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Lack of accessible transportation on Sea to Sky a 'significant disappointment,' non-profit says

Whistler council endorses proposal for new accessibility policy
ADRENALINE JUNKIES The Spinal Cord Injury Organization of BC's Whistler Adrenaline event takes place in the resort each summer, bringing people with physical disabilities up the Sea to Sky Highway to tackle adaptive mountain biking, kayaking, paddleboarding, rock climbing and more—but getting here is a challenge in itself. Photo courtesy of SCIBC

While Whistler's accessible accommodations and programs through the Whistler Adaptive Sports Program are world class, the lack of accessible transportation in the Sea to Sky corridor and within the resort represents a "significant disappointment" for those who need it, according to a disability non-profit.

Chris McBride, executive director of the Spinal Cord Injury Organization of BC (SCIBC), highlighted the issue in a recent letter to Whistler council.

Each year, the SCIBC brings more than 50 people with physical disabilities to the resort to take part in a weekend of adapted outdoor recreation, pairing newly injured individuals with those who have been living with spinal cord injuries for some time.

"People are out there paddling, or they're climbing, or they're hiking, hand-cycling, you know, doing all the things that people do when they go to Whistler in the summer," McBride said, adding that for many, the weekend is life changing.

"For a lot of people, after a spinal cord injury, they don't think that they can get back to doing this kind of activity. They never thought it was possible," he said.

"And then we introduce them to what is possible, and through that they see broader opportunities for what might be possible in other aspects of their life."

But with no publicly or privately available wheelchair accessible bus companies operating in the Sea to Sky corridor, getting participants to Whistler is a struggle.

"Now with a lack of Greyhound and any other service that's providing dedicated, accessible transportation options, people really have no means by which to get up to Whistler, unless they have their own adaptive vehicle, which is extremely expensive," McBride said.

"So it really limits our participation in these events, and participation I guess in Whistler and the Sea to Sky corridor in general."

Getting participants to Whistler for events is "a bit of a scramble for us," McBride said, with vans being rented for participants and U-Hauls for their chairs—a solution that is "workable," but one that puts the SCIBC, participants and their chairs at undue risk.

"In fairness, it's not unique to the Sea to Sky corridor, but it is problematic nonetheless," McBride said.

Once in the resort, accessible transportation isn't perfect, either.

During Crankworx last summer, one SCIBC participant, Dan Duffy, was surprised to hear that a local cab company had no accessible cabs to get him from the village to Cheakamus after a night out with friends.

"We had a couple drinks ourselves and we were just trying to get home," Duffy said, noting that while he couldn't remember which company it was, the taxi operator he spoke with told him they didn't have accessible cabs scheduled during the week.

"It's one of those things you kinda just deal with, because it's like that all across Canada, it's not just in Whistler," Duffy said.

"When they told us that they didn't have one available, I mean, to have an argument with somebody on the phone at that point was pointless ... you just accept it and move on."

While an operator with Whistler Taxi said on Monday, Feb. 3 that the company didn't have any wheelchair accessible cabs, an operator with Resort Cabs said accessible cabs are available for local trips if booked in advance.

In Duffy's case, he ended up catching the bus back to Cheakamus—albeit one that was so "packed" full of Crankworx revellers he couldn't fit his chair in the designated accessible space for it.

While it's not exactly a unique situation for disabled people to find themselves—Duffy recalled a recent trip to Saint John, N.B., in which he was also unable to secure an accessible cab—Whistler would do well to be more inclusive, he said.

"I mean, you're a tourist destination—you want to be inclusive to as many people as you possibly can, right?" he said.

Sea to Sky MLA Jordan Sturdy said he agrees with McBride's letter, noting that the accessible travel market is worth billions worldwide annually (a 2016 study in the U.S. found that about one in five people have a disability, and 88 per cent of those who do take a holiday every year, spending US$17.3 billion annually).

"So that is not an inconsequential amount of money, and it's part of our market," Sturdy said, adding that he thinks the resort does a good job with its on-mountain accessible offerings.

"But that really is dependent on the individual's ability to actually get to the mountain," he said.

"So I think that it's certainly something that needs some attention."

In a timely report at its Feb. 4 meeting, Whistler council endorsed a proposed approach for a new accessibility policy for the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW).

The report by Measuring Up coordinator Sarah Tipler has been in the works for some time, and laid out the planned approach and timeline for creating a comprehensive accessibility policy for the RMOW.

Staff propose to build the new policy using concepts and standards reflected in Universal Design, the BC Building Code, the Rick Hansen Foundation Accessibility Certification Program and the Accessible Canada Act, Tipler said.

"Everybody benefits from accessibility," she said.

"People's abilities are in a constant state of change, whether this is recovering from a broken leg, managing age-related health deterioration ... we need to plan to accommodate all abilities at all ages."

According to Stats Canada, 3.8-million Canadians had some form of disability in 2012, and 9 million Canadians considered accessibility when thinking of places to visit (and which to avoid), Tipler said.

"In terms of accessible tourism, Canadian research findings suggest that 82 per cent of the country's 2.2-million travellers with disabilities are accompanied by another person, for an annual minimum of 1.8-million additional travellers," she said.

"Canadian research also suggests travellers with disabilities place greater importance on the human network when travelling, and consequently rarely travel alone."

An open house will be held in the summer to gather community feedback on the policy, with an eye to presenting it to council in fall 2020.

"I'm enthusiastic about the work that Sarah is undertaking, and we'll pass on letters like (McBride's) to her as she considers her work promoting accessibility in our community," said Mayor Jack Crompton after the meeting.

"(Addressing the lack of accessible transportation) is one of the benefits of realizing a regional transit system, which is something that regional municipalities are committed to continue to advocate for."

In McBride's opinion, governments should take a "really hard look at the accessibility (transportation operators) can provide" when approving transportation options.

"Even one accessible bus would be great, but the more the better, and I think there's been calls for increasing the size of the accessible cab fleets, in general, in most places," he said, adding that he understands there are cost implications to think of.

"It's not just people with spinal cord injuries or disabilities, it's the aging population, and that's a huge demographic that also won't be able to participate and enjoy what Whistler and other places along the corridor have to offer.

"So just increasing the number of those things, providing some incentives for operators to provide these services would be a help, too."

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