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Luke Anderson is a champion for accessibility; he is the founder and executive director of The StopGap Foundation.
Have you always lived in Toronto? If not where are you from?
I grew up in Stouffville just north of the city and I also lived in Switzerland for a year when I was younger. I did my civil engineering degree at the University of Waterloo and I had the opportunity to do a work term in both Calgary and Vancouver. When I graduated, I moved to British Columbia. I’ve also lived in a number of places across Canada.
How is living in Toronto different?
The time I’ve spent in other places was at a time in my life when I wasn’t using a wheelchair to get around. I’ve noticed a lot of changes in the city over the past 16 years as a wheelchair user. There’s an influx of people and with that comes more development, more towers, and more townhomes. These new developments don’t match what myself and other people with disabilities would like to experience with respect to the removal of barriers. What remains is the lack of adequate access to spaces.
Tell me about your role.
Sixteen years ago, I found myself in a life-changing situation. After a spinal cord injury, I was all of a sudden introduced to a world that’s not well-suited for someone who uses a wheelchair. Over time, I became increasingly frustrated with the barriers that prevented me from accessing spaces and service on an equal basis. I noticed new buildings were being built with barriers. Although we have a human right to equal access, for some reason, it’s not being adhered to. The catalyst which led me to what I’m doing now is the frustration I encountered. I was burning a lot of energy by being frustrated and I thought, how can I convert that energy into action to create a real, lasting change. I realized we needed to develop a community of problem-solvers to overcome the issue. I wanted people to realize the value of having spaces that everyone can access. StopGap is all about raising awareness of the importance of accessibility, inclusion, and barrier-free spaces.
What do you see as an area of opportunity in the city?
I think the biggest area of opportunity is to ensure Toronto is universally designed. That means creating an environment that meets the needs of everyone who wants to use it. When something is designed to enable someone with a disability, everyone benefits. For example, an elevator at a TTC station helps a person who uses a wheelchair, it also helps someone with a big suitcase who is headed to the airport, a parent pushing a stroller, or a person who is elderly and cannot manage steps. While they may not be visibly disabled, they still benefit from universal design.
We need to adjust society’s portrayal, perspective, and understanding of people with disabilities. Someone who is pushing a stroller has limited mobility because they’ve been disabled by the device they’re pushing around. Similarly, a person who’s taking a big suitcase to the airport doesn’t have the ability to do so easily and they’ve been temporarily disabled by the situation. In the context of universal design, putting an elevator in a residence, commercial, or public space, for example, benefits everyone.
What are some other examples of universal design?
Not many people know that the touchscreen phone was designed to empower people with disabilities. Electric toothbrushes, emails, and curb cut intersections (curbs that are cut down to enable smooth passage from the sidewalk to the street) are universal designs we rely on daily, yet we may not know they were originally intended to make life easier for a person with a disability. Now, they make life easier for everyone.
As an engineer, you must have an interesting perspective on the issue.
Engineers solve problems and tackle issues. Not being able to access space equally is an issue that isn’t Toronto-centric; it’s global, and it affects us all. If it doesn’t now, it will affect everyone at some point in their lives as they encounter shifts through the movement and aging process. There isn’t enough being done to remove barriers and the progress made has been slow. Over time, my frustration with not being able to access space pushed me to do something about it. As an engineer, I’ve made a move towards developing a solution.
What’s the solution? Can you walk me through the process?
The solution comes from eight core principles. They are: frustration, awareness-raising, being of service, building a critical mass, disruption, education, fun, and putting people first.
Before finding a solution, you need to identify the pinch-point, or the frustration around the issue. It doesn’t have to be in the context of accessibility, it can be any frustrating situation. Once the issue is identified, you have to start somewhere and raising awareness is a good place to start. Spreading awareness-raising messages creates a critical mass and builds a community of support.
The solution for us is policy change. Our first community ramp project was run by volunteers who built bright, colourful ramps and supplied them to local businesses. Not only did it improve accessibility, it raised awareness about inclusion. We’ve since launched similar projects in different communities around the world. Through the ramps, our events, social media, and team-building for corporate groups, we’ve built a community of support and a critical mass of understanding about why accessibility is so important. All of a sudden, we started to see changes happening on a legislative, governmental level. That really speaks to the grassroots nature of change. Change doesn’t happen from the top down, it happens on the community engagement level.
Once you raise awareness how do you convert that into action?
It’s important to offer content, services, and work in general towards the issue at no cost. Most of us want to be engaged in our communities to make them better. Offering something of value at no cost, whether it’s our time or expertise means being of service in the name of overcoming an obstacle. Forming a community of support pushes momentum forward. Eventually you hit a critical mass that snowballs the issue towards a solution. Being of service builds engagement and is truly one of the most enriching experiences we can have our lives.
How do you sustain the momentum?
