In My Opinion: Making Winter Stations and the beach accessible must become a priority

Large crowds turned out for the opening day of Winter Stations 2023 on Family Day in February. In her In My Opinion column in Beach Metro Community News, local resident Jane Anderson writes that making the annual event accessible needs to become a priority. Photo by Adam Owen-Gill.

By JANE ANDERSON

Thousands of people enjoy the Toronto Winter Stations each year. The international design competition receives global recognition.

These installations are thought-provoking, and bring the community together. Family Day was warm and sunny, and the beach was crowded with families, pets, neighbours and friends enjoying the beach, the lake, and the artwork. I myself enjoyed a walk along the shore with friends investigating this year’s submissions. I am privileged to live a stone’s throw from the beach, with this unique art display at my doorstep.

However, not everyone has the same opportunity.

People who are not physically able to traverse the sand (or the snow) are being excluded.

A friend, who relies on a walker, was unable to experience the Winter Stations in person. Similarly anyone dependent on a wheelchair, would find it impossible to access the exhibit.

As part of the competition, designers were asked “to conceptualize their station to be experienced up close and from afar, in-person and virtually…”

Experiencing the stations from afar or virtually is not the same as experiencing them up close and everyone should be afforded the option of viewing the stations up close if they choose.

In my opinion the city needs to do more to ensure accessibility for all outdoor public events, winter or summer. Anything less is ableism, which refers to attitudes in society that devalue and limit the potential of persons with disabilities. Ableism is discrimination and limits people’s inclusion in their communities.

According to the Canadian Survey on Disability the percentage of adults who report having a disability is steadily increasing.

Approximately 20 per cent of people from the GTA (Greater Toronto Area) identify as having at least one disability and 67 per cent of those people identified with having either sight or mobility issues. By extrapolation there are thousands of people in our own community of Beaches-East York who are mobility challenged.

Granted, the Winter Stations wouldn’t be the same unless they were on the beach, connected to the Lifeguard stands, so I’m not suggesting that the venue be changed, but there are ways to make the beach, and the Winter Stations accessible. It’s been 10 years since the first Winter Stations event, and we really need to get this right.

What can be done? There are common solutions out there. For example, products specifically designed for beach accessibility are in use at other municipalities around the province.

There are hard plastic or light-weight flexible beach mats, designed to accommodate wheelchairs, walkers, strollers, and assist in guidance for people with vision loss.

What if the material were rolled out parallel to the shoreline, from the existing mobility mat in front of the Donald Summerville Pool, forming a linear path from station to station?

The mats are designed for sand, but could also presumably be placed on snow. The mats could be rolled up at the end of the exhibition and stored for another event or be incorporated into a more permanent year-round solution. The solution is low-cost, and versatile.

Cost however should not be an option since the federal government alone provided significant funding for this year’s Winter Stations.

Another recent example of where mobility mats could have been used on the beach is the community celebration to mark the 100th anniversary of the iconic Leuty Lifeguard Station in 2022. It was well attended by the public, however the celebration occurred on the beach and was not accessible to many. A temporary mobility mat could have been rolled out for the event, rolled back up afterwards, and either stored or relocated to another part of the beach as a permanent mat.

As the number of people with disabilities increases, partly due to our aging population, public events must be accessible.

Our city should be a leader on the world stage, and ensure that everyone, of all abilities, has an equal opportunity.

Solving Beach Accessibility in general benefits the entire Beach community. It demonstrates that we are a compassionate and caring community and we are leading the way to an inclusionary society.

With the housing projects underway and planned for Ward 19 Beaches-East York we need to be better prepared to provide equitable and sustainable opportunities for recreation and enjoyment of local spaces.

There are also overall benefits to the City of Toronto. Removing barriers supports the city’s ‘Statement of Commitment to be an Accessible City.’ Enabling everyone to enjoy the beach to its fullest provides opportunities for people with disabilities to be active, fit and healthy.

Plus universal and inclusive design benefits everyone, not just those with disabilities. As an example, child-care providers with strollers will benefit from accessibility features.

Anything that is done to make the Winter Stations more accessible can be used as a template for the beach for the rest of the year.

Currently, our beach is largely inaccessible during the summer. Improvements are needed so that everyone can picnic, swim, paddle or just get close to the shore to hear the waves.

Someone once wrote “Everyone is subject to the gradually disabling process of aging. The fact that we will all become disabled if we live long enough is a reality many people who consider themselves able-bodied are reluctant to admit.”

The Winter Station committee is quoted as saying “Any type of change can be hard – as we navigate through uncertainty and redefine the new norm.”

In my opinion the new norm should be “accessibility for all, without question”.

The question of accessibility was put to the Winter Station committee via email however I have not yet received a response.

If you have comments or ideas to improve beach accessibility for Winter Stations or year-round we would like to hear from you. You can reach us at info@tlfcommunity.ca.

— Jane Anderson is a Beach resident, co-founder of Toronto Lakefront Community, a volunteer guide for athletes with disabilities, a swimmer, and a paddler.


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