Our cities, our towns, our neighbourhoods — these are where we build our communities, where we find jobs, where we make friends, where we raise our families. A community truly thrives when everyone who lives and visits there can fully participate and contribute equally.
If people who have disabilities are made to feel as though the services that their community offers are fully open and available to them, the community will never be limited in terms of how it can grow and what kind of businesses and residents it can attract.
The Town of Huntsville in Ontario's Muskoka district is already well on its way to greater accessibility thanks to a bold suggestion made a few years ago during a town council meeting that Huntsville put in a bid to host the 2006 Ontario Paralympic Games.
When the idea was first put forward, not everyone in town was convinced that their little community had what it took. Despite a booming cottage tourism industry, Huntsville has a population of only 18,000 permanent residents. There was also some local concern that the community wasn't accessible enough to host such an enormous event focused on athletes with disabilities. But the town came together and the residents committed themselves to learning about accessibility and making changes wherever they could.
When the word came that they had actually won the bid and would indeed host the Ontario Paralympic Games in 2006, it was the beginning of a journey that would change the town forever.
"Practically everybody in town was touched in some way by that event," said Debbie Kirwin, Chair of Huntsville's Accessibility Advisory Committee (AAC). "Town staff, politicians, retailers, hotels, community centres, sports venues, even the local high school rose to the challenge and learned about accessibility and made changes."
One year later, the effects of hosting the games continue on. Huntsville is the only town in the District of Muskoka to have audible crossing lights at major intersections. It is also the only town to have an accessible transit system with one bus that even provides door-to-door, on demand service for customers with disabilities. Sixteen designated parking spots are available in town, and they have just passed a new by-law that levies a $300 fine against anyone misusing accessible parking spaces on private property.
Nestled in the heart of the Muskoka lakes district, Huntsville relies heavily on a large tourism industry. Kirwin says that the improvements they've made in terms of accessibility have also helped to give that sector an extra boost. "We received an email from a woman who uses a wheelchair and was here visiting from Burlington," said Kirwin. "She commented specifically on what a treat it was to come to a town where she could easily get around and shop."