to arrive in order to protect his reserved parking spot. Sometimes, the crews didn’t even bother to show up. That same year, Mayor Valérie Plante said the city would try to make things easier with a snow removal plan that would “minimize the kind of lakes that happen at intersections.” As anyone who regularly crosses Sherbrooke Street knows, however, the slush- filled lakes are only getting bigger.

Unfortunately, these challenges are not limited to the winter; Montreal remains inaccessible year-round. Kéroul, a Quebec tourism site for “people with restricted physical mobility,” lists 215 establishments in Montreal – ranging from five-star hotels to pharmacies – that are fully accessible. However, 247 establishments are only partially accessible, and 146 establishments are fully inaccessible.

Increasing the accessibility of specific places in Montreal will mean little if the city itself remains difficult to navigate for people with reduced mobility. The Société de transport de Montréal (STM) is trying to make Montreal’s metro system “universally accessible” by “doubling, even tripling, the pace of elevator installation at stations.” The STM aims to have 30 accessible stations by 2025, and 25 stations have already achieved that status. Yet with a total of 68 stations serving the greater Montreal area, this means that fewer than half of all stations have elevators. Moreover, some metro users have pointed out that not all of Montreal’s “universally accessible” stations are truly universally accessible. In at least four stations, the older MR-73 trains still in use do not line up properly with the station platforms, making it difficult for people in wheelchairs to board the trains. “If we can’t board the trains,” RAPLIQ president Linda Gauthier asks, “then what’s the use of having an elevator?”

Just last month, the Montreal Gazette and representatives of RAPLIQ toured Montreal’s new SRB Pie-IX, a $500-million fast bus service along Pie-IX Boulevard. While the STM claims that the service is accessible, the RAPLIQ representatives found “several deficiencies,” including ramps that don’t meet the sidewalk. As the STM’s most recent oversight shows, Montreal’s accessibility problem isn’t simply a problem of upgrading older infrastructure; even the city’s newest projects aren’t meeting the needs of people with reduced mobility.

The issue of accessibility in Montreal is not an insignificant one. In 2017, there were an estimated 523,600 people – representing 15.9 per cent of the city’s population – “living with disabilities,” or reporting “a limitation in their day-to-day activities,” in Montreal. In 2019, there were some 20,000 people using wheelchairs in Montreal. As the city continues to work toward universal access, it needs to do a better job consulting people with disabilities. In the words of the International Disability Caucus, “nothing about us without us.”

The issue of accessibility at McGill also demands greater attention. The 2021 Student Demographic Survey reveals that 8.3 per cent of McGill students identify as “persons with disabilities” and that 5.0 per cent of these students experience “motor impairment.” Yet much of McGill’s downtown campus remains inaccessible to those who use wheelchairs. While many buildings have added ramp entrances and elevators in recent years, some of these still lack accessible washrooms.

If you’d like to join the discussion around accessibility at McGill, look out for the next SSMU Accessibility Town Hall. If you’re a professor, be understanding and make an effort to meet the access needs of your students, especially when it comes to travelling to campus on particularly cold or snowy days. To aid in the legal fight for the rights of people with disabilities, you can consider donating to RAPLIQ. You can also sign this petition, launched by Charlotte Gibson and her neighbour, to convince West Island communities to allow residents to request accommodations for tempos. Finally, to help everyone get around this winter, make sure your walkways and driveways are clear, and look after neighbours who may need help clearing theirs.