Citation: Brownstein. B, (2002). Road access is a bumpy ride for the disabled - Inerview with Maria Barile. The Gazette, September 28, 2002,p. A7.

Road access is a bumpy ride for the disabled

The Gazette
Saturday, September 28, 2002

Maria Barile applauds the efforts of athlete Jeff Adams in climbing the 1,776 steps of Toronto's CN Tower on Thursday - in his wheelchair.

Adams wasn't seeking to have his name immortalized in the Guinness Book of World Records. He simply wanted to sensitize the public to the plight of the disabled in dealing with access difficulties.

Barile has set a more modest goal for herself. She wants to go one step at a time.

Specifically, she wants to start with the step that is the sidewalk outside her St. Michel home. She would like a slope made so that she could have more direct access to the road with her wheelchair.

That seems like a simple enough request. Not exactly. A city ordinance prevents Barile and other disabled people from making their sidewalks flush with the road. The official explanation given to Barile is that it is dangerous to kids, who might mistake the dip in the sidewalk for an intersection and cross the street there instead.

No matter that sloped sections of sidewalks abound everywhere, other than at intersections. They're called driveways. And, possible danger to kids notwithstanding, the city has evidently no problem with citizens using driveways to reach their garages.

The law can be such an ass sometimes. And insensitive.

And, really, why shouldn't wheelchairs have the same access as autos? They are essentially vehicles - which don't pollute.

Barile relies on the Montreal Transit Corp.'s adapted-transport service to ferry her to and from work.

She lives on a one-way street and the bus's lift falls on the opposite side of the street.

If the sidewalk was sloped, she could make a U-turn around the bus and have quick access to her dwelling.

Instead, the bus has to drop her off half a block away, in front of a driveway.

Barile can manage fine in the summer. But in the winter, it can be particularly problematic.

A compassionate bus-driver once attempted to lift Barile in her wheelchair over the sidewalk but abandoned the effort after nearly taking a tumble.

"It could have been so dangerous for the two of us," says Barile, 48, who works for Adaptech, a computer-information research project at Dawson College. "Sidewalks in Montreal are higher than in Europe and many North American cities. It just seems so petty that the city won't do anything here."

And then again: Montreal is not exactly the most disabled-friendly city in the world. "Montreal hasn't understood the concept of universal accessibility," she understates.

Barile, who was born in Italy but moved to Montreal when she was 8, has a hearing impairment and a neurological condition called dystonia that severely impedes her mobility. For short distances, she can get by on a cane. But for the most part she requires a wheelchair.

Barile, who has a degree in social work, also consults and gives seminars on working toward the elimination of "handicapism" and sexism. "In addition to the environment of the disabled, there is the stigma," she says. "Disability is partly political. If the political aspect were eliminated, it would be that much less of an impairment."

To that end, Barile has been fighting the system and attitudes most of her adult life.

More than 20 years ago, she was advocating adapted-transportation services and access to the métro system for the disabled. The buses are rolling, but one out of two is not enough for Barile.

"They told us that wheelchair access to the métro for the disabled would be dangerous, because if there were an accident they would be trapped.

"That's not only patronizing, but it's also a reverse eugenic. So, it's OK to have non-handicapped people killed and trapped, but not the handicapped?"

Barile points out that in Tokyo a monitor advises visually impaired commuters if they are standing too close to the tracks in the subway system.

And she notes that while menus in braille are prevalent elsewhere, they are next to impossible to find at Montreal restaurants.

Nor do the hearing impaired get a break at local cinemas. There are no captions available.

And don't get her started on computers.

"New tools for the new marketplace? They haven't been adjusted for the disabled."

At present, Barile is spearheading a project in the city that not just a few, but all breast-cancer screening centres be accessible to women with disabilities.

Yet Barile tries to dwell on the positive.

"There have been major strides made in areas like integrating disabled kids into regular schools," she says.

"In some cases, people have become increasingly more sensitive to the needs of the disabled - although perhaps not when compared with other minorities. But, basically, it's all about communication."
© Copyright 2002 Montreal Gazette