Disabled living in Canada

I have just returned from a very happy two week visit to Ontario with my husband Ian, staying with my brother and attending our niece’s wedding. I have loved Canada ever since my first visit nearly 50 years ago, and have been back many times. Indeed, it is the one country outside the UK where I would be happy to live. The Americans joke about the Canadians – always calm, punctual and highly efficient (and with strong gun laws) – not realising that it is indeed good to live in a liberal democracy ruled by common sense. The country is also stunningly beautiful and we have explored it from Newfoundland to Vancouver, and from Niagara to Hudson Bay.

Canada has a proud record of providing a safe haven for those who have been forced from their homes, from the former slaves who took the Underground Railroad to freedom, to the current policy of welcoming refugees, most recently from Afghanistan and Ukraine.

But Canada has its dark side, highlighted by the recent visit by the Pope. And we also discovered that disabled people have limited rights in law, and their needs are often overlooked institutionally.

This was the first time we had flown anywhere since the pandemic. Ian has a complex neurological condition and we have been using Special Assistance in airports for some years. He has some, but limited, mobility and since our last flight he has started using a mobility scooter and a folding wheelchair which we take with us when we go out together, so we took it with us to Canada this time.

The first thing we noticed in Canada is that there is no requirement for buildings that are open to the public to be accessible. When we ate out in a restaurant we had to phone in advance to check whether we could actually get in with the wheelchair. Once in, few had disabled loos.

But the real struggle emerged when we got to Montreal Airport for our flight home. We had booked Special Assistance through the airline (Air Transat) but we discovered on the airport’s website that they also offered a service from the drop-off point to check-in. To add to the complications my mobility is also limited, but not to the same extent as Ian’s, and I find it impossible to push a wheelchair and all our luggage at the same time. So we filled in the online form to request this support and received a confirmation telling us to report to Door 4 of the terminal at 7pm.

My brother dropped us off at Door 4 and we found some seats marked as a Special Assistance waiting area. No-one appeared so I phoned the number we had been given. I was transferred twice to different people, but no-one came to help us. After half an hour I left Ian with the luggage and went over the Air Transat check-in where help was offered immediately.

We recognised the member of staff who checked us in as the person who had helped us when we had arrived two week’s earlier. There are clearly no dedicated Special Assistance staff employed either by the airport or by airlines. This time another member of staff accompanied us very helpfully through check-in, security (where Ian was made to get out of his chair without my help to go through the metal detector) and onwards to the gate.

Once the flight was called we were helped down a slope to the bus. Between the gate and the plane Montreal uses shuttle buses which can rise up to the level of the plane door. We were perplexed when we reached the bus as there was a step up which we could not negotiate with the wheelchair. We waited to be told what to do and eventually the bus driver came up to Ian and shouted at him, telling him aggressively to get out of his chair – it was demeaning, embarrassing and very upsetting. Ian managed with some difficulty to get into the bus and the Air Transat person came and sat with Ian and apologised for the man’s appalling behaviour.

That was not the end of it. The bus drove to the plane and raised itself up. We then realised that we were entering the plane from the back, so Ian had to walk the full length of the plane to our seats which was really difficult for him and held up a lot of other passengers. We always follow the advice to book seats at the front of the plane to help with access and this time we were actually in Row 1.

All of this was in marked contrast to our arrival at Gatwick two weeks earlier.  There is a Special Assistance kiosk right by the drop off zone. Five members of the airport’s dedicated team were inside waiting for the first tasks of the day. They asked exactly what kind of assistance we needed and two of them came with us to check-in – one pushing the wheelchair and one with the luggage. They then saw us through to the Special Assistance security access. From there another team member took us through the special security lanes and Ian was able to go through the metal detector in his chair. Then we found ourselves in the rather lovely special lounge where we were given a buzzer that called us when it was time to go to the gate.

We both got into the buggy with Ian’s chair folded beside us. Gatwick is huge and you can walk over a mile to get to your plane. Off to the gate where the staff helped us across the airbridge ahead of the other passengers. At the plane door (at the front, of course) Ian was helped out of his chair, which was then checked in. The whole process was simple and stress-free.  When we arrived back at Gatwick yesterday we waited until all the other passengers had got off and by that time someone was standing with Ian’s chair by the plane door.

We really do some things well in the UK, and Special Assistance at airports is one of those. Of course, it’s not perfect as Frank Gardner has told us several times. But his problems seem to have been caused by a shortage of staff (and we are all aware of that) rather than the lack of a suitable system.

The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 was the trigger for change in the UK. It is 27 years since all public venues were required to make “reasonable adjustments” to accommodate disabled people. Even small and non-commercial spaces, such as cafes and churches had to provide ramps and disabled toilets. If there was only one toilet on the premises then it had to be adapted for disabled people. It was public demand led by a group of disabled campaigners that led to the new law, but since then the values it embodies have permeated down to everyone. And that was why I found the poor practice in Canada so shocking.



