4 min

Accessibility and Toronto’s Church-Wellesley Village

Can you party, shop and play in the Village if you’re gay and in a wheelchair?

Some businesses have devised other solutions to their accessibility barriers, including Woody’s and Flash, which welcome disabled patrons through back entrances. Credit: Rob Salerno

One of the defining features of Toronto’s gay village is its Victorian heritage architecture, with narrow walk-up or below-ground storefronts. For many, this type of building is a hallmark of the neighbourhood and a point of pride in a rapidly changing city. But if you’re in a wheelchair, all those stairs can seem like a barrier to being part of the community.

“It’s mostly not accessible,” says Andrew Morrison-Gurza, a gay disability activist and blogger who lives in Richmond Hill. “I don’t think the bar owners are trying to exclude anybody, openly, but by not having access, that’s what’s happening. By having access it would allow people with disabilities who are queer to meet other people and for other people to see them there.”

But the accessibility issue is complex. Under Ontario law, all businesses must make some accommodation for disabled customers who want to access their premises, whether that includes physical changes to their buildings or simpler case-by-case accommodations, such as having an employee help a customer into the premises.

Since January 2012, the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act has required all businesses to create an accessibility plan and train their staff on it. Businesses employing more than 20 people are also required to file their plan with the Ministry of Community and Social Services and post their plan in a place where customers can read it.

The Ontario Building Code also requires building owners to make accessibility improvements whenever a property undergoes significant renovations or changes its purpose. But owners can get around these requirements where accessibility improvements would be impossible or damage heritage or cultural elements of a building. Many Village businesses are not required to install improvements for these reasons.

Still, many businesses on Church Street are fully accessible. In a recent survey of businesses in the Church-Wellesley neighbourhood, Xtra found that 46 out of 94 businesses had barrier-free front entrances — although few had buttons to open their doors and not all had accessible bathrooms. Many of these businesses are located in relatively new buildings or have been recently renovated for a chain business, like Second Cup or TD Canada Trust.

Some businesses have devised other solutions to their accessibility barriers. Both Woody’s and Flash will welcome disabled patrons through the back entrance off the Alexander Place alley. Woody’s will also allow disabled patrons to access the staff washroom on its main floor, although they can’t officially call it accessible because the washroom’s door is too narrow for most wheelchairs.

Woody’s manager Dean Odorico acknowledges it’s an imperfect solution. The rear entrance isn’t manned, so first a patron has to let the bouncer at the front know he’s coming or call ahead. The alley is also poorly maintained, full of potholes and there’s no sidewalk, so guests must manoeuvre around trucks and cars using the lane; it’s where businesses store their trash, and there are no signs in the back.

“It isn’t glamorous, and we can’t say it’s accessible,” Odorico says. “The biggest thing is that our staff are trained to help the customers.”

But Black Eagle owner Carlos Fileti says his disabled patrons prefer to be carried in through the front doors. Some patrons think it’s less dignified to be sent to the back entrance, which is also an option, he says.

“We accommodate anyone who comes. We can’t install a ramp, but we can bring anyone inside,” he says.

Fileti says he’d like to see the city and the owners improve Alexander Place so that it’s safer and easier for patrons to use it as an accessible entrance to the businesses.

For businesses where the store itself is incidental to the service, owners are finding other ways to serve disabled customers.

Chester Wong, who co-owns the health food and coffee shop Fuel Plus, says he encourages disabled patrons to phone in their orders and a staff member will meet them in front of the store with their order and a wireless credit/debit card reader to pay.

“We’re very health-conscious, and we want to serve the community,” Wong says, noting that his storefront is a grandfathered heritage building with no room to install a ramp or lift. “We believe it goes beyond movement and accessibility. We always ask, ‘How do we get you what you need?’”

But Morrison-Gurza says businesses should be more proactive about indicating that they are accessible to the disabled. He was unaware that Woody’s and Flash even had rear entrances, and Woody’s Yelp page says it is not wheelchair accessible.

“I went around Church Street, and all I saw were the huge stairs,” he says. “They need to advertise it more openly now in the club and social media sites to put it out there. It would be good if it was just common knowledge.”

While many disabled people are aware that the law requires businesses to serve them, many are not, and newcomers and visitors to Ontario shouldn’t be expected to know, Morrison-Gurza says. Having signs outside a business that explain what accessibility options are available would be helpful. Because many disabled people have had their needs overlooked, they often expect others to be unaccommodating unless otherwise indicated, he says.

“Most people have no experience of disability in their personal life,” he says. “[Businesses] need to let people know that even if it’s not fully accessible, they will accommodate.”