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By Ruby Pratka

Local Journalism Initiative

Frances Champigny’s definition of accessibility is one word long – “spontaneity.” It’s the possibility to go to a restaurant with friends or attend a meeting in person without having to double check whether a building has step-free access, whether the hallways are wide enough or the washrooms big enough to accommodate her mobility aids or the wheelchair she sometimes uses.

Champigny, the president of the Association des personnes handicapées physiques de Brome-Missisquoi (APHBM), is spearheading a campaign in partnership with the MRC Brome-Missisquoi and the Office des personnes handicapées du Québec (OPHQ) to make Brome-Missisquoi the first fully accessible MRC in the province.

Farnham mayor and Brome-Missisquoi prefect Patrick Melchior signed on to the campaign from the get-go. “The association asked me to be honorary president of their campaign, and I said, let’s bring the MRC in and see what we can do [on a practical level] instead of just telling people accessibility is important,” Melchior said.

Melchior and Champigny noted that towns with a population of more than 15,000 are legally required to produce an accessibility action plan. Brome-Missisquoi has passed a resolution asking its municipalities, even those not subject to the law, to incorporate universal accessibility into their urban plans. Brome-Missisquoi is also developing a toolbox to help smaller municipalities become more accessible, with suggestions for straightforward fixes and sources of funding. It is also working with the OPHQ to advise businesses on accessibility. “It’s a big job, but there are subsidies businesses can apply for, and we can help direct them to what’s available,” Melchior said. Even relatively small and cheap upgrades, like writing a building’s address in larger numbers, can improve accessibility for people with visual impairments, said the prefect, who was temporarily blinded in one eye after an accident several years ago.

He acknowledged that improving accessibility is “at least a medium-term project” in light of the labour shortage and rising cost of materials. However, that doesn’t make it any less important. “Just because you have accessibility issues, it doesn’t mean you don’t want to see your friends, go to the movies or a bar or a vineyard or a museum. Everyone should have the right to do that,” he added. “Humans are social beings and going to see people is a need.”

Lucie Dagenais, the mayor of Frelighsburg (population 1,123) has signed on to the project as well. “Because it’s 2023!” she explained in an email. “There’s no reason not to require that new buildings be accessible. Considering that we have an aging population, accessibility will become more and more important. We also have to think about parents with strollers, and people with temporary mobility issues.”

OPHQ director general Daniel Jean said this is the first time the office has partnered with smaller municipalities that intend to go beyond their legal obligations. The office is offering “advisory support and sharing best practices,” he said. “There are people in Brome-Missisquoi who are very aware [of accessibility issues], and we aren’t there to tell them what to do, but we will try to bring them tools.” The OPHQ intends to share best practices and liaise with other government agencies to help municipalities access needed funding. Accessible tourism nonprofit Kéroul, which just finished an accessibility audit of the region’s vineyards which will be available in the fall, is also willing to point business owners and people in the tourism sector in the right direction, said Nathalie Roy, the organization’s director of business services.

In the long term, advocates hope the Brome-Missisquoi action plan will lead to fewer barriers for people with disabilities, and ultimately, to a more accessible Quebec. “Someone who becomes disabled loses their spontaneity, and if we become the most accessible MRC in the province, they’ll find it again,” Champigny said. “If it works, we can ‘export’ it, and eventually we’ll have an accessible Quebec for everyone. That’s the future.”

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