By Andrew Mitchell
With the Paralympics just three years away, and Whistler building its reputation as a destination resort for disabled clients, the Resort Municipality of Whistler’s Accessibility Project has hit the ground running.
The first meetings of a volunteer advisory committee, including RMOW staffers Kevin McFarland and Emma DalSanto, have been extremely productive, according to McFarland, and Whistler residents should start to see changes on the ground as early as this spring.
“The ultimate goal is to be accessible and inclusive, which is something we’ve had to approach in a more comprehensive way,” said McFarland. “Emma and I have been working on things with the accessibility advisory group to identify barriers, but through Whistler 2020 we’re also taking the broader view of how the community can become more inclusive and accessible.”
One of the most immediate projects is improved signage for Whistler Village, which is in the process of being printed. Funding from the annual Rick Hansen Wheels In Motion event, as well as the Village Enhancement Budget will indicate where wheelchair ramps and accessible washrooms can be found.
“When we identified priorities, we started out with information,” said McFarland. “We’ve developed a barrier-free route map, which is still in draft form, to indicate the routes that people with mobility disabilities might use, and part of that is signage to indicate not just where the staircases are, but the easiest way to get around them. The signs will also show how to access buildings, and where accessible washrooms are located.
“The first set of signs is going into printing now, and over time we’ll add more signs and formalize the route maps.”
Another initiative is a review of public transportation, and ensuring buses and bus stops are accessible. A representative from the Canadian Institute for the Blind will also be visiting at the end of March to look at Whistler from a visual disability standpoint, and offer input to a new universal access design for Whistler.
Heading into construction season, the RMOW has also set aside funding to remove barriers for disabled visitors. That includes the addition of ramps, cutting curbs lower, and installing contrast clues around staircases for visually disabled people. The parks department also has a $50,000 budget each year through 2011 to make parks more accessible, which includes accessible washrooms, the installation of accessible paths, and the installation of a ramp into the water for at least one park.
According to McFarlane, many of the suggestions for making Whistler more accessible come from an audit conducted as part of the bid to host the Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games. Members of the advisory group, which includes disabled members of the community as well as Chelsea Walker of the Whistler Adaptive Sports Program, have also added suggestions.
McFarland also points out that Whistler has tapped other resources. Whistler is part of a provincial pilot project called “Measuring Up”, in cooperation with 2010 LegaciesNow, which will provide a framework for B.C. communities to become more accessible. The RMOW is also working with the Neil Squire Foundation, which provides technology and knowledge to disabled individuals and communities, and is involved in a provincial Accessible Tourism program along with Tourism Whistler.
Accessibility is also entrenched in the Whistler 2020 strategic plan, which McFarland says deals with the issue at a broader level that ensures there are opportunities for the disabled to live, play and work in Whistler.
Given the scope of projects, McFarland says it’s likely that the advisory group will become a committee of council with representation from council and the appointment of a board. Several members of the advisory committee would be included as well.
“It’s really a very dynamic group we have, and the discussions have been great in leading the overall accessibility project,” he added.
Many of the barriers that have been discovered in Whistler exist in the private sector, such as private businesses. Some funding is available for them through the Village Enhancement Fund, and several businesses have already taken steps to become more accessible for their clients.
Commercial landlords and businesses that don’t take those steps will be passing up an opportunity, says McFarland.
“On the business side, there are substantial things happening with Accessible Tourism, which is Tourism B.C., Tourism Vancouver and Tourism Whistler,” he said. “What’s happened is that they’ve created a standard marking system for all rental properties, restaurants, and other businesses, as well as a way for businesses like hotels to get information about ramps, washrooms, provisions for people with vision loss or hearing loss. It’s important for potential visitors, which we will be going further than ever before to attract to the resort. It’s in a business’s best interest to position themselves as accessible.
“What we’re seeking to do is to work in partnership with the private sector, encouraging them to put in ramps and make other provisions.”
The next meeting of the accessibility advisory committee is March 28 at 5:30 p.m. in the old council chambers at municipal hall. Members of the public are welcome to attend.