BY LINDA MONDOUX
When Jack Merwin and wife Lynne were planning their retirement years, they chose Collingwood as the place to live for its Blue Mountain ski hill and its proximity to the family cottage near Sudbury. It would be an exciting new chapter in their post-Mississauga lives.
And while the active couple would spend several months a year away from Collingwood, skiing in Whistler, B.C., Merwin said he knew he wanted to be part of his new community. That’s why they settled right in the heart of Collingwood, within walking distance to the four-season resort town’s historic shopping and entertainment district, and at the hub of the people network that works hard to make the growing southern Georgian Bay community such a great place to live.
Ten years and a “life-altering experience” later, Merwin is thankful he chose to live close to everything and everyone he needs, now that he is paralysed from the chest down.
“As it’s turned out, I can get in the wheelchair and go to the barber, the bank, the liquor store ... anywhere I want to go,” Merwin tells MyNewWaterfrontHome.com. “If I was out near the ski hill, I wouldn’t have the same access.”
When Merwin, now 69, fell downstairs in the middle of the night three years ago, breaking his neck, he spent time at a Toronto rehabilitation centre, where some friends advised him to move to the big city, where, they said, health care and support services would be more accessible.
“I can’t see us moving,” says Merwin, whose disability has not kept him away from Collingwood’s recreational trails, or the ski hill — he has already participated in alpine sit-skiing, and plans to take up the Nordic version this winter.
“Collingwood is an excellent choice,” he says. “What we’ve been able to experience here, I don’t think we’d be able to get elsewhere. We’ve developed a real network.”
(For more information on Collingwood, please read our community profile.)
The freak accident has given Merwin a firsthand look at Collingwood’s enviable track record as a leader in accessibility, from its network of trails and wide, even downtown sidewalks to accessible buses and an impressive list of technology that can help visually and learning impaired citizens read a library book or surf the Internet.
“What they’ve done in the last year downtown, with all the new sidewalks and curbs, is tremendous,” Merwin says. “But there are really two issues. First, there’s being able to get out and be active, whether it’s using the trails or enjoying live theatre, then there’s the support you need in the home. We have both here.”
'If I was in Toronto, I would probably still be on a waiting list'
According to Merwin, the doctors, nurses and support workers in Collingwood have all been “exceptional.” Recently, a foot problem got looked after quickly after he was booked to see a specialist pronto. “If I was in Toronto, I would probably still be on a waiting list,” he says.
The Accessibility Advisory Committee has been a driving force to help make Collingwood more accessible, advising the town and making recommendations for improvements. The town’s efforts are featured on the Ontario Ministry of Community and Social Services website, where Mayor Chris Carrier says there’s been “a buy-in” both at the council level and throughout the community to make Collingwood more open.
“We need to be inclusive and open,” he says in a ministry video. “We’re a better society, better communities for it. We are asking about the open accessible standards, ensuring that OK yes, here’s the minimum provincial criteria, but what happens if we exceed that criteria?”
The recently completed $7-million downtown revitalization project, which revamped the historic core’s 30-year-old streetscape, is a good example of the town going above and beyond current legislated requirements.
Wayne Yuristy, chairman of the Accessibility Advisory Committee, says staff went to every business to measure the sills so that the new wide sidewalks could be raised to make them even with the doorways. “With so many older buildings, the doorways are all at different heights, so it wasn’t easy,” Yuristy told MyNewWaterfrontHome.com. “In some places, the sidewalk was modulated to meet the doorways, but in such a way that you can’t even notice.”
There are audible pedestrian signals at all intersections, and the downtown crossings feature a walkway with a “rumble strip” that lets visually impaired people or those in wheelchairs or scooters know when they are stepping out of the safety zone.
Yuristy, who says the Accessibility Advisory Committee had a lot of input into the new streetscape design, “right down to the texture of the sidewalk and the curb cutaways,” says the fact that Collingwood is easy to get around is one of the reasons he moved here from Saskatchewan two and a half years ago. With knee problems that see him walking with the help of a cane on most days, Yuristy said he joined the committee a year later, wanting to help the town improve upon its already impressive work on the accessibility front.
“In very many ways, it is a leader,” Yuristy says. “A lot of people here are older, so accessibility is very important.”
