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Paralympic legacies are legacies for life

Hosting the Paralympic Games in 2010 made Whistler more accessible for everyone



You might have seen Aksel Lund Svindal in February 2010 in Whistler beaming his 1000-kilowatt smile after winning his Super-G gold medal. Or Lindsey Vonn. Or Ashleigh McIvor. All athletes at the top of their game in the peak of physical fitness and form.

But for the rest of us, there were no Olympic medals. In fact we may have spent the entire Olympic period watching the Games from our couch. We may be in great shape, but not fit enough to ski 140-kilometres-an-hour down the Dave Murray Downhill, like Aksel.

Maybe we are middle aged, or senior aged. Or dealing with a recent hip replacement. Or have a physical or cognitive disability. But we all come to Whistler to work, to ski, to play, and maybe to call it home.

And, just as Whistler has grown from a speed-demon teenager to a more responsible mature resort, so too have the needs of the population and the visitor changed. It is a place where people of all ages and physical abilities call home, or at least enjoy a vacation — and there is little doubt that part of the success of the community in achieving this was the learning that went with hosting the 2010 Paralympic Games.

But is Whistler providing an inclusive environment that is accessible to all? The arrival of the 2010 Paralympics certainly had an impact on the accessibility of Whistler — and with an aging population, the journey to making Whistler as accessible as possible is ongoing.

Dan DeBeyer, director of the "planat" app program at the Rick Hansen Foundation (RHF), has his own take on it — he believes that everyone at some point in their lives will be living with a disability.

"We prefer to call it different 'accessibility needs,'" says DeBeyer. "Whether you're pushing twins in a stroller, or have just had a hip replacement, or are taking your grandmother to dinner — would you call these people disabled? No, but they all have accessibility issues."

The Paralympics was definitely the "catalyst for some major accessibility changes to be implemented," says Phil Chew, a Paralympian, a 30-year resident of Whistler and coach of the BC Para-Alpine team. "Whistler had been working hard to be accessible before hosting the Olympics or even getting the bid. It has always been a place that cared about its citizens and their needs. But the Paralympics was a big driver of change."

One of the most valuable assets the Paralympics left to the municipality was the Whistler Athletes' Centre, which has been converted to include a completely accessible 80-room lodge, run by Whistler Sport Legacies (WSL). It also manages 20 accessible town homes, available for rent to carded athletes, or people related to sport in some way, such as coaches or race volunteers.

Athletes' Centre director Patricia Leslie says accommodation at the lodge is in demand throughout the year. Sports groups are welcome, as well as arts, cultural and educational groups. Being affordable accommodation, and offered only to specific user groups means, "we are not in direct competition with the main hotels."

"The lodge is a step up from a hostel," she says. "Rooms have two single beds and two rooms share a fully accessible bathroom."

The lodge also has a self-serve kitchen with workspaces that are wheelchair accessible. Bathrooms are equipped with roll-in showers. Elevators have Braille on the buttons. Other adaptations include kitchen counters being slightly lower than standard height with no under counter cabinets so wheelchairs can wheel right up.

The feedback from guests has been positive. "They love the lodge," says Leslie. "Our guests have everything they need. It's fully integrated. And because the gym is wheelchair accessible too (operated by the Canadian Sport Institute Pacific) everyone who stays here is united by a passion for sport. Whether someone is staying here for downhill skiing or sit skiing, sport is what brings everyone together. Athletes of any age or ability can train here. The venues themselves are a great asset for Whistler."

Getting around Whistler in general was also made more accessible leading up to the Paralympics. Curb cuts/cut ins for sidewalks, audio-cued crosswalks for the visually impaired, and wheelchair access ramps to get in and out of the village — such as the ones seen by the taxi loop, and outside the Grocery Store/Armchair Books — were constructed.

These changes to Whistler's external environment were made in consultation with the provincial accessibility audit program Measuring Up, starting in 2008, as well as with input from the RHF.

The foundation has recently gone one step further in making accessibility information available to the public through an app they developed in 2011 — planat.

"Planat rates the accessibility of businesses and towns," says RHF's DeBeyer. Data on accessibility is submitted by the business owners, or municipalities themselves, and is then rated by users. "It's similar in nature to a Travelocity or Hotels.com, but it has information on accessibility that I wouldn't get on those sites," he explains.

"I am impressed with how the municipality has made Whistler accessible," he continues. "They've got PDF accessibility maps on their website for the village and upper village. People with disabilities need to do a lot of research before they go anywhere. Their needs drive a lot of decisions in where they stay, and where they eat.

