Read A Compelling Excerpt on Fighting for Accessibility in Barb Turnbull’s New Memoir – and Other Important News in Our Accessibility Campaign

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United for a Barrier-Free Ontario

October 10 2013


1. Barb Turnbull Tells Her Powerful Story about Fighting for

Our unstoppable, non-partisan campaign to make Ontario fully accessible
for over 1.7 million people with disabilities is so energized and
tenacious because so many wonderful and dedicated people across this
province lend their support in their own way, and at the time and place
that best suits them. We are indebted to them all.

One of the many heroes in this effort is Toronto’s Barb Turnbull. She works at the
Toronto Star as a journalist. In so many great ways, she has used her
experience and her talents to press for greater accessibility.

In her most recent contribution, she has written a
new book entitled: “What I Know: Lessons from My 30 Years of
Quadriplegia.” Confronting and tackling accessibility barriers is one of
the important lessons about which she wrote.

On September 28, 2013, the Toronto Star included a
compelling excerpt from Barb Turnbull’s new e-book, which focuses on
some of her invaluable efforts on the accessibility front. We set out
below an excerpt from her book that the Toronto Star included in its
September 28, 2013 edition.

To Barb Turnbull, and to all others who help with
our cause, we extend a huge thank you. Stay tuned over the next days and
weeks, as we offer ideas on how each of you can help us press forward in
our accessibility campaign.

2. The Tide Supporting Accessibility Legislation Spreads to Nova Scotia

This week, voters in Nova Scotia elected a new Liberal provincial
government. The Nova Scotia Liberals promised during the election
campaign that they would develop an Accessibility for Nova Scotians with
Disabilities Act.

is the first Canadian province to enact such legislation. Manitoba has a new bill before it to do the
same, Bill 26, the proposed Accessibility for Manitobans Act. Nova Scotia would be the third province to
develop such legislation.

This is great news. We are eager to connect up with
anyone in Nova Scotia who wants to advocate for the proposed Nova Scotia
accessibility legislation, so that we can share our experience. If you
know anyone who may be interested, please encourage them to email us at

The federal Conservative Party promised a Canadians
with Disabilities Act over six years ago, for example on February 6,
2007. See the Federal
Conservative Party’s February 6, 2007 commitment to develop a Canadians
with Disabilities Act

3. AODA Alliance to Make a Presentation to a Standing Committee of the
Manitoba Legislature

The Manitoba accessibility bill goes to a Standing Committee for public hearings this
month. We are delighted that on October 29, 2013, David Lepofsky, chair
of the AODA Alliance, will be making a presentation on Bill 26 via phone
or internet hook-up before the Manitoba Legislature’s Standing Committee
on Social and Economic Development.

By a wonderful coincidence, those hearings will
occur on the 15th anniversary of the day on which the Ontario
Legislature unanimously passed its landmark resolution, declaring that
Ontario’s forthcoming disability accessibility law should comply with
the 11 principles that Ontario’s disability accessibility advocates had
crafted to ensure that such a law is strong and effective. You can
read the Ontario
Legislature’s unanimous October 29, 1998 resolution

To learn
more about the historic events leading up to the Ontario Legislature’s
unanimous passage of its October 29, 1998 resolution on the Disabilities

We again congratulate Barrier-Free Manitoba, the
non-partisan grassroots Manitoba community coalition that has done a
fantastic job of spearheading the campaign for the proposed Manitoba
disability accessibility legislation. We wish Barrier-Free Manitoba and
all Manitobans the best of luck as they reach the end-game for getting
their accessibility legislation enacted.

Bill 26 is helpful, but needs to be strengthened.
For example, it needs to be amended to set a firm deadline for Manitoba to become fully accessible to people
with disabilities. Ontario’s
AODA sets 2025 as the deadline for this province.

