You don’t really know the meaning of accessibility unless you use a wheelchair or hang out with someone who does. I only started to understand one fall evening while wandering the streets of downtown Montreal with my friend André, in search of a bar or restaurant where he could get his wheelchair through the door.
It took us 45 minutes to find a place, by which time I was feeling quite indignant. How could so many places not bother to make the small ascent to their threshold – usually just one step up from the sidewalk – manageable for people with disabilities? André seemed to take the hassle more calmly, because he had been dealing with it for years.More recently, I went with Omar Lachheb and his girlfriend, Luz, to a Montreal sushi restaurant that we knew had no way of allowing his wheelchair in. But they had brought the solution with them: a wooden ramp, custom-built for that very doorway.
It was one of 20 that Lachheb had arranged to supply to businesses in Montreal since September. A waiter laid down the ramp and voila! – instant accessibility.
Lachheb’s not-for-profit program is called the Community Ramp Project, and its initial goal is to get customized portable ramps around town and into public consciousness. The brightly coloured ramps not only get people in the door, they make visible a problem that’s often easy for the able-bodied to ignore.Laccheb’s approach to most businesses is direct and dramatic. “I knock on the door or the glass, and just wave and say, ‘Hi,’” he said, during a chat in his condo. “I can’t go in, so I have to wait outside.” By the time someone comes out, they know, if they didn’t before, that there’s a problem with the doorway. Rather than complain about it, Lachheb offers them a simple fix, and a clear business motive for doing it.
“Accessibility is a social issue, about equality and dignity for people with disabilities,” he said, “but it’s also about considering people with mobility issues as customers. They have jobs and money to spend. Having a ramp and being accessible is a smart choice for businesses.”