Ontario is reopening — but not for everyone

Patios are back. More stores and services are up and running. But, for many Ontarians with disabilities, life is not returning to a pre-pandemic normal
By Mary Baxter - Published on Jul 09, 2020
Signs and floor markers that indicate how people should move through a facility often don’t accommodate people with visual impairments. (iStock.com/inYang)

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LONDON — Despite the province’s gradual reopening, not much has changed for Andrew Lawrance. He still wears a mask and sunglasses when he goes out, has his groceries delivered to his door, and disinfects everything that comes into his east London home, where he works as a graphic artist. The 31-year-old lives with severe Crohn’s disease — and flare-ups can mean a stay in hospital, as well as increased risks from the effects of COVID-19. 

“How stealthily it moves around the population has been quite a stressor,” Lawrance says. 

Little has changed for Julia Ferguson, either. By mid-June, the London resident, who has diabetes, a sight impairment, and another disability that requires the support of a wheelchair, had spent four months in the one-bedroom apartment where she lives alone. “I’m trying to stay positive, but I have had times when I just cry and let everything out,” the 38-year-old says. 

Erika Katzman, a disabilities-studies professor at Western University, says that, while many are starting to feel comfortable in public, people living with impairments or disabilities are being forgotten by governments and businesses — despite making up more than 20 per cent of Ontario’s population. 

“There are these new barriers that are cropping up,” she says. For example, signs and floor markers that indicate how people should move through a facility often don’t accommodate people with visual impairments. “Things have been reorganized in a lot of ways to someone who has learned a path in their community — in its shops,” she says. “Those paths have all changed.” 

For Ferguson, one barrier to getting out is the city’s paratransit service. “There’s no way to keep any distance from the driver,” she says, pointing out that drivers fasten passengers' wheelchairs. “I don’t know what precautions they have in place or anything.”

According to a June 24 London Transit Commission staff report, drivers must use hand sanitizer after securing and releasing a mobility device, and buses undergo nightly cleaning (the mandatory use of masks on public transit goes into effect July 20). An effort to install protective barriers around bus drivers has been delayed because of material shortages.

But this applies only to the city's main bus service. Voyago, the company that provides specialized transit services (such as paratransit) is responsible for safety protocols for drivers — and for outfitting the vehicles with safety equipment. The company did not respond to an interview request from TVO.org. 

For those that do go out, it’s often unclear whether they can bring support workers or family members with them. Dianne Wintermute, a lawyer with Arch Disability Law Centre, in Toronto, says that an uneven approach to the lifting of hospital visiting restrictions creates challenges for people who need a support person. “Every hospital can have its own policy,” she says, “so the inconsistency of who gets to visit a person with a disability, and under what circumstances, continues to be an issue.”

Such limits apply not just in hospitals, but also in doctors’ offices, hair salons, and even on the bus, Katzman says: “If you're not allowed to have two people in the same vehicle, then you're limiting the range of people who are able to participate in certain activities.”

Kelly Paleczny, general manager of London Transit, says via email that support people can "travel with the registrant, free of charge, consistent with the requirements of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act" on the city's paratransit service.

Matthew Varsava, a spokesperson with the office for the provincial minister of seniors and accessibility, tells TVO.org via email that standards under the Accessibility for Ontarians With Disabilities Act require all organizations that provide customer service to do so “in a manner that respects the independence, dignity and individual needs of people with disabilities” and to accommodate support people and animals. “Organizations must also exert their best efforts to provide their goods, services or facilities in a way that people with disabilities can access them,” he writes, adding that, on June 15, the province’s chief medical officer of health instructed hospitals to allow visitors in acute care: “This includes persons with disabilities being allowed to access care while supported by an essential companion. It remains important for acute care settings to adjust their policies as needed.”

Relaxed physical-distancing restrictions — such as the implementation of social bubbles — though, has come as a relief for some. “We’ve had clients who communicate through touch,” Wintermute says, “and they couldn’t speak, essentially, when the social-distancing measures were in place, because they couldn’t touch anyone except for someone who was far away from them.”  

Ferguson, however, says it will be a long time before she feels safe enough to be out in the company of others. When she does venture out, she says, “I’ll always have a little bit of nervousness; I’d still not want to be touching anything I don’t have to.” 

Katzman says she would like to see governments at all levels put access at the forefront of planning. “These are not new ideas,” she says. “We have provincial and now national legislation that's supposed to be a priority, considering accessibility. But, historically, we’ve forgotten to include considerations around access and disability up front.” 

She sees the COVID-19 recovery as an opportunity to build that approach into our culture. “How great would it be to walk into a store, and the greeters can either identify or just routinely say, ‘This is what we have in place. This is what you're going to encounter when you come into the store. If you have any needs, please let us know.’”

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting southwestern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of faculty and students from Western University’s Faculty of Information and Media Studies.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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