Improving accessibility, one community at a time

Team members from the SCI BC / Access BC Team, Regional Tourism Access & Inclusion Liaisons, and UNBC’s Associate Professor and a research student from the School of Planning and Sustainability who were participating in the Access Now Mapping Project in Valemount, B.C., this past August. Back row: (L-r) Robson Heli-Magic Pilot Bob Slater, Nancy Harris, Mark Groulx, Rebecca DeLorey, Rob Stiles. Front row: Alison Duddy, Joceylyn Maffin, Lori Slater, Sonja Gaudet, and Brandy Stiles. (Gaudet submitted photo)Team members from the SCI BC / Access BC Team, Regional Tourism Access & Inclusion Liaisons, and UNBC’s Associate Professor and a research student from the School of Planning and Sustainability who were participating in the Access Now Mapping Project in Valemount, B.C., this past August. Back row: (L-r) Robson Heli-Magic Pilot Bob Slater, Nancy Harris, Mark Groulx, Rebecca DeLorey, Rob Stiles. Front row: Alison Duddy, Joceylyn Maffin, Lori Slater, Sonja Gaudet, and Brandy Stiles. (Gaudet submitted photo)
Members of the Access Now Mapping Team at Rearguard Falls, Valemount, B.C., in August of 2021. Back row: (L-r) BC Liberal MLA Shirley Bond, Rebecca DeLorely, Mark Groulx, and Bob Slater. Front row: (L-r) Alison Duddy, Brandy Stiles, Lori Slater, and Sonja Gaudet(. Gaudet submitted photo)Members of the Access Now Mapping Team at Rearguard Falls, Valemount, B.C., in August of 2021. Back row: (L-r) BC Liberal MLA Shirley Bond, Rebecca DeLorely, Mark Groulx, and Bob Slater. Front row: (L-r) Alison Duddy, Brandy Stiles, Lori Slater, and Sonja Gaudet(. Gaudet submitted photo)
Members of the Access Now Mapping Team with BC Liberal MLA Shirley Bond taking a photograph at the lookout over Rearguard Falls, in Valemount, B.C., this past August. (Gaudet submitted photo)Members of the Access Now Mapping Team with BC Liberal MLA Shirley Bond taking a photograph at the lookout over Rearguard Falls, in Valemount, B.C., this past August. (Gaudet submitted photo)

Sonja Gaudet is the Regional Accessibility Specialist for the Thompson Okanagan Tourism Association (TOTA).

Gaudet’s journey is an inspiring one. A horseback riding accident left her paralyzed from the chest down at just 31 years of age, but her resilient nature, strong disposition and iron will, refused to let her stop from aspiring to new heights. Sonja not only adapted to life in a wheelchair but went on to accomplish many remarkable achievements. Paramount of which was becoming a three-time gold medal Paralympian in curling (Turin 2006, Vancouver 2010, Sochi 2014) and being selected as the Canadian flag bearer for the opening ceremonies in 2014 at the Sochi Paralympic Winter Games.

Even more admirably, Gaudet is constantly giving back to her region, her province, and her country, acting as an accessibility advocate, inspirational speaker, and Peer Support Specialist.

This fall Gaudet visited the North Thompson Valley connecting with the communities of Valemount, Clearwater and Barriere on behalf of TOTA’s Sustainable Tourism Access and Inclusion Mapping Project. The project targets increasing accessibility awareness and provides consultations to enhance accessible travel and tourism services, products, and experiences within the region.

Gaudet says the visits provide the mapping team with an opportunity to offer tips on how those communities can become more accessible.

“Valemount was our test community in August of this year,” tells Gaudet, “We thought that we’d start in our most Northern community of the TOTA Region, and because of its size we thought it would be one that our team could manage as we were just learning exactly how we wanted things to roll out. We originally thought we could do Valemount, Clearwater and Barriere all together but soon realized that we need a longer length of time in different communities as we actually spent a whole week in Valemount.”

She noted as the program moves into its third month they have also realized they need to work with the smaller communities first.

“As the program is new, we are changing things along the way and coming up with better strategies in regards to what we are doing. We‘re learning, and maybe halfway through we’ll get it all figured out, but right now we are still doing that.”

The mapping team has its sights set on being able to visit at least 10 communities – more if time permits.

“We stay within the Thompson Okanagan Region which goes from Valemount right down into South Okanagan Lake, and Osoyoos,” advised Gaudet.

The team have already completed visits to Midway, Greenwood, Oliver, Summerland, Peachland, Armstrong, and Enderby. Minimal visits (with plans to return) have taken place in Keremeos, Cawston, Penticton, and Princeton. Due to the size of larger communities such as Vernon, Kelowna, and Kamloops those visits will be conducted last.

Gaudet emphasized the importance of having all of the information the team is gathering regarding accessibility in the Thompson Okanagan region to be readily available to the public, and she was happy to report the problem has been solved by uploading their findings to an app that is free to download.