"Whistler has been at the forefront, in terms of information being shared on accessibility. That's not the norm when you look at other communities across B.C. The municipality and Tourism Whistler get it."

Accessibility issues can impact anyone from a parent pushing a stroller, to a senior citizen.

In Whistler the Mature Action Committee was formed in 1993 to address seniors' needs and in 2006 a Senior Needs Action Planning (SNAP) coordinator was hired with the position being funded by the Whistler Community Services Society.

"I think the key is to use the term universal over disabled access," says SNAP coordinator Melissa Deller, who assists the over-55 community in Whistler with everything from accessibility needs within the home, to recreational programming.

"If something has a universal design, everyone can use it, from someone who broke a leg, to a person pushing a stroller. Obviously anyone can break their leg slipping on the ice, no matter what their age. It's just with a senior the complications from that accident might be greater.

"Snow is what brings people to Whistler... but it can present some challenges, like when there's a big dump of snow and the valley trail can't get cleared or groomed for a day or two. That can be a barrier to access for some people. When we ensure universality, it helps build the community for all ages."

Whistler has always been known for its sport and outdoor activities. So it is no surprise that active people with disabilities have always been drawn to the resort, whether for a visit or to train in their sport. Fifteen years ago the Whistler Adaptive Ski Program got under way, and thanks to community and business support, and global recognition it has grown into a major provider of year-round activities for people with every type of accessibility challenge. Now called simply Whistler Adaptive it got a significant boost when the Paralympics were hosted here. The not-for-profit organization offers 16 different sport activities, ranging from cross-country skiing, sit skiing, snowboarding, yoga and skiing to summer activities that are all accessible.

Costs for Whistler Adaptive's programs are reasonable (ranging from $5 for drop-in yoga to $181 for a ski/snowboard lift pass, lesson and rental) and the organization attracts people with disabilities to Whistler from around the world. Locals are also a big part of the programs.

"We have about 40 to 50 locals who use the programs up to 300 days a year," says executive director Chelsey Walker. Last year Whistler Adaptive had nearly 500 people participate in its programs.

"We also work regularly with Soldier On, Battle Back and Wounded Warriors, organizations that are comprised of ill and injured soldiers from Canada, the U.K, Australia and the U.S.," says Walker. "These groups recently came up here for the second annual Allied Winter Camp, and the men and women got to try different alpine sports, such as Nordic, including biathlon, sit skiing and snowboarding. They came here just to enjoy trying new sports. We hosted 28 soldiers — 42 people including staff.

"The key is keeping people active no matter what barriers they may be facing," she continues. "We have one senior with Alzheimer's who takes part in the ski program every week. It gets the person out of the house for physical stimulation, and it gives their spouse some respite, too."

One of the greatest assets Whistler Adaptive has is the Jeff Harbers Adaptive Sports Centre, located at Olympic Station on Whistler Mountain. It is the first American Disability Act compliant building in Whistler, and serves as Whistler Adaptive's permanent base for sit skiing and snowboarding, and Paralympic team training. It can accommodate all the gear and equipment, as well as offering a large eating area. "Everything has been thought out from an accessibility standpoint," says Walker. "From where the light switches are located, to the type of lights used. It's all incandescent lighting — fluorescent lighting can set off seizures."

Whistler Blackcomb has long been part of the accessibility equation as well.

"(It) has been great," says Chew. "The gondolas are accessible, the Peak 2 Peak is accessible. When I became disabled, I couldn't jog anymore. But I could sit ski and I could go as fast as anyone. It was a great equalizer."

The Paralympics were "a fantastic festival of sport," says Walker." (But) all the work needs to be ongoing."

Is it?

"Yes," says Chew. "The valley trail was paved from Spring Creek all the way to Cheakamus Crossing (in 2013). That does a lot to make that area accessible to people in wheelchairs."

The physical changes are, of course, an important piece of the accessibility puzzle. But what also sets Whistler apart is its attitude to inclusivity.

"I feel like I am an active participant," says Robb Dunfield, senior coordinator for the Rick Hansen Foundation Ambassador Program, who has been paralyzed from his chin to his feet since suffering a serious accident at age 19.

Whistler is an annual vacation spot for himself, his wife and two daughters.

"We stay at the Four Seasons, which has wonderful access. I can wheel right up to the pool. We can picnic at Lost Lake or get down to the village in 20 minutes. We park our car and don't use it the whole time.

"I can go on the Peak 2 Peak. To see the mountain bikers riding down the mountain, a bear at mid-station — it's incredible. I would never be able to get up to such a remote area otherwise. Whistler has levelled the playing field for anyone with a disability. You feel you're having the same sort of adventure that anyone else would.

"You're not on the sidelines."