Montreal accessibility accessible

Montreal needs more accessibility and inclusivity for people with disabilities

“We’re here, we’re people with disabilities. And we’re part of this city, too.”

“Access plays a major role in my day to day life,” says Marie-Eve Veilleux, a wheelchair user who lives in Rosemont-La-Petite-Patrie. “Every time I see an ad for a new store, for a public event or for the 10 coolest restaurants in Montreal, I systematically ask myself if it’s accessible. More often than not, I’m disappointed.”

At one point or another, most of us may have noticed the sheer number of stairs and out-of-order escalators in certain Montreal metro stations and wondered how a senior, someone in a wheelchair, or a young parent with a stroller can possibly navigate them. However, most of us probably don’t notice those two to three stairs we may have to take to enter a store or whether a building has wheelchair-accessible doors. Those with no added obstacles in the form of mobility issues often fail to understand how lack of accessibility in our public spaces fundamentally affects people’s quality of life. Until, of course, someone helps them notice. 

More people impacted than we realize

“I became friends with a neighbour who has a disability and it suddenly hit me when I walked up and down Wellington Street,” says Udayan Sen, cofounder of Action Accessible, a citizen group advocating for disability rights. “People say that Wellington is such an amazing street, and it is, but I’d walk it and go into a store, and I’d think, ‘Well, my friend can’t come here if he wants to,’ and there are only three places he can go to. For him it’s a whole strategic-planning challenge to figure out just how to go shopping. That made me far more aware of the challenges.”

Because public space is arranged in such a way as to exclude the participation of people with disabilities, explains Sen, they can’t participate, therefore they become invisible. “It’s a vicious circle, and it just reinforces the fact that they don’t use these spaces, or it gives the false impression that they’re this miniscule percentage of the population when, in fact, they’re not.”

Veilleux says the numbers are higher than people realize. “During the latest census, 16% of residents in the Montreal region answered that they have at least one functional limitation that affects them for more than six months,” she says. “And that’s just people who self-identify as having a limitation. It’s probably higher than that (Sen says it’s closer to 23%) when you factor in people who are elderly or suffer from a chronic illness who may not identify as having a functional limitation but who may be impacted.” 

Making businesses & buildings more accessible

Despite government programs designed to make more businesses accessible, Montreal shops, cafés and restaurants remain largely inaccessible to those with mobility issues. 

Contrary to expectations, the $1.6-million Programme d’aide à l’accessibilité des commerces (PAAC), designed to make more businesses wheelchair-accessible, never funded 40 projects a year. From April 2017 to April 2018, this little-known program only received 11 applications and only 7 of them were granted for a grand total of $50,586.75.

“It’s a resounding failure,” says a disability rights advocate who spoke on condition of anonymity, “but the Plante administration seems to be working on solutions to improve its attractiveness. It’s a dreadfully bureaucratic program.” He wants to see more pilot projects in Montreal like the one just announced in Quebec City, which will allow merchants to benefit from professional support to improve their practices in terms of universal accessibility.

“The city needs a broad-based incentive program,” he says. “But most of all, it urgently needs better bylaws and regulations to speed things up.”

“We would like to see all levels of government do more,” says Veilleux. “It’s costly, we understand, but a major part of the population is affected. And we need to build this critical mass to make sure that different levels of government don’t ignore us.”

The city has more power to create its own framework and impose its own standards over and above the Quebec construction code, which often provides loopholes for owners unwilling to make changes.

“Often the decision to do the necessary conversions to make the property more accessible is not in the hands of the business owner,” says Sen, “but in the hands of the property owner, who doesn’t want to spend the money. You (the city) have to decide that it’s a priority and make these changes.” 

Demanding more accessible public transit 

As for accessibility in the Montreal metro system — which doesn’t just benefit those in wheelchairs, but also seniors and families with young children — has improved but not nearly as much as it should. The city now has 26 accessible metro stations, an improvement but far from ideal. 

“Much remains to be done to render the 68-station metro network accessible,” says the disability rights advocate. “On the face of it, there seems to have been a flurry of newly accessible stations over the past few years, but it’s not going to last because we’re reaching the end of that program where a lot of money was given by the Canadian government to make the changes. It’s hard to determine what the future holds exactly in terms of new stations and what the plan is moving forward.” 

Regarding paratransit, the STM recently reached an agreement with the eight taxi industry service providers who carry out about 88% of trips in its paratransit service. This agreement will prevent the situation from deteriorating further due to government underfunding and the CAQ’s Uber-friendly law. “It’s a positive outcome,” he says, “and I think that the community is thankful despite the remaining irritants that come with the service.”