Collingwood businesses taking the initiative
The Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, passed by the provincial government in 2005, set out a schedule for the public sector, and then businesses, to meet in order that Ontario be accessible by 2025 in terms of communication, transportation and the built environment. The first standard to be implemented under the act — for accessible customer service — is already in place for the broader public sector. By Jan. 1, 2012, Ontario businesses will also have to meet the standard, which focuses on how staff deals with people with disabilities when they come in the door.
Getting in the door, however, won’t be regulated for businesses until later, when the built environment standards are introduced to address issues such as the width of bathroom doors. But like the forward-looking town, some Collingwood businesses have already taken the initiative by lowering counters to accommodate customers on scooters, or installing a buzzer at the door to summon help when they want in.
While meeting the built standards could be expensive for some businesses, especially in older buildings, Yuristy says retailers have come to realize that if they want customers, clients need to be able to get in the door and access the merchandise. "A lot of people with mobility problems are well off,” Yuristy says. “They have money and they want to spend. And they want to enjoy.”
According to the government, Canadians with disabilities spend $25 billion every year and influence the spending decisions of 12 to 15 million other consumers.
Collingwood’s population grew 7.8 per cent between 2001 and 2006, the last Census, and now stands at about 17,500 permanent residents, with about 5,000 more calling the town home on a part-time basis. The majority of the population is middle-aged or older, with the number of people with mobility problems expected to exceed the provincial average as the population ages.
Yuristy says it’s the responsibility of the Accessibility Advisory Committee to keep on top of things to ensure that Collingwood is ready to meet future needs. For example, the town is now looking at the incline of ramps, which were designed for wheelchairs. “But today, scooters are also used to get around, and often they are longer and wider than wheelchairs, so the ramps can be problematic,” he says. “It’s things like this we expect will be addressed in the province’s new built standards. The fact that we’re already thinking about it bodes well.”
Collingwood is so eager to be open to all that the town invites the public to let it know when something needs fixing or improving. Special forms detailing the barrier are received in the clerk’s office for action, with a copy sent to the Accessibility Advisory Committee.
60 kilometres of trails take you to the core, waterfront
Already, much of the town’s 60 kilometres of trails connecting the core and waterfront with various parts of Collingwood are accessible to people in wheelchairs or scooters. At the Sunset Point waterfront park, a ramp was constructed right to the bay near the old lifeguard station. And the trails pavilion at the Station, home to an accessible museum and welcome centre, can also accommodate wheelchairs.
Collingwood also boasts low-floor town buses, plus an accessible van shuttle service that runs seven days a week until midnight, travelling throughout the town and to the neighbouring communities of Blue Mountains, Wasaga Beach and Creemore. There are plans to add a lift for swim access at Centennial Pool. And plans for a new recreation centre at Heritage Park, a project currently on hold, include full accessibility.
The Accessibility Advisory Committee’s Aware Fair ensures the word gets out about the importance of a barrier-free Collingwood. That message is being reinforced with an “I’m Aware” pin campaign that recognizes people who have gone out of their way to help someone with a disability.
Yuristy recalls one incident at Zellers that merited an award to staff who helped a customer whose electric wheelchair fell apart. “Staff literally duct-taped the chair back together and got her on her way,” he says.
Merwin, who said he never really noticed anyone in wheelchairs until his accident three years ago, is doing his part to spread the message that Collingwood has everything you need for independent living. Merwin is not only a member of the Accessibility Advisory Committee, he’s also a Rick Hansen ambassador and a member of the board at Breaking Down Barriers, an independent living resource centre in Collingwood.
“I want to give back,” says Merwin, when asked why he spends so many hours on volunteer work in the community. “I’ve been very fortunate in my recovery. I have good use of my arms and hands — I’m lucky that way, because it allows me to get all over town. It’s because of all the support that I’ve had that makes me want to go out and talk to others.”
His goal as a member of the Accessibility Advisory Committee is to “make sure all in wheelchairs have an opportunity to get out and be active.”
If you’re at Collingwood’s newly accessible curling rink this winter, don’t be surprised if you find Jack Merwin there. He was convinced he should take up the sport. “It should be fun,” he says, chuckling.
MyNewWaterfrontHome.com — September 2010