“It’s called The Access Now APP and has been live for awhile,” said Gaudet, “It definitely has a strong mobility access feel and flare to it. We’ve partnered with that organization and are populating their app with different tourism experiences throughout these smaller communities. The app has a real mobility access component to it and is very much strong in terms of access for individuals who use mobility devices. It has the ability to capture some low vision accessible features, and we also have the ability to input a lot of text that captures other accessible features some of these experiences have.

“There is so much work to be done in the space of mobility access, whether it’s hard of hearing or some sensory features that stand out. A lot more work needs to be done around accessible parking spaces, and that’s not only for individuals with mobility needs, as there are lots of different people who have different requirements. We’re definitely finding that, even just the parking access routes to main entrances, getting through front doors and entrances, having accessible washrooms, and the actual space itself. Depending on what experience we’re talking about, all of those still need a lot of work.”

She adds the app provides easy to find information for people who are traveling within the Thompson Okanagan area to check in with some of those communities ahead of time. There is also a map within the app that show pinned icons that rate the facility either accessible, partially accessible, or not accessible. If the user clicks onto that pinned icon they also have the ability to attach text or pictures to give more information about the accessibility.

Is the mapping team finding the communities they have already visited are instigating the improvements suggested by the group?

“Absolutely, and that’s the beauty of when we go into the community, and where we are able to meet the stakeholders at whatever experience or business,” said Gaudet, “We can also provide them with one-on-one hands on examples, suggestions and recommendations. They see our team members, some of us in chairs, some of us not, some of us with different cope requirements, and all moving within that space. That is often enough to give that business owner the ‘why’ as to the importance of some accessible features that may not be in place and understanding why it needs to be that way. Such as why there needs to be a grab bar, or why do we need to insulate the pipes under the sink, or why does it need to be this height? If we can show them, it provides them with something tangible to think ‘oh yeah, I really do need to make that better’.”

Gaudet says it is not a hard sell for people to want to make improvements, but it can become hard when the funding is not available.

“We also don’t expect people to know the way something should look or be, as unfortunately, even our B.C. Building Code has minimum standards,” added Gaudet, “Sometimes if a place thinks ‘Oh, we’re up to code’, they think it’s fine. But unfortunately for us, sometimes the code just isn’t enough. We look at things through a best practices standard sense that goes above and beyond giving recommendations that align with the B.C. Building Code. As a result some of those things that need to be changed can be expensive to do. However, some things can be really easy fixes that will make a huge difference.

”Whether it is coming across a threshold or through a doorway. A super easy fix is a threshold ramp with minimum cost that creates or makes that space accessible. When something that is three inches high at a door it is not always possible for everybody to get through and can be unsafe. Another great example that we come across all the time is having a fairly accessible washroom, but the door swings in. If the door swings in, and a person getting into that washroom with their wheelchair or mobility aid cannot then shut the door because it swings in, it is unusable for them. But if you flip the swing of the door it becomes accessible.”

She adds the mapping team gets a good feeling when doing their tours.

”It gives of purpose, and also provides understanding. When you give that understanding and show the ‘why’ it’s like a light bulb goes on. Then you know from that point on that person sees that and understand that. It’s one person at a time and one experience, and one business at a time.

“We even participated in a fabulous river raft experience when we were up in Valemount. The crew did everything possible to make it as accessible for us as they could (as it really isn’t an accessible experience), so there were some carrying of those of us who were in chairs. We were also able to provide them with a few simple suggestions, such as having an accessible porta potty available on their outdoor site if they have a standard washroom but nobody in a chair could get to. That alone now creates that experience to be much more accessible than it was, now you can actually say “we have access”.

Who are the participants in the Sustainable Tourism Access and Inclusion Mapping Project team?

”Because this is a project that we’re hoping the other regions will roll out in their area we started with access and inclusion liaisons from different regions within the province, from the Cariboo Chilcotin, from Northern BC Tourism, from Vancouver Island. We have a small handful of access and inclusion regional liaisons and we are trying to build. It may get harder as they get busier in their regions so we will add people to our team. We’ll provide some training, choose other individuals with accessibility needs, and also expert users who can come out with us to help because depending on the size of the community you may need more people. Originally we thought that we wouldn’t need as many as we do, but we are realizing that you do need to go out with a team.”

Gaudet adds at this point in time to arrange a visit, the mapping team first reaches out to a community within the TOTA region by connecting with the Chamber of Commerce or tourism body within that area to inquire about what experiences visitors come to that community for or to visit?

“Once we get that list we have a starting point. We would like to be able to think we can go out and map everybody, but realize we can’t really do that yet. But that said, if the different community destination marketing organizations reach out to me and we can create a list of places to start within their communities, then that’s doable.”

If you are within the Thompson Okanagan region and would like to find out more about having the Sustainable Tourism Access and Inclusion Mapping Project team visit your community please contacting Sonya Gaudet by email at: accessibility@totabc.com

You can also read Sonya Gaudet’s amazing story here: https://bcsportshall.com/curator-corner/sonja-gaudet-its-what-you-can-do-not-cant-2020-inductee-spotlight/

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news@starjournal.net

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