4. AODA Alliance Makes presentation
to Ontario’s Accessibility
Standards Advisory Council

On September 12, 2013, AODA Alliance chair David
Lepofsky made a one-hour presentation to the new membership of Ontario’s Accessibility Standards Advisory
Council (ASAC). He gave a history of the campaign for the Accessibility
for Ontarians with Disabilities Act and an update on progress and
problems to date in getting the AODA effectively implemented. He offered
ASAC constructive proposals on how ASAC should go about reviewing
existing accessibility standards and developing new ones. The
presentation was warmly and well-received.

5. Where is the Promised Effective Enforcement of the AODA?

There have now been 259 days since the AODA
Alliance wrote the Ontario Government for information on the
Government’s plans to keep its election promise to effectively enforce
the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act. To date, we have
no public response to that request.

There have now been 56 days since AODA Alliance
chair David Lepofsky submitted his August 15, 2013 request to the
Ontario Government under the Freedom of Information Act for the
Government’s plans for keeping its promise to effectively enforce the

On October 2, 2013, the Ontario Government emailed
AODA Alliance chair David Lepofsky, stating that he must pay an
estimated $2,325 to get the Government to answer his Freedom of
Information application. This fee would cover the time the Government
estimated that it would take to find the answers to his application.
This suggests that the Government needs to spend a great deal of time
digging up answers to very basic questions that it should have right at
its fingertips. For example, how hard can it be for the Government to
find its own plans for enforcing the AODA?

On October 2, 2013, David Lepofsky emailed the
Government to ask it to waive that search fee, since this is a public
interest request concerning action by the Government to keep an election
promised made to the AODA Alliance. On October 7, 2013, the Government
emailed David Lepofsky to say that it is considering his request for a
waiver of that fee, and will let him know when a decision is reached. No
deadline was given for the Government to decide whether to waive that
fee. In the meantime, the Freedom of Information request remains

6. Ontario Government Still Has Not Announced Any Planned Disability
Legacy for the 2015 Pan/ParaPan American Games

Forty-three days have now passed since the Ontario
Government announced its planned legacy for the 2015 Toronto Pan/ParaPan
American Games. No disability accessibility legacy has been announced
for the Games. We have offered the Government a constructive proposal
for a disability accessibility legacy for those Games. We still await an

To read the
Government’s announced legacy for the 2015 Games

To read the
AODA Alliance’s proposal for a disability legacy for the 2015 Games


To .

Learn more
about AODA Alliance Chair David Lepofsky’s August 15, 2013 Freedom of
Information application

To learn
more about the Government’s telling the AODA Alliance chair he must pay
an estimated $2,325 to get his Freedom of Information application

The Ontario Liberal Government’s 2011 disability
accessibility election pledges, including the reaffirmed commitment to
effectively enforce the Disabilities Act, are set out in former Premier
McGuinty’s August 19, 2011 letter to David Lepofsky as Chair of the AODA
Alliance. Former Premier
McGuinty’s August 19, 2011 letter to the AODA Alliance

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Text of the Toronto Star’s September 28, 2013 Article on Barb
Turnbull’s New Book

The Toronto Star September 28, 2013


Barbara and Goliath; It was the 1990s and Famous
Players was turning away people in wheelchairs. Until this indomitable
movie fan came along, that is.

Star reporter Barbara Turnbull has been an
outspoken advocate for accessibility.

PHOTO: “If you ever wonder why we people with disabilities demand equal access,
it’s because too often, still, we have to demand access,” says Barbara
Turnbull, shown as she receives an honorary degree from York University.
PHOTO: Colin McConnell/Toronto Star

I filed a complaint with the Ontario Human Rights
Commission 20 years ago against Famous Players Theatres. In 1993, the
company ran 10 theatres in
(before amalgamation). Only the
was advertised as accessible.

In 1994, Viacom Inc. purchased Famous Players and
invested $500 million dollars in building 43 new theatres across Canada
over four years, from 1997 to 2001. But before those new accessible
venues were built, there were many small movie houses with stairs. The
film distribution business was very different in the early ’90s. Most
movies played in either a Famous Players or a Cineplex Odeon theatre;
rarely did one run in both. As an avid filmgoer, I had my eye on the

Because I lived above a Cineplex Odeon cinema – it
was a strong consideration in my condo purchase – the lack of access at
Famous Players bothered me, but I gave them points for at least running
one accessible venue.

