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Airlines, hotels and intercity buses under orders to accommodate

CAREY FRENCH HAS Canada lost its lead over the United States as a kinder, gentler environment for travellers with disabilities?

Maybe so. Maybe not.

But certainly, as far as the legal right of the disabled to be recognized by the transportation and hospitality industries is concerned, Washington has been setting the pace recently.

U.S. airlines, which in the past have been accused of treating handicapped travellers like sides of beef, are now bound by 600 pages of rules, says David Baker, executive director of the Toronto-based Advocacy Resource Centre for the Handicapped. Additional guidelines, aimed at ground transportation and accommodation and scheduled to go into effect in three years, require that every new intercity bus built after the middle of the decade be capable of accommodating wheelchair passengers. As a result, Mr. Baker says he expects all U.S. intercity buses to be wheelchair accessible within 10 years of the implementation of the new rules.

In contrast, Canadian long-haul bus operators are required to “do absolutely nothing for the disabled” the Via passenger rail system – “the thing which had been accessible” – has been eviscerated by federal cutbacks and the National Transportation Agency, the rule-writing body created from the carcass of the Canadian Transport Commission, has yet to hatch a single significant decision on airline accessibility.

But change is on the way, says Pat Hallett, director of the federal government’s transport of thedisabled persons program. “I think we’re definitely at the point where things are going to start flowing – and fairly regularly over the next year and a half.”

Transport Minister Doug Lewis has given provincial transportation bodies until the end of March to produce acceptable accessibility standards for intercity buses or face the prospect of federal legislation. Mr. Hallett said the ultimatum followed a fruitless 18-month search for answers by a committee of government, industry and consumer representatives.

Canadian Tourists in the U.S.A
Canadian Tourists in the U.S.A

South of the border, guidelines contained in the new Americans With Disabilities Act require that new or renovated hotels must make at least five per cent of guest rooms comfortable for people in wheelchairs. A similar share of rooms must be suitable for deaf guests.

Accessible, in the context of the new law, doesn’t mean providing a suite, with space for an attendant. It means placing a disabled occupant in barrier-free surroundings. Doorways, closets, bathrooms and shower doors must be wide enough for wheelchairs. Rooms for the hearing-impaired must have telephones that light up, doorbells that are linked to lights and emergency alarms that use means other than sound to alert occupants.

The rules also require hotels to adjust doorways for restaurants, gift shops and other public areas to accommodate wheelchairs.

In Canada the situation is less cut and dried. Some provincial building codes and, in certain circumstances, mortgages offered through the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. set minimum standards of accessibility, says Francine Arsenault, co-ordinator of Persons United for Self-Help, an Ontario body linked to national pressure groups.

The rules, in fact, have changed little since the 1981 Year of the Disabled, she said. But neither organizations representing the disabled nor all hotel operators have stood still. “The hotels are trying,” she said. Some have installed flux-coil telephones, to amplify sound for hear- impaired users and have made rooms more friendly for wheelchairs. But outside of the big cities, accessibility drops off like a cliff.

And even in a city the size of Toronto, there are no guarantees “because everybody comes here.” Small groups of disabled travellers must, in some cases, book three years ahead to get space. “Most cannot afford to do that,” she said.

A uniform code, such as that introduced in the United States, would create a standard and help remove some of the confusion, she said. But it would not win the battle.

Ms. Arsenault said that groups representing disabled travellers in the United States expect to have to “fight every inch” for implementation of the new rules on accessibility.

So where can wheelchair-bound travellers go in the United States to be assured of at least a minimum standard of service?

“Alabama,” says Mr. Arsenault. The state’s best-known disabled person is former Governor George Wallace, who was crippled by a would-be assassin’s bullet. “It pays to have people in high places.”

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