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Friday, August 27, 2010

Caribana on wheels

A reader, Liz, contacted me several months ago with some questions about how accessible Toronto and the Caribana festival is, as she was planning a visit and had some concerns. The following is her experience and pictures.

Caribana on wheels
As a rule, parades are not wheelchair-friendly unless you go several hours before they start so that you get a good spot with no one in front of you. It's definitely not a case where you can expect people to move out of your way, because they usually don't. Caribana is no exception except for the fact that I was told by the Toronto tourism board that both Lamport Stadium and the reserved seating section for the parade both had special areas for wheelchair seating and that I would be helped when I arrived.
I was definitely helped--all staff was exceptionally friendly, but the problem was that no one knew where the wheelchair seating was. It would save a lot of people time and stress if volunteers could be informed ahead of time that wheelchair seating exists in a particular part of the stadium. The first night (July 29) I went to the King and Queen competition I was moved several times, but never to the wheelchair section. This didn't cause me any problems at all, but it did disturb the media, probably security and all volunteers involved. The second night I went to the Pan Alive competition and was seated with relative ease--someone had obviously figured out where the wheelchair seating was. I will add that depending on who is in charge, there may or may not be restroom access. There is definitely a wheelchair accessible ladies' room in the stadium, but finding it may be an extremely complicated process. I came from the United States so I was required to have an indwelling catheter because I was flying alone, and that solved the problem for me (if you have a leg bag, you can pretty much go anywhere within reason) but for others, especially people who live in Toronto or just drove up, it might be a huge problem.
The wheelchair accommodation in reserved seating for the parade was a completely different story. I didn't arrive as early as I had planned since Wheeltrans didn't pick me up at the specified time and I had to call a cab. They may very well have showed up at the other entrance at the downtown Sheraton (as they claimed to have)--but to leave without even checking the main entrance (where I was waiting) seemed absurd to me. They offered to come back (two hours) later but I honestly didn't want to miss most of the parade so I called Motion Taxi Cooperative. This is the company I used primarily when I was in Toronto and will give information about later. At the parade, the only reserved seating that appeared to be available was the VIP seating, where they put me. This is a concern that should be addressed (if parade organizers wish to offer wheelchair accessible seating) because there either is none available or no one could find it. If I had been advised ahead of time that there was no wheelchair section, I wouldn't have gone. I don't like crowds that large because no one can see me and I usually can't see anything, so the only time I go to events like that is if there is reserved seating and someone at the tourism board told me there was. I will add that this person was NOT a Caribana volunteer/organizer--she obviously worked for the city of Toronto.

Traveling alone to the Caribana events is entirely possible but I suggest that you be in moderately good shape if you do this. I was dropped off at one side of the park and picked up on the opposite side, so it wasn't a short push. I have no idea how far it was, but I have a manual chair and I kept asking people along the way and they just said, "keep going." It wasn't the farthest I have ever had to go, but it wasn't close either.

I can only say with certainty that the Sheraton Centre Toronto Hotel at 123 Queen Street West has extremely good wheelchair facilities. The rooms specified as wheelchair-accessible with a roll-in shower have a fixed (hard) seat in them, so definitely take your travel roho along. A commode chair isn't necessary because you can transfer to the seat and then push your chair out of the shower to the other side of the curtain. If you need a commode chair for other reasons, by all means take one with you because the toilet is just a regular one with a hard seat and no special grab bars. There is a bar along the wall but not permanently affixed to the seat. I specified a non-smoking room, which happened to reek of cigarette smoke, but I actually kind of expect that because it's a hotel and people smoke in places they aren't supposed to. This hotel is downtown and not exactly close to Lamport Stadium or Exhibition Place, and I recommend not relying on WheelTrans. If you don't live in the area and call ahead, you can get a temporary registration number that allows you to use the service, but what they fail to tell you is that you can only schedule trips one day in advance and will get a busy signal for about five calls before you get through (you just have to keep calling back). Even then, sometimes you may be told that you cannot schedule a ride due to high-volume medical calls or whatever. I was able to schedule two out of eight trips with them, so I ended up spending about $225 on cabs alone. WheelTrans is only $3 a trip, but you must have the exact fare because the driver cannot make change. So just plan on spending a lot of money on cabs and you might get lucky and schedule more $3 rides than I was able to. You also can probably find a hotel that's closer to the events, I just went with the one I got the best answers for wheelchair access from.

