Chetwynd Makes Strides in Accessibility

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When Chetwynd's Measuring Up committee was asked to make recommendations to their city council on how to increase the inclusion of residents with disabilities, they took inspiration from the old saw, "before you judge someone walk a mile in his shoes."

In this case, they asked members of the city council to navigate around town in wheelchairs, to get an idea of just how tough it was to navigate the tiny town of 3,100 at the foot of the Rocky Mountains.

The experience made a dramatic impression on the councillors. As Councillor Merlin Nichols said, the tour worked well for educating council members about all the practical details of making a city accessible.

Their experiences, along with the changes they inspired, were recorded in the community-directed and produced film "Accessible Community in Transition," funded by 2010 Legacies Now's Measuring Up Fund.  The film has had an impact on a range of city planners from architects, to city engineers, to the designers who decorate civic buildings.

"Most of us had an academic understanding before we played the role of someone in a wheelchair, but the project really opened our eyes and helped us realize that there are deficiencies that need to be corrected. We're committed to making a budget available for those improvements," Nichols says in the video.

The project identified a list of seemingly small improvements. Providing automatic doors and easier-to-manage door handles; replacing bulky carpets with low-pile options that are easier to roll over; and filing down the lips of the curbs on sidewalks may seem minor. But these cheap, easy changes made significant improvements for residents.

George Goodwin, director of parks and recreation, said that city staff altered their expansion plans for the recreation centre to include wider washroom doors and low-mounted sinks and counters. The town is also using the video as supporting documentation in applying for grants to retrofit buildings.

Producer Leo Sabulsky says the three-part, locally directed and produced 90-minute video has reached well beyond the civic facilities and into private businesses. It airs on the local TV station that produced it, and copies have found their way into churches, community groups and other small town TV stations.

Sabulsky, who is also the part-time fire chief, dubbed the volunteer committee of residents with disabilities who organized the project "the revolutionaries" because of their zeal for the project. The committee also sent videos to small businesses throughout the district and a lot of private groups. Sabulsky says that has led to behavioural changes in the community. For example, no one vandalizes the disabled parking signs anymore.

With its resource-based economy in forestry and mining, Chetwynd has long been home to young people, but Sabulsky, 56, says the accessibility campaign will change that too. He is hearing more locals say they plan to retire in town now that the changes also make Chetwynd a more welcoming place for aging residents.

The production of the video is one of many initiatives that Chetwynd accomplished as part of their participation in the Measuring Up project. Chetwynd is also a member of Measuring Up the North, which is a partnership of all 41 northern B.C. communities to make their communities more accessible and inclusive for everyone.

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.