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Whistler gets wheelchair check-up

Local group works to make Whistler more accessible for disabled

If newcomers find Whistler confusing to get around, imagine how wheelchair visitors fare. With poor signage and no maps available to highlight barrier-free routes, Whistler can be a nightmare of sunken sidewalks, overly steep ramps, and daunting curbs.

But the worst, says accessibility advocate Stacy Kohut, is Whistler’s able-bodied mindset.

"It’s that mental barrier of finally saying ‘you know what, we believe in equality, in integration, in having a world-class resort where all people are welcome,’" Kohut said.

Kohut is one member of a five-person municipal advisory group recently formed that will draft procedures for implementing changes to make Whistler easier to get around for visually- and physically-challenged individuals.

It’s a necessary step says parks planner Kevin McFarland, who has culled recommendations from two commissioned reports that examine Whistler’s accessibility.

"We want to act on these things rather than simply study," McFarland said.

The two audits, a 1998 Tourism Whistler report and the three-year-old 2010 bid process report, point to physical and visual problem areas in Whistler Village.

"They point out mostly barriers where our system fails," McFarland said. The reports cite safety and implementation issues in everything from broken, sunken paving stones to poorly lit, inadequate washroom facilities to lack of designated parking spots.

But the reports also made practical recommendations: a map that could show visitors trouble-free routes to get around Whistler and an accessibility rating system that would provide details about hotels, public buildings, areas and venues.

Tourism Whistler intends to add accessibility information to the rating system it already has in place, says Diane Mombourquette, vice-president, finance and operations. Tourism Whistler staff survey local accommodations every two years to update the amenities inventory for its rating system.

"It will take a couple of years to re-rate the entire inventory because they’re on a rotational basis," she said. "We’ll have the full criteria rated probably in two years."

Signage also needs to be looked at, according to the 2003 Whistler Village Access Audit. Many parking spaces designated for people with disabilities do not have proper signage, either posted or with pavement markings. This can lead to confusion for motorists, one of whom Kohut recently confronted when the motorist parked in a designated disabled parking stall at Franz’s Trail in Creekside. The driver then denied she’d parked in a disabled-only spot.

"I said ‘ma’am you have no respect for disabled people, for people that are different than you, no respect for what this disabled parking spot is actually for," Kohut said.

Funding for changes will come from a $300,000 village enhancement fund that has been previously used to buy seating and public art for Village Square. McFarland said things like the lack of a ramp by taxi loop breezeway steps is a problem the working group can address. "It’s a very significant entry to Whistler and Village Square and that will be a large dollar investment but it has to be done."

The working group will meet for the first time in June.