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Toronto preschool for kids with disabilities can’t accommodate staff who use wheelchairs

Toronto preschool for kids with disabilities can’t accommodate staff who use wheelchairs
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As a wheelchair user with cerebral palsy, Ashleigh Judge has faced barriers all her life. But the Toronto early childhood educator didn’t expect to be turned down for a job in a preschool that serves children with disabilities because the building is inaccessible.

“It’s not the first time I have faced this problem,” said Judge, 33. “But it’s the first time it was so blatant. It was really disappointing, especially coming from an agency that should be doing better.”

Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital has been operating Play and Learn Nursery School in a city of Toronto building on Eglinton Ave. W. for 33 years. Although the Forest Hill-area program is on the main floor, it does not have an accessible washroom, and the classrooms are located off a hallway that is too narrow for an adult wheelchair.

Judge says she is happy to use the accessible washroom in the library next door, but wonders why the city’s leading agency serving children with disabilities has done so little to make the learning space more accessible.

Stewart Wong, a spokesperson for Holland Bloorview, says the hospital’s main campus near Bayview and Lawrence Aves. is fully accessible, as is a community-based preschool in Scarborough. But he acknowledges the Play and Learn site is not.

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“We have spoken to the city about accessibility issues,” he said. “We have worked really hard to be as inclusive as possible in everything that we do. But working in buildings that are decades old presents a challenge.”

The hospital has not considered moving Play and Learn, Wong said, but would “welcome a conversation to explore more accessible options.”

Judge called the office of area Councillor Mike Colle in early April with her concerns but never heard back.

When the Star contacted Colle’s office last week, the councillor said he sympathizes with Judge.

“People with disabilities have enough problems without having difficulty getting jobs because buildings are inaccessible,” said Colle, who represents Ward 8 (Eglinton-Lawrence).

As part of a city audit of the building last year, the Play and Learn site has been targeted for an accessibility upgrade in early 2020, he said.

“I don’t know if Holland Bloorview knew that, but the city is on track to make those upgrades in January or February next year,” he said. “I will certainly be keeping an eye on it and make sure our facilities manager also knows there is an interest here.”

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Judge is pleased the city is planning to renovate the building, but is frustrated it has taken so long, noting she first raised the issue with Holland Bloorview in 2017 during its “Dear Everybody” accessibility awarenenss campaign, and that the province introduced accessibility legislation in 2005.

“This is the first I am hearing about it,” she said about the planned retrofit. “And you’d think Holland Bloorview would have told me, if they knew about it. It makes me wonder if the city is doing this just because (the Star) called.”

Judge has an honours BA in psychology from York University along with Seneca College certificates in rehabilitation services and life skills coaching. In 2011, she obtained her early childhood education diploma from George Brown College and has just completed certification as an early childhood resource consultant to work with kids who have special needs.

Over the years, Judge has worked at March break and summer camps at Holland Bloorview and logged more than 500 volunteer hours at the hospital.

“I grew up in the system. I know what it’s like and I think I have a lot to offer,” she said. “I also think I would be a good role model for the children — and their parents.”

Judge says she is well qualified and physically able to work in a preschool setting. She has worked part-time jobs with the city’s EarlyOn child and family centres since 2015. She has no trouble picking up small children and can change diapers using a lower change table.

“When I saw a chance to work at Holland Bloorview, I jumped at it,” she said of the two permanent part-time jobs that were posted at Play and Learn last December.

According to a memo, shared with the Star, from the preschool staff, Judge “gave an excellent interview” for the position, “has a lot to offer children and families at Holland Bloorview,” and would be “well suited for a wide variety of roles working with both children and families.”

Judge says she told the preschool she could rearrange her school schedule to start when needed. But staff told her the building’s inaccessible hallways were an insurmountable barrier to Judge’s employment there.

Undeterred, Judge asked if the program could accommodate her in its accessible Scarborough location. And if there were no positions there, she asked if the hospital would commit to offering her the next position that became vacant that matched her skill set.

“I also told them I would be willing to help them advocate to renovate the Eglinton Ave. location,” Judge said.

Judge says her advocacy offer was ignored and that her request for placement in the next available position was met with a long email from human resources, telling her the hospital follows strict hiring protocols and procedures and that she would have to apply like everyone else.

“It was pretty frustrating. What happens when the kids they’re serving now get older and they want to come back and get a job with Holland Bloorview?” she said. “Advocacy and accessibility and the need for inclusiveness doesn’t stop when you turn 18.”

The hospital doesn’t comment publicly on personnel matters, Wong said. But he said it has specialized staff teams that work with job applicants and current employees to make the workplace accessible. The hospital is also committed to helping youth find meaningful employment as adults and offers a wide range of services, including volunteer opportunities, employment training programs and supported job placements, he said.

“We have lots of programming that opens up a world of inclusion for persons with disability.”

Accessibility advocate David Lepofsky praised Judge for trying to hold Holland Bloorview and the city to account, but said the problem ultimately lies with Queen’s Park and its lack of action on the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA).

As noted in a government review of the legislation by former lieutenant-governor David Onley, people with disabilities face “soul-crushing” barriers in their daily lives, particularly when trying to access public and private buildings. And without a renewed commitment and immediate action, Ontario would not meet the law’s goal of making the province fully accessible for its 1.9 million residents with disabilities by 2025, he said.

Onley’s report , released in March, calls for stronger enforcement and repeated earlier calls for the province to develop new accessibility standards for both new construction and building retrofits, Lepofsky noted.

“The government has announced no plans to implement the report’s spectrum of recommendations, even though (Accessibility Minister) Raymond Cho said in the legislature that David Onley did a ‘marvellous job’ and that Ontario has only progressed 30 per cent towards its target of becoming fully accessible to people with disabilities,” Lepofsky said.

Although Ontario’s April budget earmarked $1.3 million over two years for the Rick Hansen Foundation to help finance a private accessibility certification process, Lepofsky said public money should be spent to fund Onley’s recommendations.

“The Onley report recommended important and much-needed measures to address disability barriers in the built environment that the Ford government has not yet agreed to take,” he said. “It did not recommend spending scarce public money on a private accessibility certification process.”
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