Zach Youngerman is an urban planner and writer focused on promoting stewardship and democratic management of the urban environment.
As Ontario businesses move toward mandated accessibility compliance, ramp project StopGap doesn't want perfection to be the enemy of good.
In my neighborhood in Toronto’s historic Little Italy, plywood ramps popped up one day in front of business entrances all along the street. Painted in primary colors and outfitted with rope handles, they have the look of oversized children’s building blocks.
But StopGap, the nonprofit that orchestrates the ramps’ construction, is addressing an often overlooked problem in the retail sphere: accessibility. Every colorful inclined plane aims to be an easy and instant solution to a store that was previously obstructed by a stepped entrance.
Volunteers have built over 400 ramps in Toronto, and more in other cities across Canada using donated materials and guides for construction and business outreach posted on StopGap’s website.
StopGap co-founder Luke Anderson explains that the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, passed in 2005 and modeled after the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)—yes, that's a 15-year lag—allows businesses to wait until 2025 to implement the mandated provisions for built-environment accessibility. He helped start StopGap out of frustration with such a wait on what he sees as a relatively simple fix.
“Who wants to wait that long? The Ontario Human Rights Code prohibits discrimination based on disability and it trumps all other legislation,” he says. “You could make a case against a business pretty easily, and I would support someone taking a legal approach. But I don’t want to put my energy into a battle for two, three, four, or five years when there’s something we can be doing right now.”
In the U.S., people denied access to businesses have successfully sued under the ADA, which requires existing businesses that serve the public (and property owners that lease to those businesses) to eliminate a list of barriers when doing so is "readily achievable,” meaning “without much difficulty or expense.” The tax code was even revised in the 1990s to include a credit of 50 percent (or up to $5,000) of expenses related to accessibility improvements for small businesses. Many businesses in the U.S. have also been granted hardship or historic-preservation exemptions.
In Ontario, accessibility standards related to customer service and communication have now been mandated for nearly a decade, but built-environment standards need not rise to full compliance for another 11 years. Complete, barrier-free design is only required for new construction or extensive renovation.
Originally, Anderson and buddy Michael Hopkins approached store owners with a fee-for-service model of ramp construction, but the cost of concrete work for permanent ramps made for a hard sell. StopGap’s luggable ramps are cheap, temporary—and therefore also bypass any permitting process, Anderson says. According to the contract that business owners sign, “the ramp should be deployed only when required.” In practice, ramps stay out all day long and often overnight; how else would a potential customer know which stores had ramps that could be deployed, then get the attention of an employee to deploy it?
The ramps serve as a kind of welcome mat, and improve accessibility even to those not using wheels to get around. At Magnolia Fine Foods along Little Italy’s main thoroughfare, Vivian Gomez relayed the praise her customers have shared. “We are always trying to do something for the neighborhood," she says. "Since we put the ramp there, our customers always give compliments for the initiative. We have a lot of customers that come with strollers. They really feel grateful because it makes their lives much better. Even for older people, that [entryway] step is difficult.” The store’s deliveries can also now come in through the front of the store.
Next door to Magnolia, “gifts and gadgets” store Le Tablier Blanc opened after StopGap volunteers had already come through. Rather than contact StopGap, store partner Sue Tarr Timmins recruited her husband to construct a ramp and paint it grey “to match the store’s aesthetic.”
City officials speak of the StopGap ramps with a mix of praise and caution, caught between their practical ease and tangled legal issues connected to them. While they applaud the ready retrofit of storefronts to improve accessibility, all staff interviewed were clear that an “encroachment” into public space requires a permit. The Right-of-Way Management division in Transportation Services oversees what can and can’t occupy roads and sidewalks, issuing permits for construction equipment, for instance, and fines for illegal snow dumping. Andre Filippetti, manager of the Right-of-Way for downtown Toronto wrote in an email that “the fact that [the ramps] are removable is somewhat immaterial, as they could still be a trip hazard for someone, presenting a public safety and liability issue for the city.” The AODA’s own accessibility standard for public spaces highlights the importance of sidewalks that are barrier-free and easy to maneuver.
Incidentally, a background report for the city’s own Disability Issues Committee describes the community project as “innovative,” but decides against including the ramps in the city’s own accessibility plan. The report cites numerous concerns, including the obstruction of “public pedestrian routes” for people with “visual limitations” the risk of injury from lack of handrails, and the potential of the public to misperceive the ramps as AODA-compliant. And, as with anything not bolted down, the report’s authors worry that the ramp could become a projectile. In other words: For the city, StopGap’s ad-hoc solution presents more cons than pros.
In both the report and in interviews with city officials, critiques also point to broader access issues. For example, by not making stores accessible internally, property owners are shifting the burden into the public realm. StopGap’s accessibility benefit to the public greatly outweighs its cost, but it doesn’t address the issue inside private businesses.
But as for the obstructing the right-of-way, pedestrian routes are already crowded with street furniture. On College Street, the heart of Little Italy, the ramps are just one type of encroachment visible on a given afternoon. The outdoor seating at a French café is presumably officially permitted. The sandwich board advertising a hardware store’s sale items? Probably not. I also doubt the Irish pub got a permit for its encroaching doggie water bowl.
Toronto's bylaw-enforcement officers only investigate situations based on complaints. I could sue the city if I ended up slipping and falling due to an obtrusive water bowl, but until I did or otherwise alerted the city, there wouldn’t be anyone issuing fines. “Who’s gonna complain about the ramps?” mocked Jane Brooks, the owner of Le Tablier. “I’ll put their picture all over Instagram.”
The only complaint from the public was, again, about the stopgap nature of the ramps, which I heard from Jeffe Penny, who runs a headshop. “The ramps are more of a gesture, " he notes. "The configuration of many business doorways [is] with doors opening out; someone can’t get in in a wheelchair. And if they do, the shelves are out of reach.”
It's true that StopGap does not help much once a person using a wheelchair gets inside a totally inaccessible store. "I wouldn't say that the ramps are a fix to the issue of inaccessible spaces," says Anderson. "They certainly help with one small issue related to the built environment, but what they are doing is creating conversation and getting people thinking about permanent solutions to this huge design issue."