Take a look at Grand Bend through a wheelchair user’s eyes

View from the Strip
By Casey Lessard

“We’re only open two months, so…”
“We don’t get a lot of people in wheelchairs, so…”
“It’s an old building, so…”
These are only three of the reasons Rick Lewcock and I heard from business owners about why their businesses weren’t wheelchair friendly. We made a journey through Grand Bend to examine the town’s accessibility and the findings of our study – which is as comprehensive as possible in the time we had – are included in the next few pages.
The results are disturbing, but should surprise few. Our rural communities are old, with some buildings erected more than 100 years ago. Many have one or several steps before you can access the door. These steps are instant barriers to accessing a business, a legacy our ancestors handed down that stops many from shopping in our stores, eating in our restaurants, playing our games, and enjoying our culture.
It’s true that some people will risk the business lost by sticking to the theory that they don’t get a lot of people in wheelchairs, but do you ever wonder why people in wheelchairs aren’t customers? They can’t get through the front door! Shockingly, many of the businesses with steps cater to older customers, the same people who are more likely to have mobility issues. Maintain a “don’t get many” attitude, and you’ll notice you have fewer customers with mobility every year.
I do realize Grand Bend is a beach town. Yes, it has a short season for the businesses on the main strip. Maybe it’s time to change that. I have been an supporter of moves to make Grand Bend’s main street work year-round since my return to the area last year, and I know there are many who would like to see the same change happen. Businesses on Highway 21 seem to be able to stay open year-round. How can those businesses stay open, while the Main Street ones can’t? One way is to change your market to the people who live here (and who, by the way, have money, too).
We’ve all heard a lot about the community plan and proposed changes that will cost taxpayer money to make the town more pedestrian friendly and attractive.
One of the first steps in that progress was this month’s opening of the beach house elevator. That’s where I met Rick Lewcock, who lost the ability to use most of his body in a car crash 17 years ago. He was excited to be able to see the view from the beach house roof. But the elevator is more than the key to a nice view. It is a way to remove a barrier to access. It’s a small step toward giving equal access to one location in our community we all take for granted.
I wanted to see what Rick could and couldn’t access – on his own and without any assistance from anyone – wherever the sidewalk could take him in Grand Bend (I assessed Parkhill independently and will assess Exeter for a future issue).
Our journey through the streets opened both of our eyes to the empirical evidence about what is and what is not accessible. Rick was reminded of places he has never been able to access, but was pleasantly surprised to find he could access others.
Our study is not intended to embarrass you or your business. Perhaps you are not aware of the way the construction of your building limits access for your customers. If a change needs to be made, perhaps it is as simple as moving some clothing racks or boxes on the floor, changing the way a door swings, or pouring a little bit of cement. For others, major changes are needed, and perhaps it’s not feasible for you right now.
That said, whatever business you are in, you have until 2025 to make your building meet Ontario building code requirements for accessibility, and standards must also be met for the customer service, communications, transportation and employment. The rules will affect you eventually, so now’s a good time to think about how your business sets limits to access.
I can see why the community plan so heavily favours accessibility. It’s going to take time and money to make change happen, but it is a good reason to change. I may not agree with all of the details (e.g. the bridge through the yacht club confuses me), but the overall plan makes sense when you look at how our community is changing.
Change is happening, and it is a good thing (for the most part). The question you need to ask: Are you part of the problem or part of the solution?