Many of us go about our days without noticing the barriers that people living with disabilities face. The simple act of going into a store to pick up milk can be challenging or even impossible for people who require a wheelchair to get around. Removing these barriers to make sure everyone can access any space at any time is the mission of the StopGap Foundation.
The foundation is working to bring awareness to the barriers people face through its Community Ramp Project in communities across Canada. Businesses or individuals can request a ramp from a team of local volunteers. The ramps help make spaces accessible and promote the foundation to help educate more people on accessibility issues.
The foundation’s founder, Luke Anderson, has experienced these accessibility barriers firsthand since becoming paralyzed in a mountain biking accident in 2002. Anderson had recently graduated from the University of Waterloo and travelled to British Columbia to go mountain biking with a friend. The interior of British Columbia is home to some of Canada’s best mountain biking trails—one of which involves jumping a 25-foot gap.
“I watched my friend jump the gap successfully. There’s this hunger for adrenaline in an extreme sport like mountain biking, and I wanted to experience that same rush. When I tried it, I came up short on the landing and crashed. I flew over the handlebars and landed headfirst, breaking a couple of vertebrae in my upper spine, which caused a spinal cord injury,” Anderson said.“My life changed completely in a split second.”
Anderson’s injury opened his eyes to barriers he had never noticed before. He said his frustration grew with each instance where a ramp or other accessible feature wasn’t available.
“It seemed like everywhere I went, I was met with challenges and barriers that prevented me from accessing spaces that I wanted to enjoy,” he said.
While Anderson did experience a sense of grief at losing his mobility, it also led to him seeing the world from a new viewpoint. He said he views his situation as a gift that has helped him understand how mobility and accessibility issues affect those living with disabilities and even those who don’t.
“Regardless of whether we live with a disability or not, these issues and the eventual solutions that get put into place to make it easier for me to access spaces make life easier for all of us,” Anderson said.
The idea for the StopGap Foundation came from Anderson not being able to easily access the engineering firm office he was working at. The building had three steps that separated the building from the sidewalk. Each time that Anderson would need to enter or leave the building, someone would have to set up a movable ramp.
“I needed to rely on someone to help set up this heavy folding aluminum ramp. It was a situation that I had to deal with at least twice a day. It added to the frustration that I was already experiencing not being able to access space on an equal basis,” he said.
Anderson said he noticed the ramp was being used by people without disabilities when it was deployed. Delivery people, parents or caregivers pushing strollers, and older adults used the ramp to enter and exit the building.
“All these other people loved using the ramp when it was out. There was a double set of doors to this office building, and the ramp would be deployed on the left side. I’d say nine out of ten people would choose to use the ramp side,” Anderson said. “That just told me and my coworker Michael, who often helped set up the ramp, that we needed to bring these learnings to a broader audience. That was the moment when we knew we had to do something.”
Anderson and Michael saw an opportunity to do something. They started building and painting custom-suited, deployable access ramps in single-step entryways. The goal was two-fold—first, to remove an accessibility barrier and second, to draw attention to accessibility barriers in everyday life.
“We saw the single-step situation as low-hanging fruit. They were barriers that we could solve simply by building an easy-to-construct ramp. We launched our first project in Toronto’s Junction neighbourhood in 2011 with 13 businesses. We thought it’d be a one-off thing, but it was well received, and more requests came in from different communities,” he said.
The Community Ramp Project has spread from The Junction and Kensington Market to communities across Canada. The foundation provides local community organizers with the resources to engage with businesses and provide ramps to continue spreading the message that accessibility is an issue for everyone.
“We all have a human right to equal access. It’s something we all deserve.”
Visit stopgap.ca to learn more about the foundation and how you can bring the Community Ramp Project to your city.