However, the situation meant that at any given
time, about half the films showing were inaccessible to me, unless I
drove to the suburbs, where most theatres were newer and built
accessible. I figured that if there was one I really wanted to see on
the big screen, I would make the effort.

That’s what happened in 1993 when I went to a
Friday matinee at what I thought was the only accessible cinema run by
Famous Players in Toronto.

I requested and was sold a ticket to M. Butterfly.
Then the employee gave me an odd look, so I asked him which direction to
go in.

“Can you get out of that thing?” he asked. “No,” I
replied. “I can’t get out of this thing.” “Then you can’t go,” he said.
“It’s up the escalator.” He told me that only one of the four screens
was accessible. Instead of seeing an art film by David Cronenberg, my
only option was Rudy, a football flick.

“But you advertise this theatre as accessible,” I
said. “That’s head office,” another employee said with a casual air.
“You’d have to contact them about that.”

At the time, a recent Human Rights case over a lack
of accessible parking in a strip mall had concluded that any business
open to the public must be accessible to all members of the public. I
followed up with Famous Players, noting that it was in violation of the
Human Rights Code. The company’s mailed response to me contained this
line: “The recent Human Rights decision was not clear in its implication
for theatre owners.”

‘Court of public opinion’

What else could I do but make it crystal clear? In
response to my complaint, the company renovated the Cumberland Cinema
but resisted changing others. Over the next eight years, four other
people with disabilities launched complaints against Famous Players, all
with similar (or worse) experiences. During the public hearing, Famous
Players refused to provide any financial data, arguing that its ability
to pay for the renovations was not an issue. However, a spokesperson for
the company was quoted in the media as saying that the cost of the
renovations could force two theatres to close.

“If these expenses were a genuine issue causing
undue hardship to Famous Players Theatres, the Board of Inquiry could
have addressed the matter,” Chief Commissioner Keith Norton said in his
decision. “Instead, the corporation attempted to try its case in the
court of public opinion and in doing so, unfairly pitted the legitimate
desire of those who want to protect heritage buildings against the
rights of persons with disabilities.”

When the decision was released, on Sept. 11, 2001,
we won. A story about the ruling was the only article in the Star the
next day unrelated to the 9/11 attacks on New York’s World Trade Center. Understandably,
the decision was largely ignored by the media. What’s important to note
is that over those eight years the landscape had significantly changed
in the city. Famous Players had built multiplexes that were accessible
and closed several of the smaller, inaccessible venues.

However, what was important to me was access to the
annual Toronto International Film Festival, which I attended regularly.
The festival was then spread over a few cinemas, most notably the
Uptown, one of the most revered movie houses in the city. Along with the
Art Deco Eglinton, they were Famous Players’ signature theatres. Every
year there were films I wanted to see at the festival but couldn’t,
because they were scheduled at the Uptown. If at any point during those
eight years the company had renovated the Uptown, I might have dropped
my complaint. I never expected every single old cinema to be fully
accessible, but I expected the same choices as those available to the
able-bodied population.

As for the film festival, CEO Piers Handling said
Uptown’s inaccessibility wasn’t their issue, because they simply rented
the venue. Using all accessible cinemas wasn’t possible because “our
overall philosophy for the 20 years of the Festival has been to create a
‘Festival village’ atmosphere at Bloor-Yonge-Bay,” he wrote to me in a
1995 response to my suggestion the festival’s borders be broadened to be
fully accessible.

However, the law does state that every public
business must be accessible and so, in losing the complaint, Famous
Players was given three months to come up with a plan to make all of its
facilities fully compliant with the law. After three months, the company
announced it was closing inaccessible venues rather than renovate them.
Renovating the Uptown would cost $1 million, the company claimed, a
figure parroted by reporters unaware that three-quarters of that quote
was to gut and redo the interior.

