Climbing Parliament Hill—on wheels

Watch above: Tens of thousands of Canadians are expected to descend on Parliament Hill to celebrate Canada Day, but that’s easier said than done for people with disabilities. Vassy Kapelos explains.

I first realized there were problems with Parliament Hill’s wheelchair accessibility last winter, when I was supposed to attend a talk there for one of my journalism classes.

I was already in a terrible mood, running late and trying to rush. The February wind whipped brutally at my face, and I was determined to get inside as fast as possible.

I sped through the first gate I saw, not pausing to check whether it was too steep for me. My trusty power wheelchair had always been able to get me up any hill I cared to take.

Any hill, it turned out, except Parliament Hill. About three-quarters of the way up the ramp, my chair suddenly began a treacherous slide backwards.

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The brakes held, so I didn’t go flying down. But when I tried to back up, my chair wouldn’t cooperate with me either. I was stuck.

Eventually, a tourist rescued me, holding on to my chair so that I had enough stability to get back down.

A House of Commons security guard saw me staring at the ramps, and pointed out which one was accessible as though it was obvious. Maybe it should have been, but a prominent sign might have helped. (There is a sign, but only at the top of the ramp.)

I was half an hour late for the talk.

I’ve been in a wheelchair all my life, but only started my master’s degree in journalism last fall.

My cerebral palsy doesn’t cause too many problems for me when I’m out and about, but now I’m supposed to get into places ordinary Canadians can’t access.

READ MORE: N.S. election could delay proposed accessibility regulation for MLA offices

When I came to Global News to join the Ottawa bureau for the summer, I was a little nervous things might not go smoothly. I had figured out which ramp I needed to take to get onto the Hill—fellow wheeled travellers, it’s the Metcalfe St. entrance—but I had no idea what it would be like trying to work there day-to-day.

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It was easier and harder than I feared. All wheelchair users should be so lucky as to work in a place with marble floors. Every Hill staff member I approached for help was gracious and friendly.

But there were little things, too, like the gorgeous heritage doors of East Block that require security guards to open. The first time I went there to cover a House committee, I didn’t know where the entrance I needed was, so my assignment producer came with me.

We stared at each other awkwardly as we summoned help on the intercom, and two security guards began the painstaking process of undoing the multiple locks.

The theme song to Jeopardy! started playing in my head when a few of them got stuck.

I was only 15 minutes late that time, so I had made progress.

WATCH: One extremely Tough Mudder completes course in his wheelchair

But I couldn’t help wondering if tiny obstacles like these would stand in the way of my ambitions.

If a job covering Parliament became available, why would a bureau hire someone who can’t sit in the press gallery because a wheelchair can’t get there?

A big part of our job is interviewing MPs and senators in the house foyer—what if I needed a quote and couldn’t get there because the elevator doors were cordoned off to discourage wandering tourists?

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I decided I had to talk to Conservative MP Steven Fletcher. The former cabinet minister and veteran MP was the first quadriplegic ever to be elected to the House.

I thought he might know what I was going through, even if it was from the other side.

I didn’t have to work very hard to get Fletcher, because he zoomed up to me in the foyer and challenged me to a race immediately. We haven’t had it yet, but for the record, I think I could take him.

Journalists are used to chasing after what we want.

Fletcher told me a lot has changed since he was elected in 2004, but said he doesn’t think the changes go far enough.

He said he is excited about the sweeping renovations happening in the parliamentary precinct right now.

“This is a once-in-a-hundred-year opportunity to include universal design in the buildings,” Fletcher said.

He added that he hopes the renovations go farther than just updating the buildings to comply with the existing building code, which he refers to as “the lowest common denominator.”

Fletcher said he believes the buildings should be an example of accessibility for all Canadians.

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“I’ve been on top of glaciers in my wheelchair, I’ve been underground a mile in my wheelchair. If glaciers and mines can be made accessible, we can make man-made buildings in Canada accessible too,” he said.

To see how far we’ve come, I spoke with Collinda Joseph, a paraplegic who was a summer tour guide in 1988. Joseph said she never had a problem once she got inside, but navigating outside was a different story.

Joseph showed me how the curbs on the Hill have been cut to accommodate people using mobility devices and those with visual impairments.

“Curb cuts can be a significant hazard for people with visual disabilities if they’re not warning them about the fact that they’re about to step on to the road. But for someone who uses a mobility device, a curb cut is access to the sidewalk,” Joseph explained.

The bumps leading up to the level curb cut make it safe for everyone, because people with visual impairments can feel them under their canes, and no one in a wheelchair will get stuck on them.

Joseph and her family plan to attend Canada Day celebrations on the Hill this year, something they have only been able to do recently because there wasn’t space for Joseph to sit with her husband and children.

“It meant that I would have to be separated from my family. In the crush of people, I never felt safe. We never felt accommodated,” Joseph said.

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But now there is a raised platform where people in wheelchairs can watch the show, with room for their families and friends.

So I can see things changing. You can get up the hill safely in a chair, if you know where to go. Joseph can enjoy Canada Day with her whole family.

Fletcher has made Parliament more accessible just by his presence and the advocacy he has done to make sure he can represent his constituents.

As for me, I will chase any politician I want.

Sarah Trick is an intern with Global News’ Ottawa bureau

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