Pandemic-era patios nonetheless too usually inaccessible, disability advocates say

More than 16 months after the COVID-19 pandemic, Canadians with disabilities say many restaurant and bar patios that have been expanded onto streets and sidewalks to provide more outdoor seating are inaccessible to them.

They say it’s bad for people with disabilities and bad for businesses.

David Lepofsky, law professor and chair of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) Alliance, said the expanded courtyards pose two challenges. One is that the terraces are often inaccessible, even for people with mobility problems, vision or hearing loss. On the other hand, they sometimes also make the sidewalks and streets inaccessible.

Bars and restaurants across Canada have expanded outdoor seating as provinces have restricted indoor dining to curb COVID-19 infections, which are more likely to spread indoors.

Go into oncoming traffic

The blind Lepofsky said in an interview that he was once forced to step into the street because there was no room for social distance on the sidewalk next to a courtyard in Toronto.

David Lepofsky, chairman of the AODA Alliance in Toronto, says he had to get into traffic once to pass a sidewalk. (Tina Mackenzie / CBC)

“Nobody really wants to run into oncoming traffic. And if you’re blind, you most of all don’t want to run into oncoming traffic,” he said.

Toronto’s Patio Advisor has a list of accessibility requirements, including leaving a 2.1 meter pathway for pedestrians, following city and provincial AODA accessibility rules, and that patios have a barrier around them so that people who use white sticks can pass safely by.

Workers are assembling patio protection for the CaféTO restaurant program in Toronto on May 21, 2021. (Frank Gunn / The Canadian Press)

“Last winter, city officials committed to improving the requirements of the guide by including feedback from the accessibility community and meeting with the Toronto Accessibility Advisory Committee,” said Toronto City Spokeswoman Deborah Blackstone. in an email to CBC News.

“Members of the public are encouraged to contact 311 if they are observing a public space that has been obstructed or blocked so that city officials can respond as quickly as possible.”

A “very frustrating” experience

However, Lepofsky said the walkways next to the sidewalk terraces are often not large enough to allow social distancing and that the AODA’s existing rules are inadequate.

He argues that the requirements for new structures under the Ontario Building Code or AODA are insufficient and “for a long time”.

“And there doesn’t seem to be any municipal enforcement to ensure there is a safe, accessible path around the courtyard,” he said.

Lee Pigeau, national executive director of the Canadian Hard of Hearing Association, said eating on terraces can be “very frustrating” for people with hearing loss.

Lip-reading people already have difficulty communicating because everyone is wearing masks and traffic noise adds extra distractions to street terraces, he said.

“You get music and noises from all sides, which makes communication very difficult,” he said in an interview.

Businesses are losing customers, says proponents

In New Brunswick, where disability rates are above national levels, accessibility standards for sidewalk patios are inadequate, says Haley Flaro, executive director of Ability New Brunswick.

In Fredericton, where Flaro lives, the city lists two accessibility requirements for their sidewalk patio application. It states that the terraces must be wheelchair accessible and, if possible, a two-meter path must be left next to the terrace.

But Flaro says this is not enough as there is often not enough room to move a wheelchair between the tables and the tables themselves may not be high enough to fit wheelchairs underneath.

“If a company opens or expands the deck and it’s inaccessible, they instantly lose about 12 percent of their New Brunswick business,” she said. “So we know that accessibility is good for a lot of things, and business is one of them.”

Fredericton city spokesmen did not respond to requests for comment.

‘Here we go again’

Victoria Levack from Halifax uses a power wheelchair. She is the spokesperson for the Nova Scotia Disability Rights Coalition and Chair of the Nova Scotia League for Equal Opportunities.

“There are times when I can’t get through [sidewalk patios]. I can’t physically, “she said in an interview.

Both she and Lepofsky said the terraces were only a small part of a bigger problem: Canadian cities are not accessible enough for people with disabilities.

“So the pandemic comes and these terraces and it’s like ‘Here we go again,'” Lepofsky said.

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