From walking, rolling and sharing experiences, Stratford celebrates AccessAbility Week 2024

The 2024 AccessAbility Week was a success, Diane Sims, co-chair of the city’s accessibility advisory committee (AAC), said, but like accessibility there is always room to improve.

AccessAbility Week, which took place this year from May 26 to June 1, is a time to recognize the valuable contributions and leadership of people with disabilities in Canada, as well as identify ways everyone can do their part to make the world more accessible.

This year, a number of initiatives were held in Stratford, organized by the AAC and Oonagh Vaucrosson, the accessibility, diversity and inclusion coordinator for the city.

On May 29, best-selling author, educator and strategist Julie Sawchuk spoke at the Stratford Festival’s Paul D. Fleck Marquee, telling her story to a room full of city employees, a few councillors and members of the wider public.

Sawchuk sustained a spinal cord injury in 2015 after being struck by a car while cycling on a country road near her home just outside of Blyth. Since then, Sawchuk has been in a wheelchair and has been an advocate for making accessibility on the forefront of people’s minds, particularly when building and renovating.

Sawchuk shared her story with attendees and said accessibility work begins with talking about accessibility.

“Eliminate the fear,” Sawchuk said. “There is no need to be afraid about accessibility. Just start having conversations.”

On May 31, Vaucrosson organized a Walk and Roll event in downtown Stratford, inviting members of the public to join the AAC and see the kinds of challenges they face every day for an afternoon.

“That's really what a lot of this is about,” said Jamie Pritchard, a member of the AAC. “Getting able bodied people to go to things … and be able to experience (it).”

Kelly Lindsay is the owner of Corner Store Candy Co. on York Street, but doesn’t own the actual building, which makes improving the space difficult.

Her shop is inaccessible due to a step right in front of the entrance. As Pritchard explained, York Street was built mainly as back access to the storefronts on Ontario Street, primarily for deliveries. The shops there now were not retrofitted with accessibility in mind.

Still, Lindsay said she sees issues every day, be it a family with a big stroller that needs assistance getting in or someone with physical limitations.

Kayla Besse, accessibility coordinator for the Stratford Festival, joined the group for the afternoon. She told the Stratford Times events like the Walk and Roll are really important.

“It helps make people more visible for business owners,” Besse said. “When we as disabled people gather in groups like this, it’s like,‘Oh, it’s not just one person. There are so many of us.’ ”

At the June 4 AAC meeting, Vaucrosson said the week was largely a success and they will be reflecting on it to see how they can improve it moving forward, with the committee across the board thanking her for her work.

Sims also pointed out that, during the Walk and Roll, there were no city representatives from council that took the time to join the group, despite being invited. She called it “extremely disappointing.”

“These things are put on not for us,” Pritchard later said. “It's put on for all the able-bodied people to learn from.”

AccessAbility Week 2024 is over, but the work does not end.

Applications are now open for the city’s 2024 Accessibility Award, an annual recognition for a business, organization, or individual in Stratford that has worked to make their space or service accessible and barrier-free.

Nominations are accepted through adviscom@stratford.ca and will be accepted until Oct. 4.

The winner will be recognized by city council at a later date, after the AAC votes on a winner.

, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Stratford Times