A video widely shared on social media showing a York University student struggling to navigate a campus sidewalk covered in snow in her wheelchair is raising broader concerns about sidewalk snow clearing in Toronto.
The 17-second video was posted on Twitter Thursday afternoon by Osgoode Hall law student Ali Imrie as she tried to make her way to her on-campus home near Sentinel and The Pond roads at the university’s Keele Campus after a school seminar. Imrie can be seen in her wheelchair as a friend struggles to push her through a university-owned sidewalk near her home.
“People were really outraged and really frustrated. On one hand, it was really validating for me because I was frustrated and it was a nice reminder that I wasn’t overreacting and I wasn’t being demanding. But on the other hand, it kind of shows how little a lot of people know about what it’s like to live with a disability day-to-day,” Imrie told Global News Friday afternoon.
“It’s one thing for me to physically get from point A to point B, but we need to be aiming for more than that. People with disabilities deserve to be able to be independent and to go where they want to go and to be able to do it in a dignified manner, and my friend throwing all of her body weight at me from behind trying to push my wheelchair isn’t dignified.”
On Monday and early Tuesday, Toronto was hit with a large snow storm. Imrie said a friend sent her pictures of the sidewalk she uses on a regular basis, which was covered in snow. She said she sent the pictures to the university to ask if she would be able to get to school. However, Imrie said she didn’t hear anything back. She said she decided to stay home from school on Wednesday out of fear of getting stranded in the snow.
However, Imrie needed to attend class on Thursday since it wasn’t being recorded to watch later. She said a friend came to help her get to Osgoode Hall Law School. Imrie said they approached university officials to raise the issue, but noted they weren’t able to make much progress. So two friends escorted her home. She asked one of her friends to film part of the commute in order to share it with the school at a later time to help demonstrate her concerns.
“On the way home, I decided that I think sometimes the photos don’t really show everyone kind of how difficult it is to get through snow in a wheelchair. You can see the snow in the photos, but if you haven’t experienced it,” Imrie said.
“This is not really any different than it often is in the snow and also this isn’t different than a lot of people’s daily realities.”
Imrie said she has raised her accessibility concerns with multiple offices, including the university’s grounds maintenance staff and student accessibility services. She said while staff have been generally good at reacting for the two years she has attended York University, there’s a lot of work to be done at proactively fixing problems raised.
“The bigger problem for me is they haven’t made that transition to being proactive … their intentions are there, but it’s a difficult thing to keep the whole campus clear,” Imrie said.
“York is a really big campus and they don’t have the resources to keep everything clear all the time and I understand that, but I think there needs to be ways to prioritize areas that students with disabilities use.
“I am entirely dependent on other people for my mobility and having to schedule which friends will come meet me before and after school to go to class … it definitely does have an emotional impact.”
York University spokesperson Barbara Joy told Global News in a statement staff have been out doing snow clearing around the campus since the major storm. She said staff are aware of Imrie’s concerns and have worked to respond to those issues.
“The path she uses has been cleared and salted again today and we have done several visual checks today to ensure the path stayed clear. We will do better going forward and will continue to stay in touch to ensure her needs continue to be met,” Joy wrote.
“The University is committed to preventing, minimizing and removing the barriers to participation by persons with disabilities in the activities of the University including employment, study or social activity. We also offer an accessible shuttle bus service on campus for students with mobility issues.”
For Imrie, she said the snow clearing and accessibility issues she experienced are part of a broader issue. She said the York University sidewalk issue has been amplified because nearby City of Toronto-owned sidewalks haven’t been cleared.
“Everyone has really been taken aback by this video and really mad at York, but this isn’t a York problem — this is an everywhere problem,” Imrie said while calling on the City of Toronto to extend sidewalk snow clearing to every municipally owned sidewalk.
She also said she is fortunate enough to have a strong network of friends to help her, and noted not everyone is in the same position. Imrie said clear sidewalks aren’t just important for people who use a wheelchair, but also for those who have “hidden” disabilities.
“If you have significant joint pain, if you have a vision impairment, the snow can also be a very big barrier with those conditions. The wheelchair might be the most visible indicator of not being able to use (the sidewalk), but it’s definitely not the only reason,” Imrie said.
Under the City of Toronto’s bylaws, property owners are required to clear “steps, landings, walks, driveways, parking spaces, ramps and similar areas of a yard” of snow and ice within 24 hours of snow falling in order to provide “safe access and egress for persons and vehicles.”
However, Imrie’s situation is not unique. On Twitter, people, including Imrie, have been sharing their own experiences with difficulties getting around.
In reference to the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA), the provincial legislation that governs accessibility, users have shared their own experiences using the hashtag #AODAFail.
“Here’s a mind boggling access barrier. It’s super cold, so the #TTC at Dundas/@CFtoeatonCentre has blocked off the automatic door. Seems to me we need to be MORE accessible when the weather is poor, not less. #AODAfail #a11y @TTChelps,” Odelia Bay recently tweeted, showing pictures of a blocked off TTC subway station access.
Hamilton residents have been highlighting many areas in their city where snow and ice have made travelling near impossible.
“@cityofhamilton this is the situation at Barnesdale and King (SW corner). Still dangerous crossing through shoe sized gap #AODAFail,” user eileenrileyphoto tweeted on Wednesday with a picture showing a foot-wide clearance for people to cross the intersection.
Meanwhile, Imrie said she hopes her experience will mean more proactive engagement by institutions and the inclusion of persons with disabilities in planning processes.