July 15, 2019

Winnipeg
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Broken lift highlights broader access issues

Editorial

Imagine that, as part of your daily routine, you needed to go through a door in a wall. It wasn’t the only way to get where you needed to go, but it was the best option.

And then, randomly, you might discover on a given day that the door had disappeared and there was only wall.

So you’d find another way to get where you’re going. Maybe not as safe, certainly not as convenient — and there goes your day.

That’s somewhat analogous to a wheelchair lift with no nearby alternative when you need to get across Portage and Main, as wheelchair users saw last month when one was out of order.

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Imagine that, as part of your daily routine, you needed to go through a door in a wall. It wasn’t the only way to get where you needed to go, but it was the best option.

And then, randomly, you might discover on a given day that the door had disappeared and there was only wall.

So you’d find another way to get where you’re going. Maybe not as safe, certainly not as convenient — and there goes your day.

That’s somewhat analogous to a wheelchair lift with no nearby alternative when you need to get across Portage and Main, as wheelchair users saw last month when one was out of order.

This issue is not about reopening our historic downtown intersection, but it should reopen something else. Namely, a healthy discussion about accessibility.

Last week, it was reported that the wheelchair lift at 201 Portage Ave., which provides access to the underground concourse at Portage and Main, was not only out of order, but had not been working for all of February.

The wheelchair lift at Portage and Main was out of order for most of February. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press files)

The wheelchair lift at Portage and Main was out of order for most of February. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press files)

The prospect of reopening Portage and Main to pedestrian traffic at street level was debated at length prior to a non-binding plebiscite on the matter in last fall’s civic election. One of the points raised was greater access to crossing the street for those with mobility issues. It might not be the preferred way for everyone, but it would be better than being stuck with no alternative.

Anyone using a wheelchair might choose to avoid the wind and snow and take the concourse, like many other pedestrians. Since the majority of voters taking part in the plebiscite voted to keep the intersection closed, the question of navigating Portage and Main remains confined to use of the concourse.

As has been pointed out in the Free Press' letters column, the concourse is not the only part of an accessible downtown; just as critical is the Skywalk system.

However, for that indoor infrastructure to be accessible to all, elevators or wheelchair lifts need to be placed at regular intervals. If one of them is out of order, it blocks access to the rest of the system.

After some apparent confusion over whose responsibility it was to fix it (it’s the city’s), the lift was repaired.

A different wheelchair lift was out of service in the Portage and Main underground concourse in January. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press files)

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

A different wheelchair lift was out of service in the Portage and Main underground concourse in January. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Winnipeg isn’t the only Canadian city that struggles to live up to a standard of accessibility. In October last year, a report from the Accessibility Working Group in Victoria, B.C., found that in spite of that city’s commitment to providing 28 accessible parking spaces downtown, only 24 were available, and only half of them met a basic level of accessibility.

Last year, businesses in Owen Sound, Ont., were able to get free, portable ramps, with support from the StopGap Foundation, to allow users of wheeled mobility aids to more easily enter places of business.

Winnipeg’s current 2019-21 Accessibility Plan is part of a review that takes place every two years in accordance with the Accessibility for Manitobans Act.

Ongoing input from people with disabilities is also a component of the plan. Other measures include making sidewalks and crosswalks more easily navigable for people with visual impairment, and identifying bus stops that are in inaccessible locations.

The debate over Portage and Main often came down to pedestrians versus motorists, when it should have more often been about how we could make our city more navigable and accessible.

The broken wheelchair lift brought that discussion to the fore again, but we seem no closer to finding the door to get through it.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board.

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