* Mary Reid is a contributing editor on Lib Dem Voice. She was a councillor in Kingston upon Thames, where she is still very active with the local party, and is the Hon President of Kingston Lib Dems.

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  • Helen Dudden 17th Aug '22 - 5:25pm

    I am part of a world wide disablilty group. This I have heard many times before, the lack of interest with the need to improve on disabled access, funding, housing and treatment.
    That’s how it is in GB to some extent. Having a comode in your living area as bathrooms are not accessible.
    Housing needs to be accessible. Some of us have shower trays and these are in itself a fall hazard, losing balance ending up face down on the floor, or knocking yourself out on the toilet. Doors that open inwards, so falling means the only way to get you out is to remove the door.
    My colleagues in Canada have not enough to eat or heat, get problems with the snow and ice. The lack of respect is disgusting.
    The Centre for Accessible Environments has many of the new ideas, but not as much chance to implement them.
    In New York, there were comments on a set of slippery stairs to the underground. I was so sad to hear about one accident that took the life of a young mother who had carried her baby and pushchair down these steps. Had there been a disabled friendly lift, the situation for everyone could have been positive, it’s not purely about disablility to have accessible environments.

  • Thanks, Helen. This was the first time we had travelled with a wheelchair so it was all new to us. Maybe you could write a post for us on the shortcomings in the UK that you mention?

  • Lorenzo Cherin 17th Aug '22 - 10:53pm

    One of the best articles on the most neglected subject, we have seen, on this excellent much valued site, by one of its finest contributers!!!

    As my wife and I have disability issues, and being over twenty years younger than Mary, this strikes a chord, with us, having known real problems travelling. My wife being from America originally, our experience to and from the States is more efficient and helpful. But difficult too. But her problems are worse,in recent years,and her, my family there now few, as both her parents are now, departed. We find it less trouble to stay here. If we were rich, maybe one day we could venture abroad again, with more help.

    Canada sounds lousy in many ways, good in others. I think New Zealand and Australia are similarly mixed, it appears.

    My love for America, like my wife for here, is warts and all. We know the good the bad and the ugly.and I often feel, I am in a spaghetti western. my wife and myself also each half Italian too …!

  • Lorenzo Cherin 17th Aug '22 - 10:58pm

    And I too, as Mary, would like to here more from Helen with her excellent posts here on LDV.

  • Yusuf Osman 18th Aug '22 - 8:26am

    Thanks Mary for an interesting post, it’s always good to hear how other countries provide support. My experience at Gatwick was less positive, on the way out, in November I was nearly forgotten and had to grab assistance from staff because no one came to help me on to the plane and on the way back there was a long delay before the assistant came to help me off the plane.
    As someone who is totally blind and has been for over 40 years, I can see both how things have improved, due to campaigning and consequent legislation and how they have stayed the same, or perhaps got worse.
    On the positive side it’s far easier to get support when using public transport and the announcements on trains, trams and buses do mean that I can travel a lot more confidently. Technology means that I can participate in this kind of forum and so have greater interaction than would have been the case previously. I also have access to a lot more information than was the case pre the internet. Legislation means that if I am discriminated against I stand at least a chance of being able to get a court to rule in my favour.

  • Yusuf Osman 18th Aug '22 - 8:28am

    On the negative side of things. Unemployment amongst working age blind people remains stubbornly high. I don’t think the 77 per cent unemployment rate has changed in 30 plus years. Around 90 per cent of employers think that blind people are unemployable. Changes in technology has meant that some things that were previously easy, like tuning a radio, have become almost impossible, digital radios are extremely difficult to use if you have no sight. When smart metres first came out there was no talking versions available. Speak to anyone who is blind and get them on the subject of web site/Smart Phone App accessibility and they will soon tell you about the site they tried to use but couldn’t.

  • Yusuf Osman 18th Aug '22 - 8:28am

    Moving forward it would be really useful to extend the equality act to cover access to technology so that no company can release a TV, Freeview box, radio, cooking appliance etc. without accessibility built-in. Audio Description levels have been set by OFFCOM on terrestrial services, but no such requirement exists on streaming services. This has led to the bizarre situation of programmes being released in this country without audio description when in the US they do. Finally, the unemployment situation really needs hard work on the part of the government. Blind people are held back by the attitudes of employers, the problems associated with technology, Access to Work and finally consequences of the fact that being blind does make it impossible to do a lot of jobs. Finally, finally, schooling for blind children needs looking at. I’m not sure that integration has served blind children very well. The opportunities that I had, sports, life skills, Braille and mixing with other children like me don’t seem to be there for the current generation of blind children. A controversial point on which to end but there you go.

  • @Yusuf Osman – thanks for your interesting comments. Could you turn them into a post for Lib Dem Voice? I see you have written for us before, but a long time ago.

  • I’ll definitely give it some thought Mary.

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