The reaction from the public was swift and
visceral. Though there were five complainants, we were “Turnbull et al.
versus Famous Players.” As a Star reporter, I was also the most public
and easy to reach, so I became the target for able-bodied people who
were enraged they were losing theatres they loved.

People phoned and emailed the Star. Some said I
should “resign in disgrace,” that I had “set the disability movement
back 10 years,” that I was “denying future generations the historical
significance of these theatres.”

One Tom K. wrote to me: “I can’t believe how the
handicapped . . . are calling the shots for the majority. I’m tired of
bending over backwards for these people, just to have them demand more.
Now we’re losing our historical institutions because of unreasonable
demands. You are not the majority, so please go back to being the
minority and save me my tax dollars and quit being a burden on society.”

Piers Handling was quoted in a Star article: “There
are about 1,800 seats in the three Uptown (theatres) we use. It has been
an integral part of the festival mix for about 15 years. And a closing
of this kind will obviously leave a huge hole in our festival mix – it’s
a major issue.”

Andy Barrie, on CBC’s Metro Morning, earned a
permanent place in my heart for the kind way he reported our side. All
other debates that I heard on radio shows sounded negatively skewed to
me, the majority of callers angry. “I go to the movies all the time and
I never see people in wheelchairs anyway,” is a memorable line from one
indignant citizen.

Two years later, when the Uptown was being
demolished, a wall collapsed, killing one and injuring 17. An email came
to me with one line: “I hope you’re happy.”

Let’s be clear: the company made business decisions
and used disabled people as scapegoats. And they overwhelmingly won the
PR battle in doing so. Those theatres would have closed eventually
anyway, but I’m still known by many as “the one who shut down the

I was pretty fragile for a spell. But the Human
Rights Commission ruling was an important legal decision and I stand by
it. The case is examined in high school law classes across the country,
with a page devoted to it in the textbook currently in use.

Yet sometimes I hesitate before speaking out. I get
the feeling that people want to throw their arms up and walk away. Maybe
they’re thinking “Is this really such a big deal? Can’t you just be OK
with how it is?”

Sometimes I feel too demanding, and that we can do
more harm by making a fuss. It’s like being a whistleblower – you make
as many enemies, maybe even more enemies, than you do friends. But
should I lower my expectations because others won’t raise their

If you ever wonder why we people with disabilities
demand equal access, it’s because too often, still, we have to demand
access – whether it’s a workplace party, a new park or an entrance to a
public business run by a wealthy corporation.

No bold action yet

That is also why we need a strong and effective
Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, with mandatory
standards that go far beyond current building codes and are effectively
enforced. What the Ontario Legislature passed in 2005 was promising. It
required the Ontario government to lead the province to full
accessibility within 20 years, by 2025. That was fully achievable if the
government acted promptly and effectively, and if it kept all its
promises about this legislation.

Unfortunately, the Ontario Government in recent
years has repeatedly dropped the ball. It makes great speeches about why
accessibility is good for business and for our economy, and about its
plans to be a world leader in the area, but there is no bold action.
Accessibility standards passed to date, while helpful, don’t go anywhere
near far enough. Even if they were strictly obeyed, they won’t ensure
full accessibility by 2025. Ontario has been dragging its feet about
making new standards and about keeping its promise to effectively
enforce the accessibility law.

There will always be people who just don’t get it.
Some can be educated and, even though that process can be tiresome, the
end result is usually worth it. The fact remains that there are some
people who don’t think we belong at gatherings for able-bodied people,
because we are inconvenient. “If there’s a barrier, just stay away,” is
the message.

My experience has taught me that for every truly
ignorant individual I have come across, there are many others open to
learning, or with the beautiful spirit of that photographer, a man who
extended such kindness to me when I needed it so badly. The day I stop
believing in the greater good of humanity will be the day I give up.

Until that comes – I’ll carry on.

get the full read

What I Know: Lessons From My 30 Years of
Quadriplegia is available through the weekly ebook program Star
Dispatches. Simply go to and subscribe for $1/week.
Single copies of What I Know are available for $2.99 at



Barbara Turnbull Toronto Star


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