Two years ago, Squamish resident Sarah Blais was living a typical, functioning life. She was working as an ECE and childhood special needs support worker, and adjusting to a new life after moving to the area from Ontario.
She started to have some serious mental health issues brought on by childhood trauma.
As her stress increased, her physical health suddenly started to decline, and she began to experience pain and weakness that got worse and worse. Within six months of the first onset of her pain, Blais was bed-bound, with care workers tending to all of her needs including bathing, dressing and feeding.
Two years and 11 diagnoses later — including vulvodynia, allodynia and chronic fatigue — she is now mobile again, but often uses a wheelchair for trips longer than a few steps, such as grocery shopping or short walks.
The simplest tasks are exhausting, and minor setbacks can leave her house-bound for days.
It wasn't until she started depending on the community around her, and really noticing the infrastructure of that community, did she realize that Squamish falls short when it comes to accessibility for the disabled.
It's not a matter of neglect, but of awareness, she said. This is why she took her concerns about accessibility to Squamish District council on July 6, asking for the adoption of an accessibility committee in Squamish similar to the ones that exist in Vancouver and Delta.
Blais described her experience being disabled in Squamish to council.
"I was unable to park at businesses or doctors I needed to go to because of permit parking spaces being full," Blais said. "When I did find a space that was accessible, I often struggled getting up onto and around the sidewalk. Downgrading on high slopes, cracked sidewalks and gaps between squares made using my wheelchair to get around Squamish very difficult."
According to the District, there is currently approximately $1,260,000 in the 2021 budget — 85% of which is associated with the Mamquam Active Transportation project currently underway — allocated to capital projects and "active transportation upgrades such as sidewalks, bike paths and transit stop infrastructure improvements," District staff told The Chief.
There is also $34,318 in grant money allocated to public bathroom accessibility upgrades at Brennan Park fields, and ICBC is providing $45,000 to fund four active transportation projects that will include bike lanes, curb extensions and drop-off areas, all "expected to increase accessibility in our community."
Other funds and initiatives — including an accessibility committee — will be discussed throughout the fall and potentially included in next year's budget, District staff said.
While these initiatives are welcome, some of the immediate issues Blais brought forward to council are safety concerns, she said, which could potentially elevate them in priority. These include the cracked sidewalks, steep grades and sidewalk curbs.
Blais has spoken with several staff members at the District, two of whom initially asked her to provide detailed information and photos of specific problem areas, which in itself posed a barrier, as Blais, in a wheelchair and living with chronic pain and fatigue, finds it difficult to accomplish even one daily task.
Asked about the policy, District staff later followed up with Blais to offer assistance in gathering the information.
Currently, Squamish has no regulations in place for accessibility in older buildings, while new structures must adhere to accessibility bylaws — something Blais wants to see changed.
"There aren't enough bylaws around accessibility, so that is where our city council would have to take the initiative to really promote or be there for the people in town who need more accessible stuff, to create those bylaws and start being a leader for it," Blais said. "As we see the needs in our town — especially because we are small now — we can take advantage of that and start these improvements now, so as we grow, we can only get better."
What about services?
There is also a shortage of services for those with disabilities, especially if they do not qualify as a senior, Blais said.
Even with the help of local health care workers who have advocated on her behalf, it is impossible for Blais to find assisted transportation to appointments or other errands, so on days when she can't drive herself, she has to either ask her partner to miss work, payout of pocket, or miss the appointment altogether.
The multiple illnesses she has been diagnosed with have left her movements restricted, and with few contacts in the area and not many outbound services in the community, she has often been left feeling isolated, lonely, and suffering from depression.
She has found a community online by starting a Facebook group called Tough Stuff Squamish Support Group, for those dealing with disabilities or any hard times who need support. She also sees the group as an opportunity for the community to trade services and fill the gaps where public and government services fall short.
"As I've been chronically ill, I've noticed we have these different resources of people in town with these awesome skills. If we connect them with the right people, we can support each other really well, even without any kind of government services and stuff like that," Blais said.
She is using the group to connect people with disabilities in Squamish, and from there, hopes to be able to bring their concerns to the District as a member of the accessibility committee.
"Just to have someone to advocate and be able to speak at these meetings when they're making the different budgets, or looking at where we need improvements in town. It's just something that you're aware of when you're disabled, or if you're around someone who is disabled."
Mayor on accessibility
Squamish Mayor Karen Elliott acknowledges that the visibility of people with disabilities is an issue in a town such as Squamish, which is so sports and adventure-focused.
"Squamish is about creating a community for everybody, and yes, we benefit immensely in terms of our lifestyle, and how we attract tourists to our community is through our outdoor adventures and the beautiful land that we live on," Elliott told the Chief.
"But the fact of the matter is, there are lots of people here who don't mountain bike or rock climb or kiteboard, but care deeply about the community and want to participate in community life. What Sarah is helping to do is raise this issue in people's consciousness and remind people that not everyone in Squamish is an athlete and participating in all our outdoor recreation. There are people with different abilities here who need us to recognize that they too want to enjoy our community to the best of their ability, and that means businesses considering what door they have, and the accessibility of how they lay out their shops. And for us, it's understanding, through advocates like Sarah, how big the problem is and where we need to put our priorities in terms of education and enforcement."
Elliott acknowledges that the disabled community in Squamish is not one that may necessarily be able to approach the District comfortably; they are searching for new ways to open avenues for communication and feedback, she said.
"We want to pilot a new way of reaching the folks who don't normally come to open houses or public hearings. I think it's a reminder to us, when someone takes the time to come as a delegation, that maybe that voice hasn't been heard loud enough. So, one of the things that we're exploring at the District is how do we do engagement that reaches all of our citizens? We work really closely with all our recreation groups and our trails groups, but we have to work with the whole community on our streetscapes and the accessibility of our buildings, all that sort of thing. It is making sure we hear all the voices that becomes vitally important."
Barriers at the hospital
Blais also points to areas around Squamish General Hospital as having major accessibility barriers, as there are only two disabled parking spots, gravelled or uneven lots that are far from the entrance, steep grading and curbs in the approach to the entrance, and uneven brickwork that the wheels of a wheelchair get caught in.
"It's a nightmare," Blais said. "I can not come here by myself," she added, speaking from the hospital parking lot. "If I can not get the only two disabled parking spots right here, which are always taken…if I have to walk up from that parking lot to the main entrance, it's my whole day. You have to fend for yourself, honestly."
Vancouver Coastal Health, which operates Squamish Hospital, did not respond to The Chief's request for comment by press deadline.
Those interested in joining Blais's support group can find it on Facebook by searching for Tough Stuff Squamish Support Group.
She encourages folks to contact District council about any accessibility concerns.