10/07/2013 04:53 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

Is Toronto Ready To Be Accessible?

The 2015 Pan Am and Para-Pan Am Games are fast approaching. Is Toronto ready? A recent blog written by Paralympic athlete and Canadian wheelchair tennis champion Joel Dembe suggests there is reason for concern.

Dembe points to the lack of accessible transportation in Toronto, both public (subways, streetcars, etc.) and private (taxis and limos), and compares it with is experience at the London 2012 Paralympics, where he had no trouble navigating the city. While Games organizers will provide accessible transportation to and from official events, he wonders what will happen to athletes the rest of the time.

It's a valid question. Part of the rationale for Toronto hosting these games is the worldwide attention and the number of visitors they bring to the city. Thousands of athletes, along with coaches, officials, families and friends, will be eager to explore, eat, shop and dine throughout the GTA -- spending millions of their dollars along the way. Without a wheelchair-friendly transit network and a fleet of accessible taxis on city streets, how are they to accomplish that?


Precedent in Other Cities

Toronto is far from the only city where people with disabilities face difficulties in getting around. In a recent letter to the editor of the New York Times, Jean Ryan, who is the VP of Public Affairs with Disabled in Action of Metropolitan New York, asks: "When am I going to be able to stick my hand in the air and hail a cab like anyone else instead of being stranded?" She lambastes the City of New York for choosing an inaccessible van for its Taxi of Tomorrow.

Filmmaker Jason DaSilva documented his own struggles to navigate New York in the stunning film When I Walk, which garnered worldwide attention at the Sundance Film Festival this year. In one particularly poignant scene DaSilva, who has Multiple Sclerosis, is forced to stay home and wait while his wife is rushed to the hospital with a medical emergency. The reason? There are no accessible taxis available to transport him to the hospital.

It seems grossly unfair that a significant portion of a city's population should be excluded from everyday opportunities for a reason that is so easily remedied. When London mandated accessible taxis in 1989 it demonstrated how successful the service could be. A universally-designed vehicle can accommodate all citizens, meaning able-bodied passengers see no disruption in service levels while those with disabilities are no longer left stranded at the curb.

With the added pressure of the 2015 Pan Am Games, Toronto must act decisively and demonstrate that it wants to be a truly accessible city -- not just for a few weeks for a few visitors, but every day, for every resident.

What Can Toronto Do?

Spinal Cord Injury Ontario (formerly the Canadian Paraplegic Association Ontario), a leading advocate for Ontarians with spinal cord injuries and other physical disabilities released this letter as part of their submission to the Toronto taxicab industry review board. In the submission SCI offered:

"...the City needs to not only adhere to the letter of the Accessibility of Ontarians with Disabilities Act, but also its ambition. To meet the deadline of an accessible Ontario by 2025, Toronto needs to be aggressive in its drive to accessibility especially in the way it looks at the Taxi Industry Review - and it has to start today."

It's taking a stand for accessibility for all, not just for people with disabilities. It's joining the growing number of voices calling for Toronto to step up and meet the requirements outlined by the Accessibility of Ontarians with Disabilities Act. You can have your say too. SCI has created a web page that allows citizens to tell their City Councillor, the Mayor, and the Toronto Taxicab Industry Review to mandate 100 percent accessibility for Toronto taxicabs.

Is Toronto ready to be truly accessible? What are your thoughts?

Image Credit: Wikipedia, Licensed via Creative Commons