Veilleux says Montreal is better than some cities when it comes to accessible public transit, but worse than others. “Quebec City is way worse,” she says. “Ontario is ahead because they have a law (the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, passed in 2005), Toronto’s metro is way ahead of us in terms of accessibility, and the city is ahead in terms of store accessibility as well. We can’t compare our situation to the U.S. either because they’ve had the ADA for over 25 years now (the Americans with Disabilities Act, enacted in 1990), and it’s just built into the reflexes of making things accessible. Even in New York, with older buildings, you will rarely find buildings with a lack of accessibility.” 

“The fundamental reality is that Quebec cities remain ‘creatures of the province,’” says the unnamed disability rights advocate, “meaning their jurisdiction is strictly limited in a number of fields that are a fundamental part of any solution to the lack of accessibility in Montreal and elsewhere (urban planning, building code, architecture, etc.). These man-made obstacles are supremely infuriating. But this battle needs to be fought at the provincial level. And I don’t think the government (or the opposition for that matter) is interested in changing the rules of the game. As a result, the status quo will likely prevail for the foreseeable future.”

Slow progress, but progress nonetheless 

He remains realistic but recognizes the progress being made. “Things are creeping along,” he says. “I choose to be optimistic, but I remain rational about what can actually be accomplished within the current framework. What is a little more encouraging are the recommendations that came out of the four-year Chantier en accessibilité universelle the city started in 2020. The main recommendation is to set up an Accessibility Office within the administration.”

Raising awareness is a key reason why some disability rights activists have entered politics. Laurence Parent, a borough councillor for Montreal’s De Lorimier district, who holds an PhD in Critical Disability Studies, has been a wheelchair user for the past 20 years. She’s very familiar with the barriers faced by a significant portion of the population. 

Since 2017, she’s been a member of the STM board of directors and is involved in the Accessibility and Disabled Persons sub-committee. Her article, 33 actions for an anti-ableist Montreal, published in the Canadian Journal of Disability Studies, outlines a clear vision of how to make this city more accessible to all. 

“Accessibility is a question of human rights for disabled people,” she writes, “which makes the difference between their inclusion and marginalization.” Her proposed actions include adopting stronger legislation to eliminate obstacles, prioritizing inclusive and sustainable urbanism to fight sustainable ableism, improving the accessibility of sidewalks in Montreal, recognizing Transport adapté as an integral part of Montreal’s public transit system and investing more in it and making the taxi fleet more accessible. 

A Promenade with Judy this Saturday

Judy Heumann

In an effort to raise more awareness about the lack of accessibility in Montreal and to honour Judy Heumann — a civil rights and human rights pioneer, known as the “mother of the disabilities rights movement,” who passed away this past March — the first PROMENADE DE JUDY is taking place this Saturday, June 17 on Promenade Wellington in Verdun. Everyone is welcome and no reservations are required. For more details, the link is here

“We want to commemorate her life, her fight, her accomplishments,” says Sen. “And part of the idea was to occupy public space as a reminder that it’s for everyone, even if it’s not always designed for everyone. We’re here, we’re people with disabilities and allies. And we’re part of this city, too.” 

“Disabled people also use these streets, and we want politicians and commercial development associations to think of us when planning,” says Veilleux. 

This inaugural Judy’s Walk is a trial run, and hopefully one of many to come. “We plan on doing one each month this summer,” Sen says. “I would personally like to see this become an annual event.”

Local advocacy groups Ex Aequeo and Action Accessible offer a space to discuss issues of accessibility and ableism in Quebec and are valuable resources for those who want to learn more or get involved in advocacy work.

Accessibility as a human rights issue

Ultimately, these Montreal disability advocates remind us, accessibility is a human rights issue. “If we’re not all able to enjoy and benefit from our rights, then none of us are,” says Sen. “These are rights guaranteed in both the Quebec and Canadian charters. Lack of accessibility is a violation of their charter rights. The disconnect is between understanding that this is in fact the case and finding the political will to devote the resources that are necessary.”

And, fundamentally, it’s about being able to feel like one is a part of this city, too.

“Searching on Google Maps and seeing one or two steps almost everywhere are microaggressions for me,” says Veilleux. 

“I can’t count on public spaces being accessible to my needs and it affects my sense of belonging. So, when a space is or becomes accessible, I can’t help but want to celebrate it even if I know it should be normal as they’re simply just respecting basic human rights.” ■

Read more weekly editorial columns by Toula Drimonis.