Thirty years ago, I was wheeling through the Canadian Prairies on the last leg of my Man In Motion World Tour. Despite being in the grips of a -30 degree stretch of weather, I was received with warmth and enthusiasm throughout the provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta.
The ‘80s marked the beginning of Canada’s discussion about the potential of people with disabilities and both the physical and attitudinal barriers that stood in the way of reaching that potential. While our Charter of Rights and Freedom had embedded that people with disabilities (PWDs) were equal, the fact was that PWDs still had to struggle with basic rights like access to public places and spaces.
At the time of the Tour, the Manitoba Legislative building and historic parliament buildings in our capital cities were completely inaccessible, sending a stark message to our citizens that we had work to do to create an accessible and inclusive country for everyone.
In 2008, I was invited by Manitoba Premier Gary Doer to the Manitoba Legislature for the unveiling of a brand new ramp that had been built at the front entrance of the building.
It’s typical that historic upgrades are met with resistance, and Premier Doer’s plan to install the ramp was no different. Many felt that the ramp would not only affect the historic look and feel of the building, but that it would also be too costly. To retain the building’s historic integrity, the architects accessed materials from the original quarry for the ramp.
I arrived in Winnipeg in the middle of a snow storm, and to my surprise, the ramp was completely bare and dry. I was later told that it was a heated ramp. Ice and snow were not safety or functional concerns during the winter. The relatively minimal cost of living up to the values of our country was well worth the investment.
Today, the same parliament building is again under renovation. When Assiniboia MLA Steven Fletcher became the first quadriplegic to serve in the Manitoba government, it shined a light on the fact that while the building was accessible to visitors, the floor of the Legislative chamber was not accessible to MLAs who used wheelchairs.
The Manitoba government is now in the process of creating a solution to remove the stairs that lead to the chamber floor. Removing this barrier will allow Steven Fletcher the ability to address his colleagues like any other MLA.
According to Statistics Canada, 3.8 million Canadians (1 in 7) have a disability, and it’s estimated that with our aging population, the portion of people with disabilities could grow to 9 million (1 in 5) by 2036.
Yesterday’s standards are today’s handicap. In 1987, the push was simply for a person with a disability to get into the building. In 2017, our expectations go beyond accessibility and they now embody values of inclusivity, which means being able to fully participate in all aspects of the building.
The preservation of heritage doesn’t mean we have to compromise our values. In protecting our historic buildings, we can ensure they stay relevant by making them both accessible and inclusive for today and the future. When PWDs are able to participate and contribute like everyone else, our economy, culture and society collectively benefits.
We have much to celebrate on Canada’s 150th birthday, and while we’ve come a long way, there’s still more to be done. Let’s continue the momentum and leave Canadians a fantastic birthday present; a legacy of a world without barriers so that people with disabilities can live to their full potential.
*This post originally appeared on National Trust for Canada's Regeneration blog.