WINGHAM – North Huron councillors received a gentle reminder from best-selling author and professional speaker Julie Sawchuk that more work needs to be done to become a completely accessible township, along with an offer to help achieve that goal.
Sawchuk lives with a spinal cord injury that left her paralyzed from the chest down after she was hit by a car on her bicycle near her home in Blyth seven years ago.
Councillors set chairs up at the front of the stage to be more visible to the low position of Sawchuk’s wheelchair during her presentation.
Councillors Kevin Falconer and Paul Heffer did not join the other council members, choosing to stay seated at the tables, saying they could see Sawchuk just fine.
Sawchuk had sent a letter to council prior to her delegation to express her concerns with the current state of the Alice Munro Library bathroom, asking why it seemed to be overlooked in the accessibility planning.
“In 2018, the HCAAC (Huron County Accessibility Advisory Committee) toured all the libraries in the county to give feedback about ways to improve access to library services. What we found at the Wingham branch were washroom facilities that fell very short of what would be considered as accessible, even by old standards.
“I recently went to the library to see what improvements had been made and was disappointed to see that no changes had been made since the report was submitted by the committee. As a member of the community, I have not ever been able to use the washroom facilities at the Wingham library due to the low toilet and non-functional grab bar,” she said.
“When I was there to do an author talk, I had to roll up the street to use the washroom at Glassier’s before my talk began,” added Sawchuk.
Speaking to council, Sawchuk said that other than the Blyth Library (which she noted wasn’t even owned by North Huron), there are no public washrooms in any North Huron-owned buildings that were “truly accessible.”
Specifically talking about the washroom at the Wingham library, she showed the councillors photos of what it looks like now and gave them inexpensive alternatives to a complete renovation that would assist her and others with accessibility barriers to doing simple things, such as using a public restroom with ease.
She said that an updated grab bar, a lower toilet, a closer hand towel dispenser, and a more strategically placed garbage can would provide better, safer accessibility to those needing it.
Sawchuk requested that the current Building Condition Assessment staff put accessible washroom checks on their list.
“As a part of those building assessments, accessibility could easily be rolled into that if that person has the training that they need to look for it,” she said.
“So, that’s something for future council to think about, either going back to the buildings that have already been assessed, or adding it into the work that is being currently done by them.
“2025 is not that far away,” she added. “We have a lot of work to do to make public buildings accessible.
“I know that budgets are tight, and there is a ‘grey’ area of what each party is responsible for (municipality and county), but I would suggest that these bathrooms could be made much more accessible simply by updating the fixtures,” she said in the letter. “It would likely cost less than $1,500 each. The changes needed do not even require a building permit as no plumbing would be moved, it would be a refresh.”
Sawchuk said that although the legislation provides the basics, for some people the basics aren’t enough. There are ways to achieve better standards than required to ensure all can enjoy the benefits of public buildings.
Sawchuk offered her services as an accessibility consultant. She said she would be happy to assist the next council with this endeavour.
During the other business portion of the meeting, council discussed the next steps regarding accessibility updates. Council adopted a motion directing staff to prepare a report summarizing what North Huron has done to comply with accessibility legislation to date, including prioritization of facility renovations for all North Huron municipal facilities, and requested that the report distinguish between the accessibility requirements established by legislation versus best practices.
Cory Bilyea, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Wingham Advance Times