After engineer Luke Anderson lost his ability to walk due to a spinal cord injury, “accessibility” transformed from an abstract concept to the way he planned out his life. In his chair, Anderson was forced to consider accessibility before every outing, he says in a talk at TEDxYouth@Toronto, asking himself questions like: Can I get inside that restaurant? What if the new coffee shop has an uneven entryway? Are there stairs to get to the bathroom? Can I meet my friends at that park if it doesn’t have a ramp?
Anderson decided he needed to find a way make accessibility stand out to the average Torontonian. After some thought, he landed on an idea: neon outdoor ramps. He called on some friends and, in 2011, enacted the first neighborhood ramp takeover by bringing 13 brightly-colored ramps to Toronto’s Junction neighborhood.
“I wanted people to start talking about this issue,” Anderson says. “I wanted people to start thinking about great ideas to solve some of these problems that are affecting so many people … I wanted restaurant owners to understand that it’s not just wheelchair users that have a problem with their stepped entryways, but it’s also everyone else that might be joining them. I enjoy going out with my friends to a restaurant, but for every restaurant that has level access, there’s probably two or three restaurants that have a step.”
Ramps serve more than just wheelchair users, Anderson says, but also people using scooters, parents with strollers, postal workers with carts or hand trucks, errand runners with carts, elderly citizens with walkers. Yet they were rarity in the city — seldom added to old buildings and often forgotten when creating new ones — leaving much of the city inaccessible to a huge swath of the population. “The goal of the project was to raise awareness of physical barriers that prevent many people from accessing the spaces that they desire,” says Anderson. “We wanted to use bright colors to attract attention and get people talking about the value of inclusion and the human right to equal access [and] to add a fun and playful element to the project, to try to remove some of that institutional feel that often comes with a barrier-free element like a stainless steel grab bar in the bathroom.”
The response to these ramps was so positive that Anderson created the StopGap Foundation, an effort to promote accessibility through small portable ramps. Once ramps were installed in Junction, requests came in from all over the city, from citizens, business owners and more, and — soon — people from all over Canada were asking for ramps from Anderson and his team.
StopGap’s ramps are not meant to be a lasting solution, Anderson says, but instead a step toward true accessibility. “The existing bylaws prevent ramps like ours from sitting out on the sidewalk on a full-time basis,” he says, “so business owners have to bring out the ramps whenever they are needed.”
How StopGap will really make a difference, he believes, is by changing the way the average citizen sees their city — by encouraging citizens to demand accessibility, for wheelchair users and for everyone else.
To learn more, watch Anderson’s whole talk below: