On the eve of the opening ceremonies for the Paralympic Games in South Korea and ongoing discussions at home about hosting the 2026 Winter Olympics, accessibility remains an issue for many in this community.
Just ask Robin Slater, who has been advocating for years to make the community more accessible for people with cognitive, mental and physical disabilities.
“We’re not thinking with disability in mind,” said Slater, who suffered a brain injury in 1984 after a vehicle accident with an elk.
“There has to be an attitudinal switch, so instead of just watching Paralympic athletes we need to think in terms of what disability is like 24/7 and how it impacts people’s lives.”
Jamie McCulloch, executive director and general manager for Rocky Mountain Adaptive, described hosting the Olympics as a great opportunity to improve accessibility in the community.
“If we’re looking at hosting the Paralympic Games in 2026, there’s a lot of opportunities for us to step up and become a community that fully welcomes everyone, regardless of ability, that wants to come and visit this beautiful area that we are so lucky to be able live in and enjoy ourselves,” said McCulloch.
With that said, he emphasized the Bow Valley still has a long way to go if it wants to be an example to the world of what it means to be a truly accessible and welcoming community.
“A lot of our international guests are shocked at how bad the Bow Valley is for accessibility,” said McCulloch.
He blamed part of the problem on a lack of provincial and federal regulations which allows businesses and organizations to turn a blind eye to the issue.
“The way I think about it is an individual isn’t disabled, it’s their community and their environment that disables the individual,” said McCulloch.
“If you have a place that takes three steps to enter a building, that person in a wheelchair isn’t disabled. That business or that environment has disabled that person by not providing access to use the shop and unfortunately that is the majority of places around this area.”
In his experience in working with people with mobility issues, one of the biggest challenges lies with the private sector, particularly when it comes to accessible hotels, restaurants and transit options from Calgary.
“We have some massive tourism-based organizations and travel providers that make a lot of money specializing in transportation from Calgary to the Bow Valley, but not one person has invested in a wheelchair accessible bus or given that as an option,” said McCulloch.
On the positive side, he held up Elevation Place as a good example of a public facility that is both welcoming and accessible. Roam Transit has also been a step in the right direction, but according to McCulloch, there is still room for improvement, particularly when it comes to clearing snow and ice at bus stops.
He also pointed to the Nordic Centre as a good example of an accessible facility.
Slater agreed hosting the Winter Olympics in 2026 would be a great opportunity to improve accessibility, however, regardless of whether that happens or not, she said reducing barriers for people with disabilities should always be a priority.
“When we’re watching the Games we need to think about how great it is that these people with disabilities have made it that far ... but we also need to think that’s only the tip of the iceberg. That’s only one per cent of all the people with disabilities.”
She said there are several easy ways the community can help people with physical disabilities, including making sure sidewalks are properly cleared in winter, installing push to open buttons, building wheelchair ramps and not parking in handicap stalls.
“People need to clean and shovel their sidewalks,” said Slater. “That would be the easiest thing.”
In the long term, she said it’s important to make sure builders live up to the standards of the Alberta building code.
“The building code is only the bare minimum and we actually need quite a bit over the minimum to make things welcoming and comfortable for people,” said Slater.
Beyond physical barriers, she said accessibility issues also include financial barriers for low income earners or people on disability benefits.
“The other issue of accessibility is just feeling welcome and being able to participate in the town’s events or in the community. That’s a real accessibility issue that people with or without a physical disability have as well,” said Slater.
Andy Esarte, manager of engineering services for the town of Canmore, said the Olympics offers a “tremendous opportunity” to improve the town’s transportation network, including improving accessibility for residents of all ages and abilities.
“In all of the conversations I’ve had around the Olympics it’s been a focus on how can the Olympics further Canmore’s current priorities and, in the context of transportation and accessibility, it’s a tremendous opportunity to accelerate changes to our core network that we’re planning,” said Esarte.
Regardless of whether Canmore makes an official bid with Calgary to host the Olympics, he said the town has a responsibility to ensure people can get around.
“There is a duty for care for all people in our community to enable them to get around safely and comfortably,” said Esarte. “All of our planning in recent years has focused on an idea of providing road designs that accommodate people of all ages and of all abilities.”
He pointed to the design of Spring Creek Drive and the Bow Valley Trail CP crossing as good examples.
At Spring Creek Drive, pedestrians and motorists will notice that instead of curb cuts for each driveway the sidewalk continues at a level grade, making it easier for pedestrians.
More broadly speaking, he said the town’s road designs are consistent with standards across North America, but acknowledged there is room for improvement.
“Our road designs are consistent with standards for road designs you would find in any city or town in North America and so we’re certainly meeting what is generally accepted in North America as minimum requirements. However, there are significant shortcomings with standard approaches and guidelines in that they really aren’t serving people with accessibility needs very well,” said Esarte.
He said some of the biggest challenges are the town’s legacy infrastructure, coming up with a consistent design standard and maintaining infrastructure.
“We can have the best facilities, but unless we invest the resources and the equipment to properly maintain paths in a place like Canmore, where we have very challenging conditions, that’s always going to be a big barrier,” said Esarte.
While a lot of the responsibility falls on the municipality and the private sector, he said, residents also play an important role.
“It’s certainly a shared responsibility,” said Esarte. “It’s one that’s easily overlooked if you’re able bodied, or you’re not trying to get around by foot, by wheelchair or walker. But as more people realize the importance of their contribution and the municipality focuses on its contribution, you realize it’s really about empathy, it’s about compassion.”