We publish educational content on all of our awareness-raising channels; education and awareness are linked. Then there’s being disruptive. In order to create the change we want to see and experience in whatever our issue is, there needs to be a disruptive approach. If there isn’t, the chances of the status quo shifting are greatly diminished. When we think of disruption we often think of Uber and how it disrupted the transportation industry, for example. Our ramps aren’t allowed on city property because they don’t abide by local encroachment bylaws so that’s the disruptive part of our work. As I’m sure you’ve seen around the city, everybody still leaves the ramps out and the city doesn’t bother them.
Wow. I had no idea there was a legal barrier to having an access ramp at your business.
You’re not allowed to leave flower planters, sandwich boards, cafe furniture or ramps in front of your storefront. So, the disruption we’re causing to the system is through identifying the access need and addressing the tension between that need and our current municipal bylaws. It’s particularly important here in Ontario because we’ve set out to become barrier-free by 2025 and we have a long way to go. We’re living with these antiquated city bylaws that get in the way of the provincial legislation.
It’s also important to make sure the work takes on a fun approach which can be challenging with different types of problem-solving. At StopGap, we use bright colours and a fun, humorous tone on social media. It’s simple, people want to be a part of something fun instead of something that isn’t. It helps us welcome more people on board.
Let’s talk about putting people first, what does that mean to you?
Putting people-first reminds us that we’re all humans with equally valuable lived experience. No matter who we’re communicating with, they should receive equal treatment. It means using encouraging language that puts the person first and then whatever disability or issue they have going on in their lives after. It’s also about using symbolism that portrays the person first and then what they have going on in their lives. The existing access symbol, for example, shows someone using a wheelchair that looks really static and helpless. The new proposed access symbol shows someone in a more independent, forward-moving position.
Solving a problem should include people from as many diverse backgrounds, representations, and lived experiences as possible coming together to co-create a solution. Otherwise, the perceived solution might work for the group of people at the table but it might exclude or alienate others who weren’t part of the process. Marginalized groups don’t always have access to a seat at the table. If they’re not at the table that doesn’t mean that their perspective isn’t valued. Creating change involves removing barriers for people and giving them an opportunity to contribute.
Did you always think that you would be doing this?
No, not at all. When we did our first project in 2011 we didn’t think it would explode into what it’s become. We just thought it would be a one-off project but it’s clearly bigger than that. As we took on more projects in Toronto, we heard from people who wanted to bring StopGap to their communities across Canada, and now outside of our borders. We had to figure out how to mobilize advocates remotely, so we pulled together a toolkit we share for free with anyone who wants to get involved. It speaks to the core principle of being of service and sharing our knowledge and expertise at no cost. I learned early on how important it is to be of service. Progress slows down, if not completely stalls without it; it just doesn’t work. I didn’t know StopGap would take off the way it has. It’s clear what we’re doing, and the way we’re doing it works. It’s successful and that feels really good.
Were there any marketing wins?
A couple of years ago, the city threatened a business owner with a fine because of their ramp. The media picked up on it and all the major outlets wrote about it. It turned into a PR nightmare for the city and raised awareness about accessibility. It was free publicity for us and shortly after, the city passed a motion to investigate how our ramps can live on city property on a more permanent basis.
What was the outcome of that?
Nothing yet, but it is a step in the right direction. Other municipalities have started to adjust their policies. That’s a big win. The other big win is that we’re inspiring people to take action. There’s now over 1600 ramps across the country. That’s a big deal!
Has anyone influenced you throughout the process?
I’ve never met him but my great grandfather lost an arm and a leg in WWI. He was really young, 18 or 19, and he still lived a full life, had a family, children, and a job. He was able to overcome the barriers he faced at a time when I can’t even imagine what living with a disability would have been like. I think about him and the life he had, the obstacles that were in his way, and how he overcame them. It’s really inspirational! I also get a lot of inspiration from Terry Fox and Rick Hansen. They’re two people with disabilities who endeavoured to find a solution to what they found frustrating in their lives.
What do you think companies can do to enhance their impact?
Companies should get engaged in their communities whether it’s related to their work or not. Giving back is a really important part of doing business regardless of what the contribution looks like. It could be partnering with a local charity or raising funds for an initiative or school. There are so many to get involved and make a difference. We welcome corporate volunteers to be a part of what we do. The ramps they assist with building go to businesses in the neighbourhood courtesy of that company’s support.
Do you have any advice for other people who want to follow their purpose?
We can always make time in our lives to volunteer and make a difference. If you’re thinking about sparking change, know that you’re not alone. If you’re finding frustration with an issue in your life, chances are, there are other people out there that are similarly frustrated with the same issue. Move to the next step because there is a community of followers, advocates and supporters out there who want to be a part of what you’re doing. It is the act of moving to the next step that most of us don’t bother with.