I'm middle-aged so it was fun, but I didn't attend any of the club or j'ouvert events and I wouldn't suggest those. It might be fun if you're 20-30, but because of the amount of people (they appear to be packed, like a rave) it looks very unsafe from a wheelchair perspective. If you insist on going to a very crowded event (don't forget to add in alcohol), go at your own risk. I had a great time but I wouldn't go back to Toronto only for the Caribana event. I'd schedule a vacation that included the Civic Holiday when the parade is held, the last weekend of July, I suppose, but I'd plan to do other things as well. The parade was the most fun and it was also the most difficult part of the trip for me. As far as playing mas (actually dressing up and being in the parade) if you have a manual chair and someone is willing to push you (I think the route is at least six miles long but I'm not positive), then you'd probably be okay. Actually, I suggest that you have someone with you specifically to do that. Even if you have an electric chair, I'd still have someone there specifically to help. I have no idea how huge the crowd is at the end, but just guessing I'm going to say it's huge and unruly, just like most crowds tend to be. There has already been concern about barricades to keep out the individuals who aren't in costume, so just guessing I'll say it's another thing you'd have to do at your own risk. It looks really fun though, I just hate crowds unless there's a specific area reserved for me to be.
If you are not from Toronto, keep in mind that even though it's advertised as an extremely accessible modern city (and is for the most part), it is not entirely accessible. There are no elevators to the subway, I'm not sure about the streetcars but I'm going to say those are not either, and a very strange thing is that the TTC buses have little wheelchair symbols on them, but you cannot ride them--you have to schedule a ride ahead of time with WheelTrans. In addition, not all of the cab companies have accessible service, so I recommend Motion Taxi Cooperative, (416) 766-8294, toll-free 1-866-424-9960, www.motiontaxi.com or Wheelchair Transit Ontario, (905) 799-3648, www.wheelchairtaxiontario.ca or wct@wheelchairtaxiontario.ca . There are curb-cuts on all of the sidewalks (at least downtown) but the sidewalks themselves are not in very good shape and there are those streetcar tracks in the streets you must watch for. As for the businesses themselves, the other strange thing I noticed was that not every single one is accessible. On one block there may be a Subway with one step, and a block away one exists with a flat entrance. I would say that it is accessible for the most part, but I live in Denver, Colorado, which is almost 100% accessible. This most likely is because of the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) and something just dawned on me: Canada is still North America and it's Americans, not United States Citizens with Disabilities so to be perfectly honest, I'm not sure why certain businesses don't have ramped entrances or lifts. I wasn't unhappy with my trip at all because everyone was so nice and helpful to me, and I plan on going back. Just keep in mind certain things when planning a trip and do things ahead of time.

1 comment:

Angela said...

It was good reading your article on "Caribana on Wheels". I would agree with you that Caribana is no different from most parades when coming to crowds. Caribana draws an audience of over a million people. This year they expect one million and a quarter.

You were right in saying that Toronto is not entirely wheelchair accessible. Places that are built today are but there are older buildings with stairs that are not. Public government buildings are.

“There are no elevators to the subway”. This is not exactly true. There are a few subways stations that have elevators which were installed for people in wheelchairs but you would have to know which entrances you should use. You would have to check with the TTC to see which subways they are and which buses go to them.

“TTC buses have little wheelchair symbols on them, but you cannot ride them”. Most of the new TTC buses are wheelchair assessable. The ramp is lowered by the driver when you are about to go on the bus (the front of the bus is actually lowered before they release the ramp). You are then strapped in (first two side seats). The same goes for the Go-trains. There are portable ramps but you have to know which carriage to take. The streetcars are not wheelchair assessable.

Re: (Americans with Disabilities Act). You mentioned something about Canada. I am not sure what you meant here but Canadian laws are different from America’s. We are not governed by American laws or Acts so your Act would not have any strength here.

I am glad that you did enjoy yourself though.


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