A plea for accessibility
Disabled persons' advocate offers some insight

Derek Neary
Northern News Services

FORT SIMPSON (May 28/99) - Calvin Pond found very little in the way of accessibility in Fort Simpson during his visit last week.

That's the bad news. The good news is that the village council has the opportunity to change much of that over the next few years with its roads, curbs and sidewalks project, he said.

Pond, representing the Council for Disabled Persons and a member of the Canadian Paraplegic Association, was brought in by Deh Cho Health and Social Services to chat with local disabled persons and to evaluate whether it was possible for them to get around easily.

While in Fort Simpson, he used the roadways rather than the sidewalks, considering their current state of disrepair and the hazards that represents to someone in a wheelchair or with a mobility impairment.

"The only way to go is to use the roads. If you get going on a piece of sidewalk it could (lead to) a two-foot drop-off. It's impossible to use the sidewalks," he said.

He spoke with Mayor Norm Prevost and said his suggestion would be to ensure that the corner curbs along the new sidewalks will be lowered to make them accessible to those in wheelchairs and to those who need canes or walkers. In addition, buildings that don't have ramps could have them installed at a lowered cost while the village's capital projects are in progress, Pond suggested.

"Now is the time to make these changes," he said.

He mentioned that Ron McCagg, president of the Lion's Club, said the Lions may be willing to donate labour to build the ramps if the materials are provided. Pond recommended that plaques be put up in recognition of those who donate their time, effort and money.

"It sows a seed and then someone else wants to do something," he said.

The situation is much the same in Fort Liard, where he made a day trip, he added.

There are other facilities that should be kept in mind as well, he said. Pay phones should be installed for the disabled, and that doesn't just mean simply lowering them, he pointed out. The phones should also include volume control for the hearing impaired and Braille digits for those who are visually impaired, he said.

As for the public buildings in Fort Simpson, some are easily accessible while others are not. To be considered "fully accessible" a building has to have an accessible entrance and exit, washrooms, telephone and interior. The disabled should be able to go anywhere an able-bodied person can go, according to Pond.

What will all of this do for Fort Simpson? Well, beyond giving residents a clear conscience, it will surely spark tourism, Pond said.

"More and more tourists are travelling every day," he said, adding that the word would spread like wildfire.

"You'd be surprised what you could bring in for tourism to this town."

There were a number of promising observations he made in Fort Simpson that he felt compelled to mention as well. He said he was very impressed by residents' observance of disabled parking spots.

"There was a great respect for it."

He also complimented the community on being exceptionally clean.

Leah Keats, home-care manager for Deh Cho Health and Social Services, said her time spent with Pond was an awakening of sorts. She now thinks of doorsteps as being too high and doors being too heavy.

"I look at things with different eyes than I did on Monday," she said. "It's something you take for granted."

Pond interjected, "and I did too.

"I never gave it any recognition."

Pond wasn't always a paraplegic. His need for a wheelchair came in 1986 when his motorcycle went off the road. He flipped over the handlebars and his head landed on a rock. He sustained three cracked ribs and, although he was wearing a helmet, he crushed the T7 and T8 vertebrae in his back, leaving him paralysed from the chest down. Remarkably, all of this occurred when he was travelling at less than 20 km/h.

"That was it!" he insisted. "So speed doesn't always do it."

Since then, Pond has been a vocal advocate for accessibility and he has seen that changes can be made. In 1986 he estimates that Yellowknife was 10 per cent wheel chair accessible. Today, it's closer to 70 per cent, he said.

He suggested that Fort Simpson's mayor and council sanction a disabled awareness afternoon and use wheelchairs themselves for even just a few hours.

"There's no better way than to experience it first-hand. It gives them a totally different look at things," he said.