Paralympics: Vancouver hopes to become top accessibility city

VANCOUVER, Deborah Jones - Civic leaders hope the 2010 Paralympics will make Vancouver a world leader in disabled accessibility, but experts are divided on whether the games help regular disabled people.
Having the high-profile Paralympics in town "means that you have to walk the walk as well as talk the talk on disability," said city councillor Heather Deal of Vancouver, a metropolis which has long promoted "universal accessibility."

Torch bearer Marni Abbott-Peter waves during the opening ceremony of the Paralympics in Vancouver
Torch bearer Marni Abbott-Peter waves during the opening ceremony of the Paralympics in Vancouver
"Knowing that the Paralympics might come sharpened our focus," Deal told AFP.
Vancouver has been at least partly successful. Before the Paralympics opened Friday, Sir Philip Craven, President of the International Paralympic Committee, praised the ease with which someone in a wheelchair can travel on city streets and use public transit.
"It’s easy to get around," Craven, a British former wheelchair basketball athlete who travels the world, told AFP. "When accessibility is good, I never even recognize it."
Hosting the Paralympics "does make governments maybe more aware of access issues," said social work professor Tim Stainton of the University of British Columbia, who specializes in disability issues.
"It does sensitize people to abilities of people with disabilities and what they can do," said Stainton. But he warned, "it creates a false image of disability, and the idea that everybody can rise above and over come and become an athlete. Not everyone is capable of being an elite athlete or interested.
"In some ways it’s easy for governments to support sports and visible access," said Stainton, then fail to provide "actual day to day support for people, addressing issues like poverty and employment, particularly for people with more severe disabilities."
Vancouver has "done a pretty reasonable job" on access, Stainton said, partly "because it’s a young city. Newer buildings tend to be more accessible and in that sense we have an automatic leg up."
In the nearby ski resort of Whistler, the alpine venue host, mayor Ken Melamed announced construction of a fully-accessible children’s playground and said Whistler’s goal "is to become a future centre for training for athletes with disabilities."
Both Vancouver and Whistler have buses that can accommodate wheelchairs, sidewalks with ramps for wheelchairs, designated disability parking, and building codes that require wide doors for wheelchairs, electrical plug-ins and light switches within reach of all and levers instead of round door handles.
But Thomas Wilhelm, who manages the Swedish wheelchair curling team and works in Europe as an expert on accessibility, said North American and European standards differ.
"What we see as accessible in Europe is not accessible here," Wilhelm told AFP. For example, he said in the Athletes Village in Vancouver some toilets are placed in corners where they’re difficult for people in wheelchairs to use.
Wilhelm said when he and his wife Anette, who curls on Sweden’s wheelchair team, used Vancouver’s public transit signs for elevators were hard to find.
Stainton said the percentage of people with disabilities ranges globally from about 13 to 30 percent, though statistics are not precise and there is disagreement on how to define disability.
He said the popular "social model" defines disability as how far a person’s ability is limited by problems with mobility, agility, mental impairment and pain.

Wednesday, March 17th 2010
Deborah Jones

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