Accessibility On A Roll in Powell River

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Almost ten years after a graduation night car accident cost him the use of his legs, Brent Bryksa is back on his feet - at least in a figurative sense - in his adopted community of Powell River, BC. Not only does he lead an independent life in one of the province's most picturesque regions, he is part of a dynamic committee aimed at making further improvements to a community long renowned across Canada as a welcoming place for people with disabilities.

"I came here because I heard that it was a great place for people in wheelchairs," says Bryksa. "Here I can live just like everyone else. I have a job. I drive a car. I shop for my own groceries. I don't want attention or sympathy because I think there are lots of people who are worse off than me."

When in 2006, Powell River was selected by 2010 Legacies Now to undertake a pilot project for an important inclusion program called Measuring Up, the 26-year-old native of Windsor, Ontario volunteered to take part. The process began with city council passing a resolution formalizing the community's commitment to accessibility and inclusion. The next step was to assemble a committee of concerned citizens representing a wide range of ages and interests, including civic government, business and the school district, as well as the various disability support groups already working in the community.

Using an expert-driven process and guidelines provided by 2010 Legacies Now, the committee undertook a comprehensive assessment of the degree to which people with disabilities were able to participate as active members of community life. The person chosen to chair the committee was renowned local disability advocate Geraldine Braak. No stranger to inclusion issues, Braak is a visually impaired senior and an Order of Canada recipient for her tireless work, which included establishing the Powell River Model Community Project for People with Disabilities, and serving as its board chair and executive director for the past 20 years.

According to Braak, the opportunity to influence decisions during the planning stages of new initiatives has been one of the committee's most important early wins. With the Measuring Up assessment completed and a baseline of accomplishments and shortcomings established, the committee then set targets for improvements. To help them get started, they secured a $20,000 grant from 2010 Legacies Now. A portion of those funds will be used to build further awareness throughout all sectors of the community, particularly with respect to providing employment opportunities for people with disabilities.

"We'll use it to help get the message out to city department managers, unions and schools about who we are and what we are doing," says Braak. "We want them to participate in improving and maintaining Powell River's accessibility. We need all members of the community to appreciate the abilities of people with disabilities and give them a fair chance for employment."

In the longer term, Braak lists "housing, housing, housing" at the top of her wish list for Powell River's growing disabled community. Meanwhile, Bryksa is researching the construction of a beach wheelchair for public use at the city's Mowat Bay Park, one with large inflated tires that can be used to cross sandy areas and float.

While the committee is realistic about the time and money required to achieve all of their objectives, they are clearly intent on taking full advantage of the opportunities that lay ahead by building on its caring past. For as their history proves, when it comes to welcoming those with disabilities, the people of Powell River have been measuring up for years.

Measuring Up helps communities assess and improve how accessible and inclusive they are for people with disabilities, seniors and others with similar needs. The program includes a fund, established by the Province of BC, which offers grants to communities to complete accessibility-related projects.