Monday, May 29, 2017

National AccessAbility Week: Removing communication barriers one event at a time

Imagine attending an important presentation that affects you, your family and your neighbourhood. There are activities for you to provide ideas and suggestions and an engaging speaker on the topic.

So you show up but you can’t hear the speaker. He has some slides but it seems like he’s saying more. People are asking questions; he’s answering them and you can’t seem to keep up. You have an opinion about the topic but you can’t fully participate in the discussion because you’re not sure what is already discussed.

Or, what if you can’t see slides, the images and the mock-ups, let alone how the room is organized. The organizers give you some handouts but the font and the images are too small. You have some questions but you’re not sure what’s already being presented.

So what do you do?

You leave, feeling like you haven’t had the opportunity to participate.

Calgarians with disabilities experience this feeling every day. Deaf and Hear Alberta estimates approximately 20 per cent of Calgarians have varying levels of hearing loss and the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB) indicates those with vision loss make up about three per cent of our population. And with an ageing population, those numbers are expected to grow exponentially.

The importance of information access

Phil Bobawsky and his dogPhil Bobawsky, who became legally blind at 49, says information access is just as important as physical access. “People will notice me using my smartphone and are surprised,” says Phil. “However, the single biggest tool you can give anyone is a smartphone because it has all the software and hardware in one package to allow us to communicate and be part of the digital world.

“What’s challenging in the real world is being able to access basic information so I feel safe and confident enough to participate. For example, try closing your eyes and navigate out of a meeting room safely. You’ll quickly feel anxious because you’ve immediately lost your sense of direction.”

Cindy Pilz is the manager of Deaf services at Deaf and Hear Alberta. She is culturally Deaf, which means she identifies with the language, culture and community of Deaf people. Along with approximately 1000 Calgarians who are Deaf, American Sign Language is her first language.

“To me, information access means being able to get the information I need to participate and contribute in a safe environment. When I attend an event or meeting, I wonder what I’m missing because I don’t know what’s going on and can’t contribute. So it’s great news that The City of Calgary will provide captioning, sign language interpreters and other accommodations at events and meetings upon request. We now have the opportunity to participate!”

Call 311 if you need an accommodation for a City event or meeting

You can now call 311 to request an accommodation like sign language interpretation, live captioning or alternate formats like Braille or large print for civic events and meetings. Such events include City Council meetings, public hearings, committee meetings as well as engagement workshops and open houses run by The City of Calgary. The Events Calendar now shows which events are accessible, what they offer and if they are eligible to request an accessible service.

When contacting 311, provide the following information:

  • Your name
  • Your organization (if applicable)
  • Event the service is needed for
  • Date, time and location of that event
  • Number of people who will require the service

Please provide at least two weeks’ notice when requesting services.

“People with disabilities have opinions and voices and want to get involved in civic activities, just like everyone else,” says Phil, who participates in The City’s Advisory Committee on Accessibility (ACA). “We advocate every day to be able to do the same, basic things. It can get exhausting but we do it because it matters.”

Both Phil and Cindy agree that the ability to call 311 to request accessible accommodations is a step in the right direction. “City departments may not always be aware of what’s needed to for those with disabilities to participate in an event or meeting,” says Cindy. “So it’s great to have the opportunity to make the request and be included in the conversation.”

Accessibility in building design

In addition to providing accessible services for events, we also know that designing usable, functional and accessible buildings is key to creating a city that everyone can enjoy.

Last September, City Council adopted updates to our Access Design Standards for all new buildings and renovations constructed on City-owned land. These standards help to ensure that buildings are designed without barriers by requirements that exceed the Alberta Building Code. Some of the major updates include general recreation and aquatic centre standards, signage requirements, assisted listening systems at information counters, power door operators for bathrooms and more.

The City also influences the Alberta Building Code, which is mandatory for all builders. We have recently proposed code changes at the provincial and national levels that seek to:
  • Improve safety and evacuation measures for people with disabilities in an emergency.
  • Increase the width of barrier-free paths of travel, doorways and make floor areas more accessible.

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