Blyth woman injured in crash while cycling to lead provincial accessibility committee

·3 min read

Six years ago, Julie Sawchuk lost the use of her legs when she was hit by a car while riding her bike near Goderich.

Now, combining her experience living with a spinal injury and her passion for helping others, the former Huron County teacher will head a committee that aims to create more accessible public spaces across the province.

"I'm really proud to be bringing a rural perspective to the table," said Sawchuk, the new chair of the province's standards development committee.

"Pretty much anything that comes from the government comes from a city. . . . So to bring the eyes and the experience from what's happening on the ground in a place like Blyth, I think will be very valuable to people that don't live rurally."

The Blyth resident will lead a team of about 25 people to review and improve design standards for indoor and outdoor public spaces, making them more accessible for people with disabilities. The design of public spaces standard is one of five standards under the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act's legislation created to remove barriers to accessibility in spaces such as sidewalks, parking spaces, playgrounds, beach routes and trails.

"It's super exciting and daunting at the same time because the potential to make amazing change in the province is there, but there's a whole lot of work that has to go into it first," Sawchuk said.

Slated to begin meeting in the new year, the committee includes Ontarians with disabilities from across the province.

Sawchuk's work to advance and create more accessible public spaces stems from her experience on a summer day six years ago.

On July 29, 2015, the mother of two was training for a triathlon just outside Goderich when a vehicle hit her from behind, sending her about 10 metres. She was paralyzed from the chest down.

After months of rehabilitation, Sawchuk, in a wheelchair, and her husband did minor renovations to their farmhouse to make it more accessible. They also searched for other possible homes but found few options.

"The simple fact that there is no accessible housing available meant that we either had to renovate or we had to build," Sawchuk said. "There was nowhere to move to within our community or even moving to London. It really wasn't an option."

Three years later, the pair built a wheelchair-accessible home on their property, where they live today.

Sawchuk's experience living with a spinal injury set the stage for a new and influential life as a best-selling author, professional speaker, accessibility consultant and now chair of a provincial committee.

Sawchuk said she will advocate for mandatory education on accessibility in home design and construction, citing artists, architects, contractors, and plumbers as examples.

"Yeah, they need to know the building code, but accessibility needs to be more than just a part of the building code," Sawchuk said.

"The No. 1 question I get from my clients is, 'What do I need to do and how much is it going to cost me?'" she said. "But the No. 1 question should be, 'What do I need to do now to save money in the future?'"

cleon@postmedia.com

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Max Martin, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